Ostensibly, I shouldn't be here. For as much shit as I've talked about Kanye West–his typically awkward, often painfully clunky lyrics; his prefabricated, presumptive cult of personality; his off-putting and petulant demand for the spotlight–I'm probably the last person who should be taking up these damn good seats when so many "true fans" are banished to the rafters here at Austin's Frank Erwin Center. But because I know people who know people (thanks Jennifer!), I'm eye-level with the rap world's premier egoist, bathed in the multimillionaire glare of his retina-scorching Glow In The Dark Tour. And God damn it, I'm having a Road To Damascus moment with this self-proclaimed Christ figure I've already denied three times and more.
Don't worry: I'm not here to preach the gospel. There's still plenty to snark about when it comes to Kanye, and I'll get to that in a moment. But much as I couldn't resist the opportunity to see one of the most over-the-top spectacles to pass through town in recent memory, I can't resist getting caught up in the sway of so much boundless excess, so many dollars poured into this moving monument to Kanye's bottomless hubris. Perhaps it's just the novelty: Until now, most of my concert experiences have been limited to cramped rock clubs, where the crudity of the surroundings testifies to the "cred" of the acts on stage. But overblown stadium shows like this one don't care about "cred"–that shit's for poor people. Much in the way that his persona is a carefully assembled mélange of brand names, Kanye's Glow In The Dark Tour is all about piling on the special effects–fireworks! Fake moonscapes! Jim Henson creatures!–until the only possible response is one of awed submission. It's both wonderful and wearying, and to a guy schooled in the gritty (and often dull) world of indie rock, it's too impressive for me to deny. As I said to a friend after the show, a guy I've often sparred with over Kanye: "Okay. I get it now."
That's because this show finally made me realize that worshipping Kanye isn't about the man himself, exactly. Unlike my other hip-hop heroes, with Kanye there's no grim gangsta backstory to empathize with (or secretly admire). West didn't grow up in the everyday struggle of Biggie or spend time herbin' 'em in the home of the Terrapins like Jay-Z. He wasn't even close to being a halfway crook, like the Mobb Deep track playing between acts. He can't trade war stories with Tupac–shit, the only war story Kanye has is about folding khakis at the Gap. No, people like Kanye because it's easy for everyone in this auditorium to identify with the Old-Navy-rags-to-Prada-riches fantasy contained within his lyrics–to share in his bourgeois dream of just "getting on the TV, mama." His is a dream of wealth and fame without any sort of specific careerist angle to anchor them to–where his stories are more often about the spoils of rap rather than the game itself–and it makes him a perfect star for the current generation, for all these kids who believe that infamy is just a MySpace page away. After all, there's no boundary between artists and audience anymore: Everybody's a star, so never mind the hustle. "Welcome to the good life," because it's already here. That's a damn seductive philosophy, and while I chafe at that kind of unearned, cork-popping nonsense on paper, sitting here in this audience I'll be buggered if I'm not starting to feel it.
And anyway, by the time I finally reach this so-called epiphany, I've had plenty of time to lower my crabby hipster defenses: Kanye's brought some friends to get the party started, although he's crowded them out to the lip of the stage with his huge, shrouded-in-secrecy set design. I get there too late to catch Lupe Fiasco, the one performer I was genuinely hoping to see, and in fact, the one song of the night that I was most genuinely looking forward to–"Superstar," one of my most-played tracks from last year, according to iTunes–is already wrapping up by the time I finally get past security, where I'm held up by a girl with a Foo Fighters tattoo (on the back of her neck, no less) emptying her cavernous purse. I hear that infectious Matthew Santos hook drifting up from the arena and run to see–and fuckity fuck fuck, it's not a recording, Santos is here to do it live, and I fucking missed it.
Fuck. I get to my seat in time to hear the end of "Daydreamin'" (unfortunately, Jill Scott is not also along for the ride), but it's too little, too late. I'm pissed. So off I go to drown it in $6 beer. That's where I spot these guys:
Yes, those are Kanye's signature "Stronger" shades, and yes, they're everywhere tonight (as are approximately 10,000 faux-hawked dudes in screenprinted blazers). If you forgot to bring yours from home, of course, there are flimsy paper versions available at the merch table for the not-at-all-ridiculous price of $10. While you're there, grab a garish T-shirt with Kanye's signature teddy bear logo ($35), or pick up a poster book ($25) featuring shots of rap's superstar cipher staring blankly at the beach or awkwardly hanging out by a DeLorean.
Needing none and wanting less, I get back to my seat in time for N.E.R.D., who announce that they refuse to start the show until everyone stands up. (Pharrell even points in my general direction and says, "If y'all don't stand up in that corner, I swear to God…") Most of their set proceeds along these half-galvanizing, half-threatening lines as they run through favorites like "Lapdance" and "Rock Star," and the appreciative audience responds in kind–although you get the feeling that Pharrell could do a little "Turkey In The Straw" and these women would still be screaming his name. This is my first live exposure to The Neptunes' rockist side project, and I'm borderline on whether its parodies of rock 'n' roll conventions are knowing or not: The numerous shout-outs to Austin are nothing new even in the rap game, but what about this extended solo-off between dueling drummers? Those "wicked cool" lightning effects that even Spinal Tap might have balked at? Ironic or not, they're tailor-made for this kind of environment, where sheer bombast triumphs über alles. Of course, my favorite moment comes when Pharrell introduces new single "Everyone Nose" by yelling out "Take it off, girls!" and the cameraman closes in on a group of giddy, braces-wearing preteens before a group of girls who couldn't have been more than 16 are pulled on stage to squirm lasciviously, all while Pharrell raps about he "can tell she wants it." Shit, doesn't he know that's how Akon gets in trouble?
Rihanna's set is blessedly free of such pedophilic overtones, but make no mistake: It's still all about sex. The reigning R&B; queen is poured into one patent leather skin after another, and sings at least half of her songs while coyly glancing back over her million-dollar ass. Her show is all '80s pastiche, from the garish neon spandex that makes her back-up dancers resemble extras from Saved By The Bell (although the men, in their drab jumpsuits and lime green gloves, look more like garbagemen from a distant, gayer future) to the bizarre jungle gym set lifted directly from Paula Abul's video for "Cold Hearted." For her Soft Cell-sampling hit "S.O.S.", Rihanna even dons a leather motorcycle cap that looks like it came straight out of Marc Almond's closet; if that's intentional, then the girl's definitely got a wicked sense of humor.
[Note: None of these admittedly shitty live videos are mine.]
While I came to the show thinking I didn't know a whit about Rihanna–I might be the only person not in a coma who's never heard "Umbrella" all the way through–I realized finally that she's the one who sings that damn "Mr. DJ" song that I hate so much, and I can now say empirically that I'm not a fan. A couple of ballads later (a.k.a. bathroom time), Rihanna finally says, "This song is very special to me" (wonder why?) before launching into her ubiquitous single, ingle, ingle, ingle, and the crowd finally goes appropriately nuts.
But enough of this tiresome foreplay: The interstitial broadcast of Peter Bjorn And John's "Young Folks" (for some reason) signals that Kanye's about to take the stage, and then the lights go out and the giant LCD screen descends with its images of hyperspace and planets whizzing by. Oh, did I not mention that tonight's performance tells a story? Sit back, children, and let Kanye spin a fanciful yarn of distant space travel and triumphing over adversity by virtue of his own awesomeness:
As our story begins, Kanye is traveling the galaxies in search of a new source of inspiration–back on Earth, you see, all the wells of creativity are dry. His only companion on this journey is the sexy, disembodied voice of his spaceship, Jane. (It's just like Flight Of The Navigator, only hotter.) On this, his last mission before he can return home, he crashes on an unknown planet, where he is awoken out of hyper-sleep (cue "Good Morning") to find that he's been stranded. Rather than get to work trying to repair his ship's damaged systems–or even check to make sure that the planet has the appropriate balance of nitrogen and oxygen to ensure his eyes don't pop out of his skull Total Recall-style–Kanye boldly goes out to rap and dance on its barren surface. (He's a "Champion" after all, and he's been "Through The Wire," so a little marooning isn't gonna hold him down.) Of course, the alien surroundings are not without their side effects: During a brief, peculiarly aggro rendition of "Get 'Em High," his voice suddenly becomes a low, harmonized growl that indicates the atmosphere is 90 percent syrup. Luckily, his Laser Tag-inspired ensemble keeps him protected–as does the strength he summons to battle haters on "Can't Tell Me Nothin'"–and even when a blue-haired mannequin with glowing eyes and giant tits descends from the heavens, Kanye stands strong, drinking defiantly from his canteen. "I'm a shooting star," she says. "I'm Kanye West," he says. Her reply: "Of course we know who you are. You're the biggest star in the universe." Of course!
Somehow harnessing the power of his hentai fantasy girl, Kanye's traversing the cosmos once again, which naturally inspires him to tell us about his "Spaceship." (See how seamlessly this all ties together??) Unfortunately, his computer informs him that "shooting stars don't supply enough power," which means it "All Falls Down."
Now Kanye's back on "this stupid planet, where I can't even get a woman." "Perhaps I can help you with that," Jane says, before loading up the screen with some bikini-clad girls dipped in gold body paint, who promptly get down to some slightly Sapphic interstellar action.
After Kanye gets his rocks off with "Gold Digger," it's back to the "Good Life," culminating in the none-too-subtle ejaculation of fireworks behind him. As most Christians do after jacking off, Kanye immediately gets repentant, introducing "Jesus Walks" by praying, "God, if you help me get off this planet, I promise to stop talking so much shit, and I promise to stop spazzing out at awards shows." (Our critical barbs are useless now! Retreat! Retreat!) Despite reaching out to both Jesus and his dearly departed mother with "Hey Mama"–surprisingly less exploitative than I'd anticipated, and accompanied by a sea of sympathetic lighters (and cell phones, the modern lighter)–Kanye still seems close to giving up, slumping on the side of the stage.
And when the chips are down, and Kanye's stranded so far from home, weighed down by haters and insurmountable odds and unable to seek even the coldest of comforts from mother or God, where oh where can he turn for inspiration? To where a million drunk assholes have before him: Journey, whose "Don't Stop Believin'" is currently filling the arena and I'm not even kidding. The scourge of the "Don't Stop Believin'" sing-along is one of my biggest pet peeves, and certainly the last place I'd expect to battle it is at a fucking Kanye West concert, yet here are 9,000 people–including my wife, who I know takes some perverse pleasure in how much it irritates me–belting out Steve Perry's words of inspiration to get Kanye back on his feet. But while the tale of a small town girl taking the midnight train going anywhere might be enough to get the heart pumping, it's still not enough to power Kanye's spaceship; fortunately, Jane has a plan. "The shooting stars didn't have enough power because they're here today and gone tomorrow," she says. "We need the brightest star in the universe." Guess who that is?
That's the cue for "Stronger," naturally, and our adventure finally comes to an end. After disappearing into a jetstream of fog, Kanye reemerges moments later in a more relaxed leather get-up for an encore of "Touch The Sky"–and most egregiously, it's sans Lupe Fiasco's verse, despite the fact that the guy is presumably just hanging backstage.
But clearly, Kanye's stage is his and his alone: Even his enormous backing band is confined to the tiny, constrictive orchestra pit, and they're all forced to wear Daft Punk-esque faceplates–to shield them from the reflected glory of their supernova svengali, I guess. And I know what you're thinking: That's some corny, self-aggrandizing shit right there, and it should only be grist for the mill inside me that churns out little corn pellets of Kanye hate. And yes, there are plenty of reasons here to hate the guy and all of his diva trappings, but when it's all said and done, in place of the usual bile I just feel slightly fizzy (admittedly, beer helps). The loudmouthed cynic in me hates to say it, but I think Kanye West finally won me over. I'm not going to give Graduation another spin or anything, because I still think it's 60% wack–and somehow imagining Kanye dancing on a glowing launch pad while slinging his lazy bullshit rhymes doesn't change that. And I'm certainly not going to stop throwing him into Newswire every time he says something perversely stupid and self-serving, or lends his name to another crass bit of synergistic cross-promotion. But this time, when the rooster crows and my fellow Romans ask, "Do you like Kanye West?" my answer will have to be a begrudging, sighing "yes." Damn it, I do kind of like that smarmy motherfucker now. God help me.