Kanye West with Rihanna and N.E.R.D., April 21, Nokia Theatre L.A. Live
If you're going see Kanye West's second of two shows at the Nokia tonight, you should bone up on the narrative, because like all big ticket stage spectacles – Cats, Stomp, “Oh, Streetcar!” – there’s kinda sorta a half-assed storyline which ties all the stuff together. So: We’re on a deserted planet with a shipwrecked man, who we first see sprawled out on stage. A big computer screen drops from the ceiling. The Hal-like monotone voice of an omniscient narrator, Jane, greets us and explains something about the universe being in danger and there being only one hope. That hope is (who else?) Kanye West.
photos by Randall Roberts (sorry, Kanye's peeps didn't allow professional photographers to shoot, so you got me and a cell camera)
Yes, like Sun Ra, David Bowie, Kool Keith, Funkadelic, and Electric Light Orchestra before him, Kanye West is in outer space, the 21st century version of which is very high tech and features jumbo screen backdrops that project different settings (Mars-like surfaces, flying through galaxies, moving through robotic corridors, etc.). West as spaceman pumps through his jams in front of these settings, and between songs to add a little weirdness and indulge West in his fantasy of being Superhero of the Universe, Jane drops down from the ceiling and says things like “You’re the brightest star in the universe,” and “You’re our only hope.” She told us when the shooting stars were unable to continue powering the spaceship, and advised our hero to step it up a notch when necessary.
Not that he needed much prompting. It was just him, and he worked it. Except for a brief Lupe Fiasco appearance near the end, West was alone onstage the entire night, and were it not for a brief, awkward moment at the show’s close when he tried (but failed) to shine the house lights on his backing band (which he had hidden behind the projection screen) I would have left thinking that West had played to a backing track.
The songs? How were the songs? Oh yeah. He did them all with the furrow-browed intensity of a Serious Artist: “Heard ‘Em Say,” “Gold Digger,” “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Good Life,” “Stronger.” At various times he sat and rapped, paced the stage, did a few twirly-stomps, a lot of foot-pounding, some clench-fisted, sweat-dripping pleading. At one point, West sat down on the stage while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” played. He didn’t rap to it. Just stared at the ground and absorbed it as though he were listening to the voice of god.
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But if we’re treating this as art, and if we treat Kanye West as an artist, was his stage show a success? Well, I thought it was silly, all pomp and artifice, too much telling us how brilliant the Artist is and not enough showing us. Kanye West is a serious artist, of course, and he showed us the proof when he rapped. But the constant need for affirmations grew tiring, and it seemed like the more that he asked for approval the less inclined I was to want to give it to him.
this is a photo of the silly mannequin
A lot of it was cool, yes, and there’s no denying that Kanye West possesses many talents. But producing a Broadway-like futuristic stage show isn't one of them. To wit: at one point, a female C3PO mannequin robot dropped slowly from the ceiling hanging from a wire, landed on the stage, lit her eyes green and then lifted back up. It was an absurdity straight out of The Simpsons. I didn’t really understand why it happened, and I’d hazard that no one save maybe Jane did, and if so she didn’t explain it very well. Maybe she decided that Kanye would shine brighter if he was surrounded by another who also shines, or maybe an entire group of people, the spirit of which lifts everybody up. But I guess his ego doesn’t allow sharing the stage with anyone save a silly mannequin and a fake computer.