Hip-hop shows have never been known for their production values, and Kanye West has decided to do something about it. His Glow in the Dark Tour is an arena extravaganza, filled with smoke, fire, giant HD screens and hydraulic stages. But they’re all dwarfed by West’s massive ego. In essence, he’s cast himself as the only character in a space opera, sent to the ends of universe because he’s only man who can save the world from its lack of creativity. After sitting through his muddled 80-minute show, audiences might beg to differ.
Of course, any performer who looks to outer space is going to come in contact with George Clinton and P-Funk’s late-’70s extravaganzas. Those legendary shows embraced a sense of community and stoned humor — Dr. Funkenstein and his troupe have something the Earth could use on their mothership: diapered guitarists, slinky women and expansive jams; West’s one-man turn (his eight-piece band is hidden behind the main screen) is a chilly production that doesn’t allow the star any contact with his aud; stranded on a far-off planet without even a Friday or Wilson to play off (the only other voice heard is Jane, his spaceship, who sounds disconcertingly like the recordings warning you to “watch the doors” on airport trams), he can only run from one side of the expansive stage to the other.
There’s a lot of energy expended, but to little effect; the only time he breaks character (so to speak) is to admonish L.A. Reid for leaving early (not a bad idea as the production repeats itself, having run out of ideas about halfway). West means for this to be taken seriously, but the effect is closer to something Tracy Jordan would attempt on “30 Rock.” This is especially true when he tries a move toward the dramatic, and the staging actually makes him appear smaller than life.
There’s no story in the program: Once the concept is established, it is jettisoned for long stretches. When West starts “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” you want to remind him that such arrogance is unbecoming, especially after he has just crashed a spaceship, leaving him with no way home. Bragging how he has the best skills on the planet is a rather hollow honor when he is the only sentient being in the vicinity. He’s so insanely self-involved, he barely seems to notice the geysers of steam and plumes of flame erupting on all sides of him. He does notice an alien blow-up doll who — in one of the evening’s technical glitches — hung limply on a wire .
This is followed by some odd business involving West sitting off to one side of the stage while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” plays (why this particular song is never explained) and a plea to God to save him, accompanied by — what else? — “Jesus Walks” (the song selections are, when not total non sequiturs, too literal).
For the most part, the music matches the staging in bombast and overstated affect. Densely layered with choruses, synthesized strings and samples, there’s a sterility to their playing; before the lighting exposed their perch at the end of the show, it was easy to assume West was singing to backing tracks. But given that his Glow in the Dark tour gives off such a dim, unsatisfying light, that’s the least of West’s problems.
If West’s portion of the show is less than a success, the opening acts all had their charms. Lupe Fiasco was energetic and engaging in an old-school hip-hop fashion; N.E.R.D. played a crunchy amalgam of prog-rock and rap; and Rihanna was a revelation. Not only does she have a real set of pipes, her songs — including last summer’s hit “Umbrella” — were a clever grab bag of styles. She’s not only beautiful, but also charismatic.