Kanye West photo from SeatWave.com. (Note: Original photos of this show were removed at the request of artist management.)
Anyone that pays even the mildest attention to hip-hop along the Front Range knows most shows are relegated to small and mid-size venues like the Ogden Theatre, Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom or Boulder’s Fox Theatre.
That’s what made Sunday night’s concert such a thrilling anomaly: the star-studded lineup of Kanye West, Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco actually filled the gargantuan Pepsi Center, a feat few acts outside of Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige (whose tour will skip Denver this year) can accomplish.
The unique electricity of a hip-hop show also buzzes extra loud at an arena, the crowd sweating and pulsating and screaming in unison, rivaling even the most frenzied death metal or electro-pop show. In other words, it’s a big ole dance party, and if you stand there motionless you deserve to be smacked.
I missed wunderkind opener Lupe Fiasco, but having seen him a couple times before (check out my review of his last Denver appearance at the Gothic Theatre) I wasn’t too shattered. Still, it would have been nice to catch him, as satisfying as his MC skills are in a live setting.
“If you’re too cool, sit down!” N.E.R.D. leader Pharrell Williams shouted halfway through his band’s tighter-than-jeans hip-hop/rock set, again referencing the fact if you didn’t come to shake it, you shouldn’t have come. N.E.R.D.’s “Lapdance” got the crowd jumping — as instructed by the chorus — its stuttering beats tumbling like a box of dry tinder down an echo chamber, booties thumpin’ in the audience and singing along to the chorus.
Williams happily skanked his way across the wide, strobe-lit stage, a burly live drummer propelling songs like “Rock Star” and “She Wants to Move” — the latter featuring female audience members on stage grinding with N.E.R.D. principal Shay and the rest of the group (sorry, ladies, but just looking the backup dancer part doesn’t mean you should be up there with the band. Did you win some sort of radio station promotion?) N.E.R.D. as a whole didn’t have quite the same melodic strength as the acts to follow, but the solid, charismatic performances and booming sound at least engaged the audience.
Rihanna’s short set injected a thin sensuality into the proceedings, her singers and dancers clad in pink and green neon-accented street gear, each matching her confident strut to create a vibe like a post-apocalyptic burlesque show. (The blazingly bright rockstar “R” in the center of the stage didn’t hurt, either.) The breathless dance moves among sundry stage contraptions would have left a lesser singer lip-syncing, but Rihanna made it look easy. That is, unless she was occasionally lip-syncing, in which case I retract that statement.
“S.O.S.” featured impressively precarious dance moves — and little else. Other songs (“Rehab,” “Hate That I Love You”) would have benefited from more backing vocals, or perhaps a more focused performance approach, but Rihanna seemed content to barrel her way through a set that had all the sponteneity of a driver’s license exam.
By the time “Don’t Stop the Music” kicked in, the crowd seemed nearly spent. It didn’t help when the awkward choreography — dancers swinging green and blue light-saber-esque props like sugar-stocked toddlers — detracted from the sonics. “Umbrella,” at least, brought the noise, kicking off with a lazy guitar line before revving into the R&B equivalent of a slow-burning rock epic. Rihanna made sure to thank the audience a couple times for being so great, but really, she could have been better.
By 10:30 p.m. (the time I had to file my print review for the Denver Post), Kanye West’s lengthy set hadn’t even begun, but the orchestra-quality phalanx of percussion at the bottom of the stage promised a sound to match the superstar MC/producer’s thunderous ego. When West finally arrived to a booming spaceship voice, starfield screens, and smoke machines, it felt like an appropriate entrance for a man whose self-love rivals even the biggest media caricatures of our time.
I couldn’t be bothered to buy into the ridiculous space-themed thread that ran through the show, especially because it had zero to do with the music, and served only to lengthen an already long-ass set (see the creepy robot-lady photo at the bottom of this review). But it did, at the very least, provide lots of entertaining visuals.
West’s phenomenal talent as an MC and producer forgives a lot of his personality quirks, but it’s still difficult to reconcile a love of his music with his big head, which distanced him from the crowd at times during Sunday’s show. It didn’t help that he prowled the huge stage mostly by himself, pink lava flow explosions and other effects creating chilly silhouettes on the video screens.
Sure, hits like “Gold Digger” sounded great, and the expectedly touching “Hey Mama” had the crowd standing (not by choice, mind you) but something was missing. Humility, perhaps? Or at the very least, gratitude? It might be easy to reduce West to a gigantic, flaming ego that threatens to burn itself up while re-entering this base, mortal coil of ours. But there’s also a reason so many writers do it: It’s true.