West is merely stylish and energetic



Kanye West is undoubtedly the most overrated star in hip-hop right now. His narcissistic, divalike antics often undercut his passionate if woefully inarticulate jabs at George Bush and homophobic rappers. He crafts memorable, sometimes brilliant productions. But the producer-turned-rapper so heavily relies on '70s soul samples -- the sped-up vocal thing quickly became gimmicky and nerve-grating -- that he's hardly innovative. Lyrically, West is bloated. And his flow -- well, it's pretty much nonexistent.

But in some ways, Kanye West, 28, is a refreshing presence in mainstream hip-hop. He eschews tired thug-isms for more thoughtful subjects, and he's sometimes bitingly funny. With his stylish sport jackets and slacks, the Chicago-raised artist dresses like a self-respecting grown man instead of an overgrown hood rat in jerseys and baggy jeans. In West's mostly energetic show at 1st Mariner Arena on Friday night, his strengths and weaknesses were on full display.

The performer deftly re-created the full, lush sound of his productions. He was backed by a skillful percussionist, a dynamite DJ, a fluid seven-piece, all-female string section, a dazzling keyboardist and two OK background singers. The band, with the exception of the two singers, was inside mesh cages, which looked odd. After coming out to the sounds of Curtis Mayfield's 1970 hit "Move On Up," West launched into "Touch the Sky" from his latest album, the overhyped Late Registration. "Touch the Sky" is also the name of his national tour, which is sponsored by Verizon and features Keyshia Cole and Fantasia as supporting acts.

After rushing through a few more songs, West brought on the drama, replete with props. In the bit, the rapper played a restless regular Joe. He lay in a bed in the middle of the stage as his clock radio alarm went off. Sluggishly, he rose, moaning and groaning about going to work. While en route to his 9-to-5, West performed "Drive Slow" with GLC, one of the rappers on the performer's Good Music imprint. Once at his job at the Gap, which was conveyed by a rack of clothes and the clothing store's logo spelled backward on a screen, West launched into "Spaceship," a silly cut about hating every minute of a mundane job. The whole skit dragged a bit too long, and West didn't really have the charisma to pull it off.

After that, he tried to show a more endearing side. "Roses," which recounts the hospitalization of the rapper's grandmother, was affecting -- though his rapping to an empty hospital bed while on his knees overdid it a little. Next up was "Hey Mama." As West ran through the poorly written and unabashedly sappy valentine to his mother, you began to really miss the late Tupac Shakur, whose 1995 hit, "Dear Mama," was a far superior, more nuanced ode to single black motherhood.

In Friday's show, West somewhat softened his political bent of late. In September, the superstar rapper made headlines around the world when he ad-libbed his now infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" comment during a televised Hurricane Katrina benefit. He referenced the president once in "All Falls Down" in the line "Drug dealers buy Jordans/crackheads buy crack/And George Bush get paid off of all dat." But he added no punch to the delivery, basically glazing over the line.

At the end of the show, Kanye West, the egotist, was in full bloom. In flashy aviator glasses, he closed with "We Major" as white confetti rained down on the house. He struck a "fabulous" pose at the end of the song, arms outstretched. He looked so satisfied with himself.


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