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THE ARTS | POP MUSIC REVIEW

He's energized and enthralling

Kanye West puts the 'new' back in concerts as he opens his U.S. tour in Florida.

October 13, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Coral Gables, Fla. — IN a year in which so much money and attention have been spent on classic rock bands from the '60s and '70s, it felt awfully good during the opening night of Kanye West's U.S. tour here Tuesday to be listening to great music from this century.

One thing, of course, that makes West's hip-hop music so rewarding is that the rapper draws freely from '60s and '70s values, especially those from R&B. He infuses his key songs with such valuable traits as the social consciousness of Curtis Mayfield, the brotherhood spirit of James Brown and the sensual zest of Motown.

In his two albums and the series of hit singles he has produced for other artists, including Alicia Keys and Twista, West has proved such an innovator in the studio that it is easy to think of him as some sort of cold clinician. But he shattered that image Tuesday at the University of Miami Convocation Center, demonstrating remarkable passion and charisma in a nearly two-hour set that ranged from the spiritually minded "Jesus Walks" to the deliciously entertaining "Gold Digger." At times he moved about the stage with the energy and abandon of Spider-Man and employed props to help illustrate some numbers.

There were a couple of signs of opening-night jitters, but in the sometimes playful, often urgent performance, West achieved what Eminem only dreamed about on his tour with 50 Cent earlier this year: a concert that largely defined the creative pulse of commercial pop in 2005.

Where the once revolutionary Eminem underestimated his fans and assumed they would be so happy to see him live again that they would settle for a casual greatest-hits package, West challenged his audience of nearly 7,000 at every opportunity.

Just as he has helped widen hip-hop's horizons on disc by showing you can make powerful and commercially viable music without the thug-life imagery, he also appears intent on helping open doors instrumentally on stage.

Even if you knew that West used strings extensively on his latest album, "Late Registration," it caught you off guard to hear violins and a harp warming up backstage before the curtain opened, rather than the recorded gunshots that are a staple of gangsta rap shows.

When the curtain did rise, a brief video was played showing West and some friends in a lighthearted skit about guys taking such pride in being broke that they sing about it gleefully -- until West's character balks. No, he says to the camera, he wants to make something of himself.

As West and the musicians then went into "Touch the Sky," an upbeat tale from the new album, the audience leaped to its feet and sang along. As in many of his raps, West is basically telling about overcoming hurdles in his own life, but he makes the stories universal enough for you to feel a piece of yourself in them.

It's probably West's most optimistic song, and he wants to emphasize that positive spirit so much in the show that he followed it with a tape of the chorus of one of rock's most upbeat anthems, Queen's "We Will Rock You."

Yet West also acknowledges life's temptations, and again he turned to rock for reinforcement. Before performing his own "Addiction," a song that asks "Why does everything that's supposed to be bad make me feel so good?," he played a touch of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," another look at forbidden pleasures.

Even if you couldn't always pick up on all the words in the cavernous old arena, the power of the beats -- made all the more enticing much of the night by the contrasting tension or beauty of the strings -- kept you enthralled.

Two songs in the middle of the set demonstrated West's immense range as a rapper and musician. On the surface, "Gold Digger" seems just wickedly funny. Jamie Foxx's impression on tape of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" adds to the humor because the narrator in "Gold Digger" definitely doesn't have the woman unless he's got a lot of bling to throw at her.

Beneath the humor, West, ever the moralist, is chiding both the women in question and the men who succumb to their temptations. At the same time, West, who loves to test the limits of his audience, employs the n-word for the key rhyme in the song's chorus. It's as if he's defying you to let any political correctness stop you from singing along on one of the most infectious pop choruses in years. Against a warm, swirling rhythm, West sang the lines that begin, "I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger, / But she ain't messin with no broke...."

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, West expressed his love for his mother and grandmother, respectively, in separate numbers. In "Roses," he describes going to the hospital to visit his grandmother, who was battling cancer. Rather than make the song simply tender, West again looks at class issues. When he doesn't think the doctors are doing enough, he mentions all the medical attention Magic Johnson got in his fight with HIV.

"You tellin' me that if my grandmother was in the NBA / Right now she'd be OK?"

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