When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, it was famously advertised as ”the ultimate trip.” For his headlining chunk of the Glow in the Dark Tour, Kanye West also takes fans on a galactic voyage, folding his hits into a wacked-out space opera that’s the ultimate ego trip. Normally, that’d be an insult, but with West, who’s made an art form out of dramatizing both humility and hubris, it’s mission accomplished.
On opening night in Seattle, West began by standing in front of a giant LED screen full of star fields. Soon, marooned on what the screen depicted as a desert planet, he reviewed his weaknesses back on earth: his pride (in the form of the fiercely self-mocking ”Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), harpies (his cautionary ”Gold Digger”), and the popular materialism/sex combo platter (”Good Life”). These produced in him a spiritual malaise that even a rendition of ”Jesus Walks” couldn’t lift. So his only companion, the disembodied voice of his talking spaceship, Jane, tried some brownnosing: ”We need the brightest star in the universe — you, Kanye! Only you can bring us home. You can glow in the dark!” Cue the rousingly Nietzschean ”Stronger.” In space, no one can hear you scream, but if you’re West, everyone will hear you self-actualize.
Okay, so he’s a nut. Still, West’s commitment to communicating inner passions and identity crises is so consuming it nearly redeems any conceptual hokeyness. Eschewing hip-hop’s buddy system, West is his stage’s sole visible human, and he’s become a riveting soliloquist. Crouching on one knee, broken up, during ”Hey Mama” — or pacing like a prizefighter during every other number — he gets you caught up in his journey to the center of the id and pulls off something rare: an intimate spectacle.
West may not allow other folks on stage during his set, but he’s generously assembled the most potent opening lineup in recent touring history, even if they don’t all maximize their potential. Lupe Fiasco has the material to make good on his ”next Kanye” status, though he suffered from rapping to studio tracks (and ”Kick, Push” deserves more than a reduced medley slot). By contrast, N.E.R.D. rocked out with their full-band set; Pharrell Williams is no great singer, but he’s a great party starter. The glam Rihanna provided respite from all this testosterone and packed an undeniable string of hits into her half hour, moving smoothly through light choreography. But her should-be slam dunk, ”Umbrella,” felt off, with the rain-gear-wielding backup dancers working harder to sell the smash than she did. Maybe what Ri-Ri needs to ramp up the charisma is a good pep talk from West’s chatty spacecraft. B+