Reaching past the sky

Kanye West is one of those unique figures in pop culture who is both adored and abhorred by many of the same people. Even some of his “fans” comment on their love of his music, but distaste for his arrogance. Yet despite the polar emotions that the man can elicit, it was clear last Wednesday night that he can also bring us together in a way few others can.

Performing before a huge collection of University students at Assembly Hall, Kanye got everyone in the place to dance or sing at least once during his ambitious set. After co-headliner Common dropped out unexpectedly just weeks before the start of the Touch The Sky Tour, Kanye decided to perform longer instead of finding a replacement. And surprisingly, for a man who supposedly can’t rap and is too full of himself to care about anyone else, he pulled off an amazing show.

Though at times the length and sheer scale of the performances seemed to wear on West, it was clear that these songs get as much passion out of him as they do out of that screaming fan in the first row. After opener Fantasia put on a respectable showing (including a cool cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”), Kanye stormed out of the gates with “Touch the Sky” from Late Registration, dressed like a fashion icon with huge vain sunglasses and his backing band in full force. From the flawless string section to the world class DJ’s and backup singers, this was, if nothing else, an all-out attempt to move the crowd.

Yet this overt fervor would often interrupt his flow, as on “Spaceship” (where he seemed to scream), and earlier his uncertainty did the same on “We Can Make It Better” (delivered while half-laying in a white bed). It was most beautifully realized on his classic, “Jesus Walks,” where his passion matched the words and the music. It soared to the rafters, as Kanye pranced across stage like a possessed preacher.

Four songs later the night peaked with “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” A shimmering enormous disco ball dropped from the sky and we were enveloped in a perfect instance of hip-hop showmanship. Such moments of amalgamating entertainment are rare at huge concerts (so many other moments during the night failed), but they are also the only stages where spectacle and art can come together on such a large and forceful scale. But the song that crystallized my opinion of West as the hardest working and most driven man in pop music was “All Falls Down.”

Not only is it among his most effective works, delving into issues of racism, materialism and finally the universality of self-consciousness, but in performing it Kanye came out in an orange and blue Illinois t-shirt, bringing everyone to their feet. I know it may be cheesy and a cheap ploy, but at the same time it is consideration and something that redeems minor faults in the performance.

And when he signed off with “thanks for being the best crowd on the Touch the Sky tour,” it doesn’t really matter if it was true or not, it’s simply the fact that he said it. Kanye West, the biggest name in American contemporary pop music, just rolled through Champaign-Urbana for a mere $30, was forced to perform on his own for almost 2 hours, and he still put together a massive production and left everything he had on the stage. What more could you ask for?

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