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Friday, July 1, 2011

Kanye West w/ Kid Cudi @ Marcus Amphitheater

June 30, 2011

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Kanye West's sold-out Summerfest concert opened grandly, with a flock of 20 interpretive dancers flailing in front of a massive Apollonian relief sculpture as the operatic beat from West's Jay-Z collaboration "H.A.M." rumbled through the Marcus Amphitheater. Despite the epic introduction, the show was relatively scaled back for a West production. It was easier on the pyrotechnics than West's 2008 laser-laden Glow in the Dark Tour, and, save for a couple of assists from opener Kid Cudi, free of the big-name cameos of West's recent concerts. Though the dancers would rejoin West occasionally—most spectacularly as ballerinas for a plaintive performance of "Runaway"—much of the marathon, two-hour, 28-song show was just the headliner on a vast, nearly empty stage by himself. It was fitting staging for an artist who over his last two albums has so laid himself bare.

Few rappers perform with more conviction than West. The same oversized self-confidence and compulsive need for recognition that get him in such hot water offstage also make him a remarkably committed showman. He puts intense pressure on himself to live up to the greatness he's constantly extolling, yet even the old axiom about rappers being at their best when they have something to prove doesn't do justice to how downright physical West's performances are. When he's not working the crowd by running himself breathless, he falls to his knees, as if pleading for atonement. Sometimes he actually is.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who sang on West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and at some of the rapper's recent concerts, wasn't at this show, but West made the most of his absence, singing the closing verse from "Monster" himself, repeating it: "I crossed the line, and I'll let God decide." Those are the words that most hit home Fantasy's dueling themes of indulgence and salvation, and West used them as a springboard for a rant denouncing those who "make it seem like if you say something you believe in that you are a bad person," and thanking "anybody out there who ever had to defend me."

In the concert's closing stretch, West performed a run of high-production showstoppers that each would have made a spectacular finale on their own—"All of the Lights," "Stronger," "Runaway," "Lost in the World"—but ended on a small note, with a tribute to his late mother, "Hey Mama." "This show and every show before and after this is dedicated to one person," he said, and when the song finished he remained frozen onstage, hanging his head in his hand, shielding his eyes from the crowd. He ended the show like he spent so much of it, alone and on his knees.
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