Kanye brings it on home

August 26, 2007


No longer the college dropout desperate to prove himself, Kanye West is one of the most creative and successful forces in hip-hop today. Two weeks before the release of his third album, "Graduation," the 30-year-old rapper and producer came home Friday night to build anticipation, to perform an intimate concert -- and to give something back.

The star-studded show at the House of Blues benefitted the new Kanye West Foundation, which is devoted to curbing the high school dropout rate.

Granted, Kanye himself ignored the advice of his mom, local educator Donda West, and traded higher education for hip-hop. But the musician would like to see a world where kids can do both, and the foundation's signature initiative, Loop Dreams, will begin training Chicago teachers this spring to incorporate hip-hop as part of their curriculums.

Beats were booming
Kanye started the evening with a demerit for tardiness, keeping the audience waiting for more than two hours. Then, when he finally got going -- fronting a big band featuring DJ A-Track, two backing vocalists and a 12-piece, all-female mini-orchestra of strings, horns, tympani and harp -- he stopped midway through the first jam, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," because he didn't think the sound was loud enough.

Actually, the beats were booming, and it seemed as if Kanye, despite all that he has accomplished in the last three years, was just nervous to be playing for a hometown crowd that paid big bucks to support his chosen cause.

Eventually, the rapper shook the jitters and found his groove, though he did appear to be making the set list up as he went along, and he took several goofy breaks, at one point free-styling over a two-note riff hammered out on an upright piano, and at another playing one song twice "just because I really like the sound of that chord."

'What does it take?'
The evening included a generous sample of striking new tracks, including the belligerent "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; the soulful "I Wonder"; an uplifting tune called "The Good Life"; a complicated number, "Big Brother," that examined his relationship with mentor Jay-Z; the album's first single, "Stronger," which samples the French electronic duo Daft Punk, and "Champion," which found Kanye sampling Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" and asking, "What does it take to be No. 1?"

The fact that the "Graduation" songs held up well beside earlier hits such as "Gold Digger," "Through the Wire," "Jesus Walks" and "Touch the Sky" indicates that Kanye already knows the answer to that question -- and that he's ready to school his rival 50 Cent in the much-hyped competition for No. 1 when their new albums go head to head on Sept. 11.