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.