'Hip-Hop Is Back." It may only be a slogan on the hoodies at the merch stall, but given that rapper-producer Kanye West is the hands-on auteur type, one must assume he penned, or at least approved it. And when you think about it, it's an extraordinary statement.
So, all that stuff we've been hearing, on MTV Base and the GTA San Andreas soundtrack and pumping from passing cars, isn't real hip-hop, but something else? Ja Rule, Chingy, Jay-Z, all that lazy commercial bling-bling stuff? Well, you can scratch Jay-Z from that list (even though he's the worst offender of all), because he's something of a mentor to West, who got his first big break with his production work on Jay's 2001 album The Blueprint, and remains part of the Roc-A-Fella fold.
But West's implicit claim, outrageous though it is, carries some weight. Kanye West is, unquestionably, the golden boy of hip-hop right now. NME recently called him "the only reason anyone should still give a shit about hip-hop", which is extremely wrong, but also extremely indicative of the way West's appeal has spread. "Hip-Hop Is Back" may be a bizarre claim - has it ever been away? - but "hip-hop is back in the homes it hasn't entered for years" may be closer to the truth.
Because College Dropout, Kanye West's 2003 solo debut, was one of those albums which has opened ears - mainly, let's not mince words, white, educated ears - which have been closed to hip-hop since the Daisy Age (his symbol and mascot is a cuddly, non-threatening teddy bear), hence the studenty and post-grad element to the Birmingham crowd tonight.
There's a real irony here. On the one hand, Kanye West is pop's most avid advocate of not needin' no education since Pink Floyd: one between-song skit on College Dropout goes, "My dad died, and he left me his degrees... My mom would always say 'Dad, why don't you work?' But he just kept learning... And I'm glad... Because all the regular homeless people have newspaper, and look what I have!"; another has a university graduate saying, "I may not know what 'sexy' means, but I could add up the change in your purse really fast".
On the other, he must have written those words in the full knowledge that they would be listened to in college dorms the length and breadth of the States (and indeed the planet). And he sure dresses very Ivy League for a rapper.
He may enlist the assistance of ear-boggling cut-ups from a DJ (five times world champion DJ A-Trak at that), and guest raps from GLC (although, sadly, not that GLC, now there's a collaboration waiting to happen), but West's own charisma carries the show, and he's unconditionally adored by his fans, as the crush at the barrier every time he hi-fives the front row attests.
But even a lacklustre delivery couldn't ruin the College Dropout material. The 26-year-old from Chi-Town, who honed his skills working with the likes of Talib Kweli, Scarface, Twista, Beanie Sigel and Dilated Peoples as well as Jay-Z, has arrived at a sound which blends Seventies soul samples with contemporary beats, not in a banal cut-and-paste way, but with an organic warmth which gives every track a delicious, dark-chocolate flavour. The old school is where his heart is at, and during "Slow Jamz" tonight, when he namechecks Smokey Robinson and Al Green, it all makes sense.
If West follows Green into Reverend-hood, nobody should be surprised. God, he says on his CD booklet, is "the executive producer of my life". While this sort of thing is usually dispiriting, Kanye can be excused. In October 2002, he had a grim encounter with mortality when he suffered a near-fatal car smash which left his jaw shattered in three places by the steering wheel (plastic surgeons tried their best, but his face still looks a bit wonky).
Surviving that sort of ordeal - West's life was spared by a couple of inches - is the kind of thing which would have all but the most iron-clad atheist intellect turning to credulous Christian jelly. And, agree with his spiritual stance or not, "Through the Wire", in which he recounts the whole incident and its aftermath over Chaka Khan samples (the studio version was actually recorded with West's jaw still wired together, hence the title) is the lump-in-the-throat highpoint of the show.
"You played my record!" an unidentified man says to my co-DJ at Sketch, a super-exclusive bar-restaurant in Mayfair where the likes of Robbie Williams hang out, and where the toilet cubicles resemble space alien eggs or opaque versions of those capsules from which Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls has difficulty emerging. We've just played "What Am I Gonna Do?" but we know the stranger can't be Barry White, because he's dead. Then the mystery is solved: "I'm Talib Kweli!" he says.
The reason I'm at Sketch is that I've been roped into DJing the aftershow party for N*E*R*D, who have been playing at Hammersmith. And the lure of the Neptunes is also the reason why Kweli has eschewed the post-gig booze-up at Brixton, where he's been supporting Kanye West, and dashed uptown.
At Hammersmith itself, the pre-gig chat is of surprise guests: who have Chad and Pharrell lured into actually appearing onstage with them? Previous visits to London, famously, have seen Kelis and Justin Timberlake joining them unannounced. Tonight, it's all "Pssst... I hear Lionel Richie's gonna do 'Brick House'... Pssst... Madonna's in the house... Pssst... what about Snoop?" The final name on that list can be scratched off when N*E*R*D slip in their own version of "Drop It Like It's Hot", with Pharrell doing the Dogg's lines as well as his own. But if anyone leaves the Apollo feeling that they've been short-changed because they "only" saw N*E*R*D, they should start searching the internet for ear donors.
Kanye West: Carling Academy, Glasgow (0870 771 2000), tomorrowReuse content