Kanye West, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Fear of a smart-casual planet
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The Independent Culture

'Narcissistic"; "Egotistical"; "Obnoxious"; "Inarticulate"; "Talentless"; "A prick". Those aren't my words. They're the words of publications as varied as Stylus, Spin and The Boston Globe.

As his show reaches its climax, West accompanies one of his songs with a litany of quotes, projected 10ft high on to the back screen, from negative reviews he's taken the trouble to gather. (One of them, credited to PlayLouder, is comparatively mild: "This album just isn't that good", a little text-message research confirms that these words were written by my mate John, and lifted from the context of a lukewarm three-out-of-five review, which just wasn't that bad...) Why does he let it rattle him? From the very beginning, as we see footage of the rapper-singer-producer-entrepreneur-deity stepping from a private jet to the sound of the Curtis Mayfield-sampling "Touch The Sky", it's evident that - rough as he may have had it in the past (the near-fatal car smash which inspired both "Through The Wire" and "Drive Slow") - for Kanye West, these are the good times.

Of course, it's never quite that simple. A Kanye West show, like a Kanye West record, is - thankfully - no mere parade of banal bling. For a start, he's no gold-chain merchant. West dresses in a white, open-necked shirt (sleeves rolled up), faded jeans and comfy sneakers. The semiotics read: casual, but meaning business. Later, he changes into red specs and a gold velour college jacket. Later still, a preppy cardigan. The semiotics read: affluent, but liberal.

Mixed signals are everywhere. One minute we'll see a flock of peace doves on the big screen. The next it's Malcolm X's militant motto, "By any means necessary". The next it's the suggestion, in the Lauryn Hill-sampling "All Fall Down", that economic success is the key to equality ("we tryin' to buy back our 40 acres"). Watching him walk that tightrope is part of the thrill.

And it's a truly thrilling show. From the moment he appears in spotlight, conducts his orchestra and, with the next motion, conducts us, it's a spine-tingling experience. Sure, there's some shameless crowd-pleasing, in the shape of orchestral overtures of "Eleanor Rigby" and "Bittersweet Symphony" (specially prepared for we Brits?), and some sentimentality (a song about his mama, a song about his grandmama).

But there are no marauding sidekicks in tent-sized hockey shirts. There's an 11-piece all-female string section (including a harp). There are two backing singers (one male, one female), and a DJ (not just any DJ, but A-Trak, the five-times world DJ champion, whose amazing solo spot is a show in itself). They're very much in the background. Out front, it's all Kanye. No prompts or helpers (he effortlessly remembers long long verses, delivered with manic intensity, often falling on his knees to the front row). No safety net.

"Heard 'Em Say", with its plink-plink pianos (and the voice of Adam Levine of Maroon 5; even Kanye has the occasional lapse of taste) and "All Fall Down" cause a reaction which could make you believe you were in the Harlem Apollo, not Hammersmith. And as for the booty-shakin' "Gold Digger", my notes simply say "wow" - screen that at your next show, mister.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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