LOS ANGELES — It was 11 p.m. by the time Kanye West began his set at the Nokia Theatre on Tuesday night, and the pressure was most certainly on.
For his Glow in the Dark Tour , West lined up a veritable who’s-who in hip-hop, taking the stage after opening sets from Lupe Fiasco, N.E.R.D. and Rihanna. But as he wrote in his book of personal proverbs, “Thank You and You’re Welcome” (passed out at the end of the show), “Old folks used to say, ‘You can’t soar with eagles if you’re walking around with chickens.’ If you know you’re the best, it only makes sense for you to surround yourself with the best.”
Although the openers brought along riotous entourages, when it was Kanye’s time to shine, he made a point of going it alone. (In life, he recently made that decision as well, reflected in his split with now-ex-fiancee Alexis Phifer earlier this week.) It was a powerful statement of self-reliance, and all West needed was a computer dubbed Jane, who prompted the narrative of the set in a sexy, robotic voice.
At the start of the show, Jane told him that the Earth had lost all its creativity, and he must save us from our banal existence. Kanye looked like he was on a small island onstage, smoke billowing around him, and the fist-pumping crowd spilling out before him in the sold-out, 7,100-seat theater was like a roaring sea. The opening strains of “Wake Up Mr. West,” from 2005′s Late Registration, pulled him to his feet, and although it was nearly midnight, that was sort of the point: Whatever time it is in your life, you need to “wake up.” Kanye is the Tony Robbins of hip-hop. In the past six months, he lost his mother and his fiancee, but he is here to prove he’s carrying on.
The small set spread into a desert, and the skyline changed from shooting stars (“Flashing Lights”) to pumping blue cells (“Heard ‘Em Say”) to a Hype Williams-designed gold hologram girl (“Gold Digger”). A sad cloudy sky filled the stage during his tribute to his late mother, Donda West (“Hey Mama”), which then rose to a red dawn, and Kanye, crawling up a hill, hunkered down with emotion, sat down until Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” filled the theater, followed by “Stronger.” “Homecoming” and “Touch the Sky” finished the set, and Kanye’s carefully plotted narrative came to an end. When was the last time we saw a performer treat every individual song like a firstborn child? Kanye was slick with sweat but triumphant. His show felt like a front-row seat at a hip-hop Olympics, as if each athlete had tagged each other out until we finally got to Kanye. Still, every performance of the night was nothing but gold.
During his set, Lupe Fiasco sang his hit “Superstar,” with Matthew Santos handling the chorus, and the rapper slid around the stage as if it were made of butter. When he cried out, “I love you, L.A.!” the crowd was only too happy to return the sentiment.
N.E.R.D. were completely at the top of their game, and “Lap Dance” was a sonic and physical explosion, as Pharrell Williams was eagerly intimate with the crowd, calling out to the “sexy girls” to join him, and telling the “ugly girls” to be quiet; apparently there wasn’t a homely soul in attendance. Williams introduced “Everyone Nose” as their “indie joint” and called out to the stars of the song’s forthcoming video : “Samantha Ronson told me this was the sh– in the club — what up, Lindsay!” A jungle beat preceded the riff of “Iron Man,” before the frontman ended the set singing about those girls lining up for the bathroom again.
Rihanna emerged onstage in a dominatrix-esque black-leather shorts suit lined in neon pink, her lips painted to match the lines. The Caribbean-born stalked the stage like a panther, phenomenally fit and limber as hell. Her newly inked star tattoos were etched down her right shoulder blade, perhaps to mark the year she became a full-blown star herself. The singer fired out an incessant artillery of hits. “Don’t Stop the Music,” “S.O.S.,” “Shut Up and Drive” and “Unfaithful” all made the list before she paused to thank Kanye for letting her “glow in the dark with him,” launching into an amped- up version of “Umbrella.”
Still, despite an illuminated set in a theater lined with neon blue and green and an electrified crowd wielding glow sticks, it was Kanye’s performance that glowed the brightest.