Kanye WEST has always fancied himself a hero; now he has staged his “Gotterdammerung.” The hip-hop star may or may not have been thinking about Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle when he decided to turn his Glow in the Dark tour into an apocalyptic space opera. The show, which premiered Wednesday at this city’s Key Arena, had more obvious reference points: Japanese anime, Will Smith in “I Am Legend” and any Imax shows about the planets that West might have seen as a kid.
But West, the chart-topper most determined to burn his likeness into the walls of pop’s Valhalla, cares deeply about what it means to be a hero. Wednesday, he didn’t take a spear to the gut the way Wagner’s Siegfried did, but he did confront terror, doubt and filial grief in a show that carried his braggadocio into the realm of myth itself.
Performing a set of favorites from throughout his repertoire, West moved like a dancer in a Gene Kelly movie on a slanted stage made to look like a distant moon.
Screens big and small showed scenes of whirling galaxies and cataclysmic weather; sometimes these images escaped their boundaries and saturated the stage floor. Announcing himself as an astronaut on a mission to bring creativity back to Earth, West used songs like “Through the Wire,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” to narrate his journey from spaceship crash to alien encounter to self-realization and escape.
This was pure comic-book adventure, obvious at times. But the real message came through those unstoppable images. Glow in the Dark raises the bar for arena tours as no show has since U2’s 1992 Zoo TV breakthrough. It’s that innovative and galvanizing.
Unlike most highly staged concerts since U2’s meditation on rock in the media age, West’s show isn’t literary at heart. It’s imagistic. West is a conceptual artist who works in visuals as well as sound, and his inspiration comes from fine artists such as Takashi Murakami and haute couture designers like Hedi Slimane. In this show, he’s imagining not so much how a hero’s story unfolds but what a hero might say if he were to rap -- and how he might appear onstage.
Performing alone is one of West’s key choices. Negotiating vast stages without the aid of a crew, last night he rapped over backing tracks, asserting his independence and uniqueness and presenting a new way to be a hip-hop star, separate from a protective community.
The spectacular backdrops of the Glow in the Dark tour solve a problem his previous solo performances have posed: They provide excitement beyond what West could generate through his own voice and movements, and give him an environment (and a few characters, like that alien -- a chesty, anime-style plastic doll that descended from the ceiling) to play against.
The concert’s screen images also reinforced West’s isolation; he sometimes seemed small, caught up in their storm. The hero’s quest is a source of romantic power for West; as he explores the role more, he seems more interested in its painful aspects too. Roaming the slanted proscenium under violent skies heavy with asteroids and whirling clouds, West played the grim son of destiny, unable to break through and connect with others.
Against this backdrop, West rapped for more than an hour without a break, only slowing down for “Hey Mama,” the ballad he wrote for his recently deceased mother. That song caused a rare moment of real vulnerability as West held his head in his hands for a moment, near tears. Otherwise he projected focused intensity, driving home hits such as “Jesus Walks” and “Touch the Sky” without ever flirting with the audience or even really taking a break to breathe.
His lyrics are often clever and light in tone, but pacing across his self-constructed lonely planet, West couldn’t have been more serious. After all, he has a world to reinspire -- and even when he states that goal in terms of comic-book fantasy, he means it.
The other artists on this carefully built bill share West’s forward-thinking attitude about hip-hop, as well as his showiness. The rapper Lupe Fiasco opened the evening with a smooth set that featured red-clad backup singers and several suave turns by singer Michael Santos. The young, very racially mixed crowd yelled “Lupe!” as the Chicago rapper spun out his hipster tales.
N.E.R.D. made a sensual racket during its mood-lit set. The band, which features Neptunes producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo and their longtime friend, vocalist Shay Haley, plays hip-hop-infused rock with cutting lyrics and menacing beats. With two drummers pushing the groove forward, N.E.R.D. proved musically charismatic. Williams is the band’s star, though he’s a rather delicate vocalist; like many rockers before him, he cashes in on charisma.
Rihanna, the last of the three openers, can really sing, but she hadn’t found her footing Wednesday, struggling to stay in tune and project in the huge arena. It didn’t help that the bass was so distorted during her set that it shook the floor; Rihanna’s talent is for impressing without ever pushing herself, but when your own band’s amps are tuned to “assault,” you have to fight back.
The noise distracted from her troupe’s cute dance moves and shiny retro-new wave costumes, but that’s the kind of kink a touring artist works out in a few dates.
By the time she and her tour mates hit the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Monday, they should be on point and ready to push toward the ridiculous, beautiful heights of West’s heroics.
Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark tour
Where: Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Price: $59.50 to $109.50
Contact: (213) 763-6020