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Inside Kanye's Surprise VIP-Packed Club Gig

Performs songs from 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' with help from Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, others

November 24, 2010 8:55 AM ET

Tuesday morning, word circulated on the Internet that Kanye West would be playing a concert that evening to celebrate the release of his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy . He'd be performing the entire album in order, with special guests. Tickets were priced at $100, went on sale at noon and disappeared within seconds. It's not every day, of course, that you get to see the planet's hottest pop star not named Lady Gaga play a venue no doubt smaller than his bathtub.

So that meant that it wouldn't be easy for anyone — even "Dynamite" singer Taio Cruz — to get in. By midnight, the line outside Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom was stretching down the street and up the nearest avenue — and not budging an inch. Cruz, preceded by a gigantic bodyguard, stood in a clump of people at the front door, his head bowed and hidden within a black hoodie, for fear someone outside might recognize him. "I have Taio Cruz here," the "Dynamite" singer's bodyguard told the bouncers. One of them shook his head quasi-apologetically from behind the velvet rope. "Excuse me, I have Ta—." They weren't even listening anymore.

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When he finally got inside, he might have understood why the bouncers seemed blasé about his fame: Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover, ?uestlove, Ivanka Trump, Spike Lee, P. Diddy, Selita Ebanks, Alexander Wang, Mos Def, Chanel Iman and Tory Burch were among the celebrities in attendance. Lee stood on a balcony, frowning enthusiastically. Wang danced with boozy glee. Diddy screamed at the stage.

West walked on wordlessly at about 1 a.m. in sunglasses, torn jeans and a military jacket that suggested Napoleon Bonaparte via Jean-Paul Gaultier. Manning three MPC consoles mounted on white Roman columns, he triggered drumbeats and samples, launching into the punishing two-note groove of "Dark Fantasy," the new album's leadoff track.

The show was loose — sometimes excitingly so, as though we were watching West goof around at home. He indulged his inner art-rocker, using the MPCs to build up densely layered sample-collages and restructure his songs on the fly — an improvisatory streak one doesn't often witness at hip-hop shows. On "Power" (watch above), he rapped with startling ferocity, leaning hard into his rhymes, sending spittle soaring well past the front row.

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The onstage guest-list rivaled the wattage out in the crowd: It included Nicki Minaj, doing animatronic-doll-on-the-fritz dance moves while she tore through her scene-stealing "Monster" verse; Rick Ross, his titanic frame belying his coke-don suavity; Swizz Beatz shimmying in a leather Run-DMC hat; and, for much of the night, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon serving up thickly AutoTuned backing vocals. After a full run through the slithering "Hell of a Life," West instructed his DJ to turn off the music, then rapped the song again a cappella. "I want people to hear these lyrics," West said. It was captivatingly self-indulgent, which is more or less precisely what you want from a Kanye West concert.

But there were also times where the show slipped into chaos, and not the fascinating kind. West botched more than a few lyrics and his guests missed more than a few cues. On the new album, "All of the Lights" is a hammering, brassy triumph. It was triumphant here, too — especially since the stage was covered from floor to ceiling in at least 400 grapefruit-size light bulbs — until, that is, West cut the song off, right when Fergie's recorded verse was to usher in the song's soaring second half. It was a momentum killer.

When Pusha T emerged, bug-eyed and giddy, to deliver his skeezeball-and-proud-of-it rhymes on "Runaway," his mic remained silent for the better part of his verse. When the song ended, West decided he wasn't done, returning to his MPC console and re-starting the beat for another sample-deluge — a gesture that, this time, felt arbitrary and anticlimactic.

Missteps like that gave the show an off-the-cuff, off-the-clock appeal that suited the small venue and flouted the heavily scripted vibe pop concerts can suffer from. This was nowhere truer than a closing 10-minute rant from West (watch below), in which the topics covered included George W. Bush (unfairly "villainized"), Taylor Swift (who "never came to my defense"), all the models in the building ("ahh, the models"), and Matt Lauer's abusive interviewing techniques ("if you're a child that's been abused, the best thing that can happen is for your parent to hit you in public! 'You see?'").

But, in all, a tighter script would have helped. In aggregate, the errors made it hard to get swept away in any one song for long. Not every mistake was West's fault. The new album is full of maximalist, ambitious music that's simply hard to pull off in an indie-rock club. At times, though, West seemed guilty of a crime you'd never expect him, of all artistes, to commit: giving his own songs short shrift, disrespecting his own genius.

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