Before Kanye West even hit the stage, it was clear that this was his crowd to lose: The lights dimmed, and a video reenactment of one of the goofy frat-boy skits that pepper Late Registration appeared on the big screen – and 5,600 fans started chanting along enthusiastically, word for word. This was West’s first major headlining tour, but when your most tossed-off track goes over like a hit single, you know it’s going to be a good night.
West didn’t leave anything to chance. He may be only an average rapper and a spazzy dancer – his signature move is a flailing-arms, ants-in-his-pants version of the Running Man. But he just seems to try harder than anyone else in hip-hop – or pop, for that matter. He changed his outfit four times, sweated like Mike Myers at a telethon, employed a six-person string section and told the crowd, before going into “The New Workout Plan,” “I just hope you did your stretches.”
Dressed in an off-white blazer, West led off with Registration‘s “Touch the Sky” as his violinists played energetically behind a white scrim. Some of the nuances of the Late Registration songs were lost in the hubbub; “Drive Slow” suffered from the lack of West’s duet partner Paul Wall, and “Hey Mama” (dedicated to West’s “original manager”) felt one-dimensional. The hits were every bit as mighty as they were supposed to be, though: “Gold Digger” was frenetic and fun; “All Falls Down,” from The College Dropout, had all of the recorded version’s soul. Jay-Z, wearing shades and looking casual as ever, stepped onstage to huge cheers, then brought the house down with “Encore,” from The Black Album.
West specializes in drama: “Roses” – a track about his grandmother’s illness – became one of the night’s centerpieces. He milked it for everything he could, asking the crowd, “How many people love their grandmother?” and kneeling by a hospital bed onstage. “Jesus Walks” was crushingly good; unlike many hip-hop hits, it actually got better live, as West scampered from one side of the stage to the other and his singers belted it out. It was so special that you didn’t care that West prolonged the show with the tedious “Bring Me Down,” collapsing like James Brown as quotes from negative reviews scrolled by on the screen behind him. West still feels the need to fuel his fire with this me-against-the-world business. It’s too bad he couldn’t take to heart what Jay-Z said as he left the stage: “You a star, Kanye. You a star.”
This story is from the December 1st, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.