By Mark Guarino
Just before midnight Monday, a Kanye West show broke out at the House of Blues. He wasn’t on the bill but he may as well have been. The fingerprints of the Chicago-born producer-turned-rapper are deeply imprinted on current albums by the show’s two headliners, Chicago rapper Common and R&B piano man John Legend. If West’s shadow wasn’t long enough, his songs played between sets and the evening’s host, ace beatboxer Rahzel, led crowd singalongs.
West sprinted onstage early in Legend’s set and was received like a superstar. There’s a reason: after winning three Grammys earlier this year and enjoying breakout success, his follow-up, “Late Registration” (Roc-a-Fella), due late this month, is one of the most anticipated albums this year.
He claimed bragging rights (“we rule the radio right now”) and performed four songs, including a new single, “Golddigger,” which sounded blunt without the usual soul music cues he’s known to sample. When Common stepped out, a freestyle summit took place, with both Chicago rappers taking turns around Legend’s vocals. Legend proved to be the perfect collaborator for West, presenting himself as a sleek, more mature foil to West’s mischievous, boasting delivery.
If West is responsible for anything, it is continually demonstrating there is a large audience for hip-hop that is not of the 50 Cent variety and R&B that doesn’t follow the bump-and-grind formula of R. Kelly. The three-hour, 30-minute show that also featured ‘80s trio De La Soul, stuck to more upbeat messages about love and faith and the only choreographed highlight did not involve a stripper pole, just Common spinning himself on the floor during a moment of old school breakdancing.
Legend (birth name: Stephens) surrounded himself with a five-piece band and two backup singers. Having started out as the keyboardist and harmony singer in West’s band, he has come to represent a rare niche in the current climate of chest thumping leading men: the nattily-dressed piano soul crooner. Legend does not have a particularly remarkable voice, but he writes remarkable songs that have the inflections of gospel (“Let’s Get Lifted”) and vintage soul (“Number One”). On “Used to Love U,” the uplift was transformed with a dancehall bounce. As much as his band created a big sound, he also played solo at his piano. On “Ordinary People,” he revealed to be a song craftsman of first order.
During his hour-long set, Common mentioned 50 Cent, Jay-Z and other mega-selling royals. But instead of a bulletproof vest (wardrobe of choice for 50), Common wore casual denims, and a matching white T-shirt and newsboy cap. His casual style was his calling card throughout as he preached for fidelity and global responsibility. He didn’t hit the ostentatious level of, say, Bono, because his intentions were married with glittery jams (“Go!”) that were revelry first. The set ended with “It’s Your World,” a stripped-down litany of self-affirmation that featured his voice, accompanied by live cymbal crashes. Beat poetry of the new age that could use some.