By Mark Guarino
If there is a true gentleman of hip-hop at this very moment, his name is Kanye West.
Not just because he’s the top go-to producer in hip-hop and r&b, responsible for hit records by everyone from Jay-Z to Alicia Keys. Not just because his solo debut, “The College Dropout” (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam) sold a million copies in one month. And not just because he’s featured in every major music magazine currently on the racks.
Kanye West is the gentleman’s rapper because at the House of Blues Monday, the first of four sold-out homecoming shows in three nights, he was accompanied onstage by his own valet. Yes, a guy whose sole job was to fit his jacket on a hanger.
West is the most energizing music star to come out of Chicago in recent years and, next to Dr. Dre, is the rare triple threat producer-songwriter-rapper. His signature use of sped-up ‘60s soul samples and knack for singalong melodies has ensured hits for MTV stars, but that only proved to be a prelude to his recent debut, an autobiography with comical wit, lyrical depth and plenty of hooks.
West spent the first half of his 80-minute show flashing his resume (the remaining two shows take place tonight). Backed by a keyboardist, guitarist and DJ, he performed abbreviated versions of songs he co-wrote and produced including “Stand Up” (Ludacris) and “Overnight Celebrity” (Twista). Openers Dilated Peoples joined him for “This Way,” the hit he delivered from their new album. And for “You Don’t Know My Name,” a hit by Alicia Keys, he parodied Keys’ flirty spoken word interlude with one of his own that cut the romance and humorously got down to business.
West’s distinct style is not just about fashion — wearing a white suit with an argyle T-shirt over a plaid shirt, he prefers country club preppy to hustler bling. What sets him apart from the glut of gangstas and pimps that pervade mainstream hip-hop is the playfulness of his song arrangements and the complexity of his lyrics.
As a marching beat played and a looped choir of schoolchildren chanted behind him (“Jesus Walks”), West rapped fast and furiously about the hypocrisy of religious zealots who turn away the street poor, but also he railed against the hypocrisy of radio programmers who greenlight songs about gunplay over others with religious themes. Soon after his keyboardist took the show to church with the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away,” West launched into “Spaceship” detailing the racism he experienced working for, of all places, The Gap.
His show included enough singable vocal hooks to keep the crowd playing a part. While not as suave of a performer as some of his clients, West was definitely easier to relate with. He ended the show with “Last Call,” partly a spoken word monologue about his journey from dropping out of Chicago State University and entering the music business and the disillusionment he met along the way. For someone who named his first album “The College Dropout,” he stressed self-esteem and staying in school. “If you got to school, focus on what you’re doing,” he said. To that he raised his glass and was gone.