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Kanye West’s secret gig was being filmed for television, though presumably the boos that preceded his arrival on stage won’t make the final cut. The reason for the displeasure was the rapper’s hour-plus lateness, and the fact that his band had struck up the first song and then abandoned it with no sign of West appearing. But suddenly he dashed on, the boos switched to ecstatic cheers, and all was forgiven – at least temporarily.
Eclipsing peers such as Timbaland and Pharrell Williams, West is the most successful of a slew of rap producers turned rappers. His solo albums The College Drop-Out and Late Registration have established the former beatmaker as a bona fide star. A third album, Graduation, is due out next month.
The collegial theme underlines West’s middle-class background, unusual among hip-hop’s top rank. In contrast to the gangsta man-mountain 50 Cent, whose new album is due out the same day as Graduation, West comes across as a sort of dandified intellectual, dressing immaculately and spouting opinions about homophobia in rap or President George W. Bush’s inaction following Hurricane Katrina.
His outspokenness is admirable, but it goes with an ego so colossal it’s a wonder one man can support it. The songs he debuted at this free show were flush with West-is-best sentiments. During “Champion” his backing singers soulfully crooned, “Did you realise you’re a champion in their eyes?”, to which immodest Kanye, currently number one in the UK singles charts, rapped back quick as a flash: “Yes, I did.”
“Big Brother” was a soggy, self-absorbed homage to his mentor Jay-Z. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” found him raging about some unspecified snub (“I can’t take this!”) – perhaps his failure to win a best-video prize at an MTV awards ceremony last year, which resulted in him storming the stage and declaring: “If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility.”
A big ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a performer, though in West’s case the self-regard has got out of hand. The new songs, apart from the Daft Punk-quoting track “Stronger”, were musically a mess, the beats interacting awkwardly with the lush string-work of an all-female backing orchestra. West takes risks, which is praiseworthy, but on this occasion the accompanying air of self-congratulation proved stifling.