"C'mon, white people, this is the one time you can say this word," he said onstage at the Wolstein Center as he rapped the refrain to his hit "Gold Digger."
"I ain't saying she's a gold digger," the crowd responded loudly. "But she ain't messin' with no broke niggas."
That last word gave many pause, and understandably so. A central tenet in hip-hop's unspoken code of conduct is that white fans and performers are not allowed to drop the N-bomb -- no matter how loose their African American counterparts may be with the word. It's a fair-enough rule, as black performers have co-opted the racial epithet as a means of reducing its derogatory impact. But when two-thirds of the hip-hop audience is white, the frequent use of the N-word still leads to plenty of awkward moments.
Yet Kanye West has made a name for himself by inviting everyone to his party. He is rightfully lauded for uniting hip-hop's conscious, politically active underground with its bling-infatuated mainstream. He allows hip-hop's id and ego to commingle -- often on the same track.
And West acknowledges the contradictions between his music and his lifestyle -- "Why everything that's supposed to be bad make me feel so good?" he asks on "Addiction," from his stellar sophomore LP, Late Registration.
In short, West is one of hip-hop's most self-conscious performers, and his show at the Wolstein Center testified to that. Shortly after taking the stage to launch into the show-opening "Touch the Sky," West abruptly killed the music. "We're about 12, 13 shows into this tour, and I ain't never did a show where I come out, and somebody's sitting down in the front row," he said. "I can't, like, perform this. Have a little respect."
It's easy to see why Kanye would want to get the song just right: It's one of his most definitive tracks, chronicling his rise from working-class wannabe to hip-hop royalty. "Before anybody wanted K. West beats/Me and my girl split the buffet at KFC," he rhymed as horns swelled in the background.
Throughout the night, West repeatedly referred to his blue-collar past. He came out dressed in a silver sport coat, natty white slacks, and shades, but he soon lost the flashy threads. A few songs into his set, the lights dimmed; when they came back up, West was center stage, lying under the covers of a big white bed. He got up and dressed as if he were heading off to some anonymous job at the mall, putting on jeans and a red T-shirt with a gold name tag. A rack of clothes was rolled onstage as he rapped about how he used to work at the Gap, longing for everything that he has now.
What's endeared West to the masses is his willingness -- or rather his need -- to part the veil on his own celebrity. He wants to be lauded as a hard-working everyman and a one-of-a-kind superstar, and he doesn't see any contradiction in being both.
At times, West is contrite. During "Roses," an emotional recounting of his grandmother's time in the hospital, he leaned against an empty gurney, rapping with his head down, humbled by mortality. But then he'll come with a bold, confrontational song like "Heard 'Em Say," in which he accuses the government of abetting the spread of AIDS in the African American community. Both songs attempt to address the same issue: limited, disproportionate access to health care for blacks. But West is smart enough to vary the tenor of his arguments. In doing so, he deflates his own dogma and avoids sounding too self-righteous -- like so many other artists with Something Important to Say.
Still, West can only be humble for so long. By set's end, his shades were back on, and he was strutting about in a swanky white suit. He ended the show with "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," a song whose video and remix call attention to the plight of African mine workers.
West feels bad that the diamond trade takes such a heavy toll on impoverished laborers, who are paid little to risk life and limb on a daily basis. Of course, West still wears plenty of diamonds, supporting the industry that he decries. But hey, the guy just wants to shine -- even if all that luster blinds him to his own message.