SXSW: Kanye West's GOOD Music showcase at Fader Fort

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Kanye West smiled for two hours straight. He had good reason.

West’s GOOD Music showcase at the Fader Fort was by far the most marvelous musical moment of my South by Southwest, so much so that it deserves an extended review.

Live hip-hop is pretty extreme experience; it can either be the ultimate drag or the ultimate high. There is no middle ground. Too many rap shows are plagued by interminable delays, awful sound problems and a mob of wack MCs trying to out-shout each other. (Or, in the supremely skilled Lil Wayne’s case, doing everything but using his gift.) Rap fans are used to swallowing the rotten fruit of ego trips gone bad. But as prideful as Kanye is, he prides himself most on putting on a stellar show. Dude doesn’t get off by being a cocktease. He gets off by giving the people what they want.

Did he ever!

By formatting the night as a variety show, shuffling in guests from his GOOD Music label plus some A-list hip-hop stars throughout his two-hour set, Mr. West kept things fresh and vital from start to finish. Of course, it helps to have a crack band, talented friends and one of the strongest catalogs of any modern pop artist. All this came together in monumental fashion Saturday night, leaving me and thousands more smiling just as unabashedly as West and his crew. Allow me to deliver the play by play:

I showed up at Fader Fort around 6 p.m. expecting the line to be spiraling out of control, but I got inside shockingly fast. (First sign that this was going to be a good night.) I grabbed a free drink and made my way to the right side of the audience, about three rows back from the stage, where I would remain for the next five hours. I rightly figured it would be better to maintain close proximity to the action rather than enjoy the free-flowing SoCo/Sierra Mist concoctions.

The original schedule called for Rick Ross at 6, Jadakiss at 7 and the GOOD Music showcase at 8:30. When I showed up, Ross was nowhere to be found, but Fader brought in somebody far better to fill in: legendary Texas rapper Bun B of UGK, who happened to be celebrating his birthday yesterday. I can’t front like I’m a longtime fan — before Bun’s partner Pimp C died a couple years ago, I probably couldn’t name one UGK song — but I have developed a deep appreciation for the duo on the strength of “Int’l Players Anthem,” their incredible 2007 collaboration with OutKast. So I was pretty geeked to see this esteemed MC do his thing.

After hoisting up a plate of cupcakes, Bun got down to business, blazing through a medley of what I assume are well-known UGK tracks. Eventually, he got around to “Big Pimpin’” and a tribute song for Pimp C. But the highlight was undoubtedly hearing him do his and Pimp C’s verses from “Int’l Players Anthem,” the first of many joyous moments on the night. Happy birthday to you, Bun.

I don’t have much to say about Jadakiss, but I’ll make three points. One, the guy seems talented, but nobody there seemed to know his songs very well judging by the call and response, which is always kind of awkward. Two, I always liked Kanye’s line, “I felt like Bad Boy’s street team/ I couldn’t work The Lox,” which is a reference to Jadakiss’ old group and the way they flopped commercially even at the height of Sean Combs-as-Puff Daddy late-90s pop domination. Three, even if you were one of his protégés, releasing a Notorious B.I.G. tribute song called “We Still Miss You” seems like a cheap attention grab.

By 7:30, Jadakiss was done, and Kanye’s stagehands began a 90-minute process of setting up a sprawling array of drums, keyboards and turntables. Fader Fort filled this time by having Dead Prez and some dude named Johnny Polygon rap from some invisible DJ booth, which was plenty confusing and disorienting but better than nothing I suppose. Some fans got pretty peeved at the long wait time, but considering the thing wasn’t scheduled to start until 8:30, I was pretty unfazed. I guess if you didn’t come in there expecting to wait, it could have been pretty frustrating.

Our patience was rewarded when, around 9 p.m., Kanye’s band (wearing some sort of weird welder’s masks) and backup singers took the stage, and from backstage he started crooning “Amazing.” Within seconds he was stalking the stage, wearing a sleeveless jean jacket with “Sons of Thor: Idaho” emblazoned on the back, hair buzzed down from that awful shag he was sporting earlier this year, rocking shades as usual.

After the first tune, our host stopped to welcome us to his showcase, then began shuffling various members of the GOOD Music roster on stage to perform songs with him and solo. Consequence came out to do Late Registration highlight “Gone”; GLC helped with “Drive Slow.” Spoken word artist Malik Yusef delivered the riveting monologue from the end of “Crack Music.” Several rappers chipped in for “Spaceship” and "We Major." Hearing the old-school Kanye tracks was refreshing; I’m (obviously) a huge fan of West’s more recent work, but there will always be something special about those first two LPs.

Some newer members of his stable got their moment to shine too, including soul singer Mr. Hudson, who, looking very white, blonde and British, didn’t seem to fit. Fonzworth Bentley impressively rapped and danced all at once. Some backpacker dude rapped while wearing a gigantic white backpack, which seems a little over-the-top to me. West introduced Detroit rapper Big Shaun by explaining that he signed the MC on the spot after Shaun approached him and asked to spit a verse. A skilled lyricist and a born entertainer, Big Shaun was by far the best of Kanye’s lesser-known cohorts.

Then the big guns started to come out. Kanye began crooning the hook to “Welcome to Heartbreak” before humorously stopping the show to invite Cleveland’s Kid Cudi, on stage. Cudi held his own in terms of skills and stage presence, and when his hit “Day N Nite” morphed from the original track into the club-friendly Crookers remix, the crowd went wild.

When the song finally landed, Cudi basked in the glow of audience approval for about three seconds before Common burst on stage and the night became more or less legendary. I’ve never been a huge fan of Common’s albums, but both times I’ve seen him live, he has absolutely owned the room. His blazing rendition of “Get ’em High” with West stoked the frenzy even farther.

When Erykah Badu emerged next, I began to wonder just how many special guests Kanye had stored up back there. She sang the hook on “The Light” before holding her own against Common and Yeezy in a friendly round of freestyles. Badu's flakiness has always kind of annoyed me, and here she still wasn't quite the revelation her devotees claim. But it was still special to see her together with Kanye and Common. Then the A-list guests departed, and I was sure the show was done.

But Kanye wasn’t done yet. He launched into “Heartless,” which didn’t seem to fit the playful, exuberant mood, but was well-received nonetheless. This led to the night’s most shocking moment. “Heartless” is one of the most notoriously one-sided breakup songs of all time, a woe-is-me lament full of bitter contempt for Kanye’s ex-fiance. But during an extended outro section, Kanye added an epilogue that suggests he might be ready to acknowledge his part in the breakup: “Did I make you heartless?” he sang, before dropping this bomb: “…when I cheated on you?”

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this show. It very well could have been a dour, “Welcome to Heartbreak”-themed night, a self-serious presentation along the lines of West’s frankly disappointing Glow in the Dark tour. But it seems like West might be emerging from the grim state of mind that birthed 808s and Heartbreak. Saturday night, he traded the shag and the scowl for a buzz and a smile. He took responsibility for his actions. He only went on one angry rant, and it was merely directed at “haters,” not anybody in particular.

Most importantly, Kanye pulled himself out of the self-imposed isolation that has defined him since Graduation dropped 18 months ago, welcoming a cadre of guests on stage to share the spotlight with him. Maybe this carefree night of hip-hop fellowship was just a short detour for a special occasion. But I like to think Saturday’s retrospective of sorts was West’s way of forging ahead the next chapter of his already-storied career, leaving behind the Heartbreak era for good. West’s malaise yielded an endlessly fascinating album and blew open the constraints of what’s possible for a mainstream hip-hop release. But the shelf life on sad-sack Kanye is about to expire.

West knows it, judging by the joyous run through “Good Life” that climaxed the show with the entire entourage gathered together on stage, hands in the air, grinning cheek to cheek. Even the obligatory, tacked-on “Love Lockdown” brimmed with positivity. And with that, Mr. West whisked himself away to take on a decidedly brighter future.