Kanye West is the most popular, most high-profile pop musician in the country right now, but you wouldn't have known it from the crowd when his "Touch the Sky" tour stopped at the Mid-South Coliseum Saturday. While the floor-level seats were mostly full, the upper bowl was mostly empty.
I couldn't help but flash back to the last time I'd been to a hip-hop concert at the Coliseum -- 15 years ago, for Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" tour. That night in 1990, the Coliseum was packed, fans gangsta-walking around the upper-rim of the arena. And I couldn't stop wondering why the difference in crowd size was so dramatic.
Memphis may be a notoriously unreliable concert market, but I can't imagine things were better 15 years ago. The economy is in rough shape, but there can't be less discretionary income floating around the city than there was in 1990, can there? And it certainly isn't that West is a lightweight by comparison. Public Enemy then and Kanye West now were/are both major-label rap acts with politicized content that provokes their genre comrades and their respective audiences. The difference is that the less strident West, a protégé of Jay-Z, has it both ways in hip-hop's ever-raging culture wars in a way Public Enemy couldn't have imagined. And that -- with an album, Late Registration, and a single, "Gold Digger," that have both spent time recently atop the pop charts -- West is a bigger commercial/cultural force.
So why was his audience a third (if that) of what Public Enemy drew to the same venue a decade-and-half ago? The most plausible explanation is that there's been that much of a sea-change in Southern rap fans. In 1990, hip-hop's Southern style had yet to fully assert itself. Hip-hop fans everywhere were primarily fans of the music's East and West Coast titans. Now with the "Dirty South" aesthetic -- a distinctive sound and more limited lyrical concerns -- ascendant, Southern rap seems to have profoundly altered Southern rap audiences.
West's scattered live show Saturday night didn't have quite the musical juice that I remembered from that P.E. show, despite a more promising set-up. With two background singers, a first-rate DJ, a keyboard player, a drummer, and, most intriguingly, a full string section (two cellos, four violins, and a harp -- the violinists bobbing in unison like an old-fashioned soul horn section), West seemed to have all he needed for a live approximation of Late Registration's opulent musicality, but he was never able to convey the musical depth of that record.
But even if West's live show underachieved, there was still more than enough happening on the Coliseum stage to convey how much local rap fans were missing.
Public Enemy's overpowering It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back still gets my vote for best hip-hop album ever, but standing near the back of the lower-level Saturday, I decided that West is the more momentous artist. Though he can be every bit as self-aggrandizing as Public Enemy, he's less full of shit. West is smarter and his music presents a fuller range of life experience than Public Enemy. Unlike Public Enemy, his admonishments are usually self-implicating and, at his very best, of a cultural complexity that P.E. mouthpiece Chuck D. couldn't fathom.
Saturday night, West proved as race-conscious as Public Enemy but in a more playful, subtle way. As had opening act Fantasia, West dedicated a song to those who'd been affected by Katrina, hinting at the extent to which the New Orleans disaster has become black America's 9/11. His intro to "Slow Jamz" acknowledged a soul lineage that runs from Al Green to D'Angelo and R. Kelly. One skit about music he -- and his audience -- grew up on baited the audience with Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" before pulling the rug out from under them with the equally identifiable new-wave hit "Take On Me." And West teased his white fans too. In prompting fans into a singalong of the chorus to "Gold Digger," West added, "White people, this is your only chance to say 'nigger.' Take advantage of it!" When West performed the single on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, the final verse -- the one that redeems the song's potential misogyny while risking making his white fans uncomfortable -- was cut off. Here it was back, and when West got to the twist ending in the final line, he fell silent to let the audience shout it out: "You stay right girl/And when he gets on, he'll leave your ass for a white girl!"
These moments were typical of an artist as defiant as Public Enemy but far more sly about it. After opening the show with "Touch the Sky" and its triumphant horn fanfare, West segued into one of his greatest songs, the 2004 non-single "We Don't Care," which defines sly defiance and which has only deepened in the wake of Katrina. He flubbed it a little bit, missing the first verse and doing the second twice, but he made up for it in prompting a crowd singalong on the chorus: "We wasn't supposed to make it past 25/Joke's on you, we still alive/Throw your hands up in the sky/And say, we don't care what people say."
From there, West's show had stops and starts, but as one song followed another, the richness of his music became towering. West has amassed an incredible body of work over the past couple of years, but in Memphis he didn't find the audience it deserves. Maybe he should open Crunkfest next time. And I wouldn't put that past him either.