Album Review: Kanye West – VH1 Storytellers

Given his penchant for over-sharing, VH1’s intimate concert series, Storytellers was the perfect fit for Kanye West. In February 2009, the rapper performed a 10-song set for the music network. The result –- captured here in CD and DVD format -– is a ramble of a concert that is at turns endearing and exhausting.

West draws most of the material for the performance from 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, but he also reaches back into his catalog for hits like and “Touch the Sky.” On the standout tracks (most notably “Love Lockdown” and “Stronger”), West displays a knack for blistering live performance, even in the more cozy setting.

“See You in My Nightmares” from 808s opens the album, but before beginning the song West laments that most hip-hope artists don’t grow musically (unlike him, natch). This irony-free boasting sets the tone for the rest of the set. As with most of the songs from 808s, auto-tuned vocals highlight “Nightmare,” which segues into “Robocop”. Here, the roboticized vocals fit the song’s relationship drama narrative.

On “Flashing Lights”, West and his backing band faithfully recreate the album version of the song; but he is soon apologizing to VH1 for not honoring the spirit of Storytellers by revealing too little. He quickly remedies that by alluding to his mom’s death.

“Touch the Sky” begins in stripped down fashion, with only the bass and drums backing West’s passionate vocal. And just in case his audience was missing his bragging, at the song’s climax, he takes a detour to lament, “My greatest pain in life is that I will never get to see me perform.” But West’s rambling has something for everyone, even his detractors. Toward the song’s end, he concedes that he’s been “an asshole for so long.” Well, at least he’s self-aware.

A lonesome piano figure and finger snaps recreate the skittering rhythm of “Amazing.” The rapturous audience claps along. At the song’s midpoint, Kanye complains about being under media scrutiny and later apologizes for “acting like a bitch at award shows” (a prescient mea culpa in light of later events at the Video Music Awards).

Spooky keyboards amplify the icy, somber feel of “Say You Will” which appears here in even more ratcheted form down than its album version.

To close the proceedings, West turns fan favorite “Love Lockdown” into a seething, eleven-minute epic. When toward the end of the song, he engages in an eerie call and response with one of his back up singers, it infuses the song with a melancholy soul.

As he bids his audience farewell, West thanks them “for being my shrink today.” As if they had a choice.

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VH1 Storytellers


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