Concert Review: Kanye West | AAHH! Fest

BY DAN GARCIA ★★★★★

Yesterday, I witnessed one of the best concerts I will ever see in my life. I have gone to a lot of different shows in my life and since my first concert ever as a kid, the Spice Girls (embarrassing, I know), I have been to over 100 shows, and it is rare that I attend one without getting my money’s worth. Despite the catalogue of great shows I have seen, yesterday stood out for many reasons, and because of an artist who wasn’t even listed on the concert’s billing. Kanye West performed at Chicago and Common’s first annual AAHH! Fest, and although it was the first, as Common said “it won’t be the last.” Special guests are always a treat at a concert, but given the circumstances and the A+ performance by Kanye, this special guest made the show not only ‘special’ but also remarkable, memorable, exceptional, and a million other words I would need to fully encompass the atmosphere that surrounded Chicago’s Union Park last night.

Since the announcement of the festival, and that there would be a ‘very special surprise guest’, everyone wondered if it would be Mr. West himself. There were several signs that pointed to yes. The event was hosted in partnership with Donda’s House, a charity founded by Kanye in honor of his late mother, Dr. Donda West. Also, the AAHH! Fest lineup was very Chicago oriented, and who better than Kanye to contribute to the show? Of course too, Kanye has long relationships with some of the festivals performers, including Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco, Dave Chappelle, and of course the fest’s founder, rapper Common. It was not obvious however, as there were many reasons why the rapper may not have been the guest. Wouldn’t it make since to announce him to the line-up, to boost ticket sales? Is Kanye too big to be a likely surprise guest? Or simply, is it too good to be true?

As weeks went by and further speculation built up, more and more signs pointed to Kanye. Radio station promos started to refer to the guest as “Mr. Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, Common’s mother said in an interview that the artist’s name starts with a ‘K’, the fest’s official website said it was “Chicago’s Own”, and even a lineup schedule leaked which appeared to show that Kanye was the surprise. But no one wanted to get their hopes up too much, until they saw Kanye physically on the AAHH! Fest stage.

The day kicked off with an early show, hosted by Donda’s House, which featured a number of community acts which auditioned for their performance slots over the past few weeks and months. Some of Chicago’s best and upcoming talent came together to perform in front of the crowd at Union Park and make a name for themselves. From singers to rappers, to even performance arts, the showcase was full of talented youth from the city. Finally the early show ended with performances by rapper/singer Diggy Simmons and Common joined the early show’s host Rhymefest (‘Brand New’) to perform a set for the crowd. It was simply great to see so many young people pursuing their dreams and having the opportunity and forum to do so.

As the crowds were let out (as crews set up for the late show), I instantly waited in line to get a good spot for the fest’s second half. There is nothing better than mingling with strangers who share the same interests in music than yourself. Me and some other fans talked music, concerts, and about the Kanye performance rumors. While making friends made the time fly by, 3:30 (when gates were opened again) could not have came soon enough. As 3:30 hit, with my backpack opened up (to make searching easier for security) and as my ticket was scanned, I instantly sprinted in the open field at Union Park to the center rail at the stage. It was such a relief knowing that almost no one would have a better view of the show than myself. Unlike a lot of concerts, we did not have to wait long until the great music started. Within just minutes, local radio personalities introduced the first artist, rapper Lil Herb. Although many of the acts did not have long set-lists (some only 10 minutes), it was a good time to keep the crowd’s attention, especially when you don’t know the artist’s full catalogue of songs.

Next to hit the stage, was the first surprise performer, Top Dawg Entertainment singer SZA. If you she wasn’t on your radar before, she certainly is now if you saw her performance yesterday. SZA has a beautiful voice and has worked with label-mates Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and SchoolBoy Q. Next up was Jay Electronica, of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Although many have been patiently awaiting for his first studio album, he tided the crowd over with an energy filled performance of some of his best songs, and even performing about half his set in the crowd and photo pit. The next portion of the show was dedicate to the festival’s older crowd, or to those who simply respect the classics, with performances by MC Lyte and De La Soul. Fans saw a very energetic performance by De La Soul (a favorite of Common and Dave Chappelle) and a surprise performance by ‘Lip Gloss’ rapper Lil Mama during MC Lyte’s set.

AAHH Fest! was not limited to rap and hip-hop however, as the festival also booked Chicago’s own, the Academy Award winning, Jennifer Hudson. Hudson, who has already accomplished so much in many different areas of entertainment, reminded fans that she is from the same Chicago streets and praised her city and its plethora of talent. One thing is certain after seeing Hudson live for my first time, she has some amazing pipes and some great style. The singer was sporting an OFF-White red flannel, designed by Kanye West’s creative designer Virgil Abloh.

After Hudson’s set, Dave Chappelle blessed the Chicago crowd and switched things up to bring some humor to the fans. Chappelle talked about how he was ‘almost rich’, told us that wearing an argyle vest won’t make him white, and about buying a home in China. After a few jokes, Dave introduced the next guest, and another Chicago native, rapper Lupe Fiasco. Although he was cut short, as the AAHH! Fest crew was under a tight schedule, fans got a fair share of Lupe and got to see him perform a lot of his hits, including ‘Kick Push’, ‘Go Go Gadget Flow’, and ‘Touch the Sky’.

It was almost time. Crew set up for the closing sets of the festival and time went by slowly in anticipation. One highlight during the set up however, was seeing producer Mike Dean help set up. As Kanye fans know, Mike Dean tours with Kanye, playing keys and the guitar (only further confirming Kanye as the guest). As the crew finally finished up, Dave Chappelle again came out, this time to introduce the man who made the fest possible, rapper Common. This performance was full of a freestyle, a small performance with Chicago’s Twista, and a bunch of new and old classics from Common’s catalogue of hits. The set even featured guest performances by Jay Electronica and Vince Staples to perform their verses to Common’s ‘Kingdom’.

After the close of Common’s set, the music instantly went into a beat that has been familiar to Chicago hip-hop fans and music fans alike for over a decade, a beat produced by the same artist who raps it, Jesus Walk by Kanye West. As Common introduces his long-time friend, Kanye runs out and jumps right into his verse and the crowd went crazy. It didn’t matter how many clues we had, to finally see him on stage and rock the crowd, could not have been substituted. Next up, Kanye performed ‘Touch The Sky’, a song that was just performed about an hour before by Lupe Fiasco. However this time, the crowd has 10 times the energy. When the guest performance could have ended at any moment (originally Kanye was only asked to perform 3 songs), Kanye continued to perform hit after hit, touching on every one of his solo albums (excluding 808s and Heartbreak) and more. After ‘Touch The Sky’, Ye performed ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, ‘Power’, ‘Don’t Like’, ‘Mercy’ and more with more energy than all the exceptional and immensely talented performers before him. One of the most intimate songs he performed for the Chicago crowd was his song ‘Homecoming’, off his album Graduation. The song, about Chicago, could have not been more appropriate for the festival, as he even cued Mike Dean to cut out some of the instrumentals as he closed the track. While ending the second half of his 16-song setlist with newer tracks (from Yeezus and Cruel Summer) and teasing the crowd with a little bit of ‘Bound 2’, Kanye ended the festival with a rare performance of ‘Get Em High’ with none other than Common (only missing the presence of Brooklyn legendary rapper, Talib Kweli). Although you could tell Kanye was a little rusty with the ‘Get Em High’ performance (since he doesn’t normally perform the song on tour), it didn’t matter. The performance with Common was super fun and was an excellent track to end the festival, as Kanye and Common were the performers of the night.

I have seen Kanye in concert five times now, and each time I find myself amazed. In a guest performance, where Kanye was only control of the music he gave the crowd (and not all the artistry surrounding his headlining solo performances), Ye still made this show a memorable one. It is rare that you get to see so much talent in one day, even without Kanye, I got to see some of rap’s and Chicago’s best artists. Jennifer Hudson showcased her amazing hometown vocals, Lupe and Common showed that Chicago rap is on another level, Dave Chappelle got the crowd laughing, and the other amazing performers showed why Common picked them to perform at the fest. However still, Mr. West showed that Chicago is his city and that this is his world. Seeing him live is like nothing else, and when Kanye says he wants everyone to enjoy his performances, he sincerely means it. He has gotten a lot of bad press for this recently, after accidentally trying to get a fan to get out of their seat to stand for the concert, and realizing later that the fan was in a wheelchair. However yesterday I witnessed a show so good that a man (Rich Guardino) with cerebral palsy, crowd surfed in his wheelchair, proving that even if you can’t stand, you can get up and ‘touch the sky’ for a Kanye West show.

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