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Essence Music Festival: An appreciative Kanye West toasts New Orleans crowd

July 3, 2011 |  2:56 pm

When Kanye West took to the stage Saturday night in New Orleans for his headlining set at the Essence Music Festival, he had zero intention of answering the very questions his fans were probably wondering: When exactly would he release his hugely anticipated joint disc with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” and would he preview any material from the project? 

Despite the rumors online circulating about the project, the latest (and apparently untrue) being that it could be released digitally as early as Monday, West didn’t squeeze in anything from the disc, or even mention it during his sprawling showcase of his back catalog. 

West’s Essence set was similar to his offering at Coachella, and many of the themes remained the same: His chorus of phoenix ballerinas glided across the stage, a large ancient backdrop with Greek mythology hung behind him. There was even that Messiah-like entrance, replete wtih fog and arriving mid-arena via a crane. 

But this was a different audience than Coachella -- one where his artsy sensibilities took to a backseat to the Chicago swagger that made him famous. The harder tracks from "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," such as the album's opening track and "Monster," sent the audience, which was more youthful and diverse than on Friday, into a frenzy. This would be the audience where it was both appropriate  and appreciated for him to cut into his set to play a selection of R&B tracks that he loved growing up from artists such as Bell Biv Devoe, Shy and Cameo before introducing what he called his theme song, Bobby Brown’s "My Prerogative."

“It feels so good to be home. When I say back home, I mean with my people,” West said in his first address to the audience, as security was forced to corral the stampede of people who rushed to fill in the empty pockets of seats on the floor. 

Though his arrogance and outspokenness have often gotten him into trouble in the past, and he admitted he'd had his share of controversy here and there (“I had a little bit to drink that night,” he said in an obvious nod to one of his most infamous outbursts), on the Essence stage, West was the people’s champ. 

He didn’t need to explain any past indiscretions, though he did thank the audience for sticking by his side when many had counted his career over thanks to his ill-advised MTV Video Music Awards outburst. West was at Essence for the people, a fact he made clear when he held up “Power” to shake hands with every single one of the audience members within reach during the long walk to the stage as the opening claps of the single looped over and over.

At a point early on in the two-hour set, he made the proclamation that he was now letting “the music speak for itself” since “the press stay trying to [expletive] me.” The statement didn’t come across as a desperate attempt to explain his current lack of visibility, and he used his back catalog, which spanned from “Through The Wire” and “Jesus Walks” to “Stronger,” “Gold Digger” and “Runaway,” to indeed do the talking. 

West was more chummy with the Essence audience than at Indio, a show he deemed his "most important." At one point, he uncharacteristically broke character to explain a misundertanding about a song: During the emo-heavy “Say You Will” from “808s and Heartbreak,” he stressed that the track wasn’t a love ode. Instead, it’s a burn toward a guy’s ex who doesn’t deliver on a post-breakup booty call.

“I know I'm a rapper and … I got an attitude. But I can still fall in love,” West promised to the cheering crowd. 


Essence headliner Jill Scott debuts at No. 1 and discusses how she 'stopped believing in love'

Essence Music Festival kicks off in New Orleans, 400,000 attendees expected

Coachella 2011: Kanye West doesn't play it safe as he closes the Indio fest

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy, reporting from New Orleans

Photo: Kanye West performs at the 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans on Sunday. Credit: Gerald Herbert/Associated Press