Kanye West / Oct. 13, 2005 / Gainesville, Fla. (O'Connell Center)

This was only the third show on the Touch The Sky trek and it was thick with that new-concert smell. West vanished for long stretches of time, prop transitions were ragged and cues were missed -- at o

Ah, college. Times may change and the years may tumble past like crisp leaves through the commons, but universities can still be counted on to cultivate fresh-faced idealists who'll bravely speak their minds about the unpopular political movements of the moment. Which is why a few dozen pro-Bush activists staged a small protest at Kanye West's show at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville on Oct. 13, waving hand-painted signs and hollering yay-rah-W slogans to fans entering the arena.

Sadly, those protestors only ended up wasting valuable Republican Club meeting time. Kanye the spitfire media critic didn't show up on Thursday: all the newly christened right-wing slam magnet offered politically was a quick prayer for Katrina victims. No, this was strictly a night for Kanye the brazen MC, who delivered a schizophrenic 90-minute show that was, to use appropriate academic terms, kind of a big mess.

To be fair, most of the trouble with West's set (which was overstuffed to compensate for the absence of the much-missed Common, who dropped off the tour before it even began) could be chalked up to opening jitters. This was only the third show on the Touch The Sky trek and it was thick with that new-concert smell. West vanished for long stretches of time, prop transitions were ragged and cues were missed -- at one point, West shut down "Bring Me Down" to bitch out his lighting guy.

But the set's bigger problems were jagged pacing (tracks like "Drive Slow" and "Heard Em Say" are inventive and melodic on record, meandering on stage), a surprisingly low-tech arsenal of props and a stage set that didn't make a lot of sense. West deftly addressed the main complaint with hip-hop shows -- too many hype men, too few songs -- by employing a live drummer and keyboardist and replacing "hip-hop violinist" Miri Ben-Ari with a weighty seven-piece string section. But he tucked them all behind semi-transparent boxes seemingly picked up at a Blue Man Group yard sale, which contributed to the overriding sense of distance between West and everyone else.

As the tour's namesake song indicates, Kanye's "on top of the world," his "Late Registration" is one of the best albums of this year and decade and, by way of response, West's developed a self-esteem surplus large enough to suggest some sort of thyroid condition. The net effect is schizophrenia. West rapped about his graveyard shift at the Gap (do they even have those?) and his own self-consciousness from his tracks on "College Dropout" and then dialed up over-the-top tracks from "Late" like the non-conflict-diamonds version of "Diamonds From Sierra Leone."

What made "Dropout" so instantly appealing was its sense of everyman-ness, the vibe he could pull off before he became the Time magazine cover boy and was christened the savior of hip-hop. Those days have long since evaporated.

To his credit, when glitches did pop up in the matrix, West compensated gamely, putting some extra back into his verse-lifting and prowling the stage like a panther. Some of the gimmickier stuff worked, too: West performed "Roses," a gritty and heartfelt story about his grandmother's near-fatal illness, kneeling by an empty hospital bed. And "Hey Mama" proved a touching Mother's Day card in mid-October.

And when he hit, he hit out of the park. It's tough to imagine any better live hip-hop performance than his dead-solid-perfect "Gold Digger," and "Jesus Walks" is evolving nicely into a timeless anthem. "The New Workout Plan" is impossible to remain stationary throughout, and "Through The Wire" was inspired. A glancing lyrical reference to Bush in "All Falls Down" brought a pent-up roar from the audience, but otherwise West left his politics on the bus.

Still, even the best tracks can only be partially served by a lone MC, and West has plenty of kinks to work out before he can add arena-ready frontman to his manifesto of accomplishments. That said, the man's already given himself an out -- as he raps on "Diamonds," even when he "(throws) a tantrum like he is three years old, you gotta love it though, nobody else speaks from the soul." Good point. But at this early stage in the tour, West's show needs more soul, less programming.

Opener Fantasia delivered a half-hour of rough but promising R&B that showed she's been paying attention to Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, even if it's tough to imagine either of those ladies pulling off an Aerosmith cover. The aerobic Fantasia's set was joyously free of any "American Idol" shenanigans, and her seven-piece band provided a funky bed of groove for her tracks like "Baby Mama." Sure, she sang Prince's "Purple Rain" like she was trying to strangle it with a stretch of piano wire, but her scratchy, raspy pipes tore into "Dream On" with something approaching power and reverence.

Here is Kanye West's set list:

"Touch The Sky"
"We Don't Care"
"The New Workout Plan"
"Drive Slow" (featuring GLC)
"Spaceship" (featuring GLC and Consequence)
"Gone" (featuring GLC and Consequence)
"Get 'Em High"
"Heard 'Em Say"
"Hey Mama"
"All Falls Down"
"Gold Digger"
"Slow Jamz"
"Through The Wire"
"Jesus Walks"
"Bring Me Down"
"We Major"
"Diamonds From Sierra Leone"