Kanye West, Manchester MEN Arena and The Streets, Leadmill, Sheffield

America's Kanye West and our own Mike 'The Streets' Skinner are two of music's most adventurous, and entertaining, narrators, say Kitty Empire and Lynsey Hanley.

Kanye West

Manchester MEN Arena

There are a dozen women onstage, ready for Kanye West to come on. But they aren't covered head to toe in gold dust, naked apart from bras and G-strings. Rather, they are dressed in sober black and carrying bows. Kanye West stole the show at the Brits last week with a harem of glitzy nymphettes slinking along to his hit 'Gold Digger', but for the first night of his UK tour, the rapper's entourage consists of a great DJ (A-Trak), two backing vocalists, a nine-piece all-female string section and a harpist. The golden girls may have dazzled on telly, but this is headline-grabbing stuff in its own way. Plucked as though from some draughty European concert hall and catapulted into Kanye Westworld, the string players saw away at their instruments, a presence on most of tonight's songs.

Thanks to some truly dreadful acoustics, though, their chief impact is visual, providing a startlingly rarefied backdrop to West's Grammy-winning hip-hop Tigger antics at the front of the stage. West is tremendous tonight, words falling out of him as he bounds around the stage, basking in the love of a joyously mixed audience, from young pop fans to solemn hip-hop heads. What kind of a rapper puts a harpist centre stage at a hip-hop show? One who habitually does what is not expected of him. West started off as a writer-cum-producer, landing his big break making beats for Jay-Z. Unsatisfied, he pressed ahead with his own album. Few believed he could rhyme, but Jay-Z's erstwhile label, Roc-A-Fella, gave him his own deal as a rapper just to shut him up.

West's 2004 debut LP, The College Dropout, was an almighty 'I told you so'. It name-checked enough designer labels to please the conspicuously consuming urban mainstream while addressing the socially conscious rap underground. Dropout's highlights - 'Slow Jamz', the track West did with Twista, the cheeky 'We Don't Care' - are greeted jubilantly tonight.

Dropout was followed last year with Late Registration, an even more audacious album lush with the orchestrations of non-hip hop producer Jon Brion. In hiring a string-section puppeteer, West subtly altered the milieu of hip hop while carrying traditionalists with him. He became famous enough to appear on a Hurricane Katrina telethon, where he infamously blurted out, 'George Bush doesn't care about black people', giving voice to what millions of Americans were probably thinking. Quite an arc of notoriety for a guy who used to sell chinos in Gap.

For all his well-documented arrogance, it wasn't so long ago that West was a curiously shy performer, unable to look the camera in the eye in the video for 'All Falls Down'. He used to rap too fast with his back to the audience; now he even dances, loose-limbed and euphoric. Virtually all hip hop stars have backing rappers or guests join them live. West fronts his show alone for one and a half hours, until the house lights unexpectedly come on. The string section are left blinking like rabbits in headlights, not quite finished with the encore.

This is the last in a series of glitches. A 'new video guy' is on board, it transpires, and earlier he miscues a film, causing set-list mayhem. Also slightly puzzling is the bowdlerisation of West's songs - all of them now clean versions without the word 'nigga'. It's particularly odd in 'Crack Music', an otherwise electrifying rendition of a song whose sardonic deploying of the N-word is pivotal to the track. It's hardly the place of a white reviewer to complain about the lack of the N-word, but if he wrote it, why won't he sing it?

But the buoyant mood only really flags with 'Bring Me Down', a song illustrated by all of West's bad reviews scrolling down the screen at the back of the stage. West is hypersensitive to criticism; instead of crowing about the Brit he just bagged the night before, he can only whine about 'haters' and the Grammys he didn't win. He's already netted six in two years.

But bad grace is not what Kanye's show will be remembered for. 'Gold Digger' is great fun, a slice of borderline misogyny so well-observed and masterfully done you forget it's about how all women are scheming paper-chasers. The real highlight, though, is 'Jesus Walks', an emotional tour de force in which temptation is wedded to artillery beats, for which West ought to be lionised. Dancing through clouds of dry ice, West ends up posing in front of that unlikely harp. You could be forgiven for thinking - as, indeed, could West - that he was already in heaven.

The Streets

Leadmill, Sheffield

Mike Skinner may like a pie and a pint in front of the Xbox - or at least his polo-shirted alter ego, The Streets, does - but he gets a lot done. He's about to release his third album in four years, the follow-up to the million-selling A Grand Don't Come for Free; he's set up his own record label, The Beats, to sign picaresque talent such as the Mitchell Brothers; and he's rarely off the road. More used, these days, to arenas, his current short tour of small clubs is the nearest some of his fans will have got to seeing the whites of his eyes in years.

Between the release of his first album, 2002's startling Original Pirate Material - which he produced in his bedroom - and his second, Skinner made a decision not to get bogged down in the my-mobile's-got-more-ringtones-than-yours pettiness of the dance music underground. The result was a concept album with as strong a narrative pull as a good novel, which chronicled a young man whose plans and dreams led into a fistful of dead ends. In other words, not what you'd expect from an artist who, thanks to his turned-up collars and not-quite skinhead, was crowned 'king of the chavs'.

At the Leadmill, where hometown Arctic Monkeys fans and big-trousered Dizzee disciples turned out in equal measure, he tried out half a dozen songs from his forthcoming opus, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, visibly checking the crowd for their reaction and, at one point, pleading with a vocal audience member that, 'I can't have a conversation with you now cos I've got to remember all me words.'

Skinner and his co-vocalist Leo the Lion had made a fashion decision that was either ironic or so ahead of its time that nobody has yet caught up with them. Think Miami Vice. Think 'rolled-up suit jacket sleeves'. What were they thinking? The only explanation could be that, keen to place his wide-boy Streets character as far away from his own, unassuming Brummie-gone-Cockney self, Skinner has elected to develop a wardrobe that no one in their right mind would try to replicate.

The pair worked the stage as though they had MBAs in MCing. Endless touring has made Skinner such a consummate entertainer that he's worth going to see live whether you like his music or not (and if you don't, Skinner and his slick live backing band will convince you otherwise). During 'Let's Push Things Forward', he turned the whole room into a sea of 'pushing' arms; as the melodic new track 'All Goes Out the Window' ended, he winked at a crowd-surfer and exclaimed, 'I've got that jumper!'

There's only so much distance Skinner can put between himself and his audience, and he knows it. His massive success has been due to his unique ability to make intelligent pop music that doesn't communicate upwards, to a tiny elite, or downwards, to an imagined lumpen mass, but across, to blokes and girls who are just like him. His new material is pitched just so: he's lived by his own maxim and pushed things forward, incorporating lush funk and dewy-eyed soul into his formula of thudding beats and soaring vocals.

Equally, he hasn't taken the comparisons to Dostoevsky (made by literature professor John Sutherland) too much to heart. The lyrics to the lolloping 'War of the Sexes' are as attractive to pub philosophers as any of Skinner's rapped monologues. In gaining a mass audience, he hasn't lost any of his ability to communicate with everyone at once.

Shortly before lifting the roof off with his encore of 'Fit But You Know It', he said something that summed up the source of The Streets' genius. Fighting a losing battle with some fractious beer-monsters in the front row, he complained, 'Angry men really piss me off. I've spent my whole life dealing with 'em.' Skinner may be of the streets, but he's got the sense and the spirit to transcend them.


Kitty Empire and Lynsey Hanley

The GuardianTramp

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