Kanye West is at an enviable place in his career. Everyone knows who he is. He’s reached near iconic, almost mythic status. The problem is, everyone knows who Kanye West is, even if they don’t listen to his music. I’m fairly certain there are people I’m related to who are only familiar with him largely because he impregnated and proposed to a beautiful woman with a large, rich family, sextape, hard-working publicist, and contract with an unscrupulous cable TV network (in roughly that order). They likely also know him as an egotistical and crazy loudmouth, for reasons too long to detail here.
In sum, Mr. West’s celebrity has threatened to obscure and confuse his accomplishments. Luckily, his newest stage production, Yeezus, represents the history of Kanye West, according to Kanye West.
Stage production may not be the best term, but Yeezus is not a typical concert. Unless you want to consider it a prog-rock concert. Which it may be, in terms of elaborate structuring and an overwhelming amount of obvious symbolism. Also, it has a large mountain on stage. A sort of small-scale Matterhorn, which alternates as an iceberg and a volcano, depending on how it is video mapped, and if flash pots are going off.
Shot from the right angle (please see the photo here provided by West’s people) it was positively expressionistic. Otherwise ignore the rigging showing out the sides, or the crew members placing a box near the top for West to complete his summit, which he did, triumphantly, at points throughout.
Yeezus, the character Mr. West plays, a masked figure drawn out of obscurity by a group of cult-like robed women at the outset, reached a spotlight at the end of a long stage. Thus began the journey, which went through five distinct stages. They were easy to follow, listed on screen above the mountain: Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching, Finding. The songs that followed were not a chronology, but rather represented his career in retrospect. For instance, the highlight of the Fighting section was “New Slave,” the first single off West’s current Yeezus album, but in this context a reflection on his entry into the music business, and a struggle to maintain freedom from corporations that attempt to control artists.
Rising began with the phrase “pride always preludes the crash...the bigger the ego the harder the fall.” Did you catch those references? If so, please mark another two boxes on your Yeezus Biblical Allusion Scorecard. You already marked one for Yeezus, right? Keep it handy because more followed, when Yeezus came down from the top of the mountain, appearing shirtless to the prog rock sounds of King Crimson’s “20th Century Schizoid Man.”
This was “Power” and Yeezus had it, confirmed moments later during the Foreigner-sampling “Cold,” when a girl in the audience gleefully showed her breasts to Yeezus not once, but twice. Given the black mask, there was little reaction from Yeezus. But in any case Tony Montana was right, and a song or two later the cultish women from the beginning returned in nude body-suits. Yeezus was literally swarmed by women.
For obvious reasons “I Am a God” has been one of the more controversial tracks on Yeezus and at first the performance of it was expectedly problematic, with Yeezus’s harem kneeling down before him. It was a criticism-baiting moment, until the menagerie awkwardly lifted him into the air as he screamed. It was the first sign of things going wrong for the play’s ‘hero’, and when he performed “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” from Graduation, the singer finally started to project a little emotion, mask and all; the catwalk in the middle of the crowd -- despite the weight of the lyrics “To whom much is given, much is tested” -- began to raise, as Yeezus was increasingly insulated from the world around him.
After a long dramatic pause (Yeezus took arguably way too many over the course of the evening, sometimes leaning against the mount, sometimes reclining in mock exhaustion) he stopped to speak and connect for the first time, detailing that the next song, “Coldest Winter” was written after his mother died, describing a crisis of faith, and a life that was “spiraling.” Fake snow falls from the ceiling of the Oracle Center. Depending on your sympathies, it could be the most touching moment of the night.
I found it short lived because it segued into the Falling section, which if meant to be bad, succeeded. By then the metaphors and imagery were so in my face that I feared the opening lines, “Who will give me wings, I ask, wings of a dove?” would actually cue West, er, Yeezus donning angel wings and flying around the room on wires. Instead, a red-eyed yeti simply crouched on one side of the mountain, until Yeezus stared it down and it retreated. There was a storm on the stage and some truly awful guitar shredding on “Hold My Liquor,” and I basically started tuning out.
After staring down the yeti a second time and singing “Heartless,” it seemed like the sun was rising. Until then it had all been so rehearsed that when a mic suddenly crackled and Yeezus retreated back stage to fix the issue, all I could think was, “hey, we’re off our regularly scheduled programming, maybe something exciting will happen.”
But instead Yeezus returned to jump on the spring loaded part of the catwalk, triggering explosions and turning the mountain into a volcano. This was relatively restrained, compared to a few songs later, when the mountain cracked open for the Searching section, and a church procession of women emerged, bearing smoking thuribles, candles, the Virgin Mary, and motherfucking Jesus on the cross.
And Yeezus, now wearing a bulky trench and a white jeweled balaclava, was in pastor mode. Which he could do since he totally had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. Playing a single key on a controller lead to rapturous applause. (Never had a performer received so much applause for doing so little.) He paused to soak it in and repeated to the same effect. Twice, before leading into the celebratory and douche-shaming “Runaway.”
This lead to the wonkiest part of the night, with Yeezus on the pulpit running through a list of issues with misquotations and the media, which I won’t, for obvious reasons, attempt to summarize. I will say that at one point he asked people to put their hands in the air if they believe they could do anything, and if you are the kind of person who would have their hand up, you probably would have dug it.
The point is anything is possible through the power of prayer, and Yeezus prayed for his fiance. (Apparently she was at the show, or her mother, or Pharrell from N.E.R.D. In an embarrassing moment, the crowd got overly excited when they thought they recognized one of the three between sets.)
The audience went through some emotional transformatory Campbell-esque hero’s journey. (Made particularly intense for me by the guy two seats over trying to get his girl to not breakup with him during the entire show.)
We came to the final part, Finding, and the words “God arrives at the right time…” Yeezus performed “Harder” and the crowd was magically re-energized, probably in part by the lasers reflecting off his disco ball balaclava. Yeezus talked about how he feels like he got a second chance in life, and sings “Through the Wire,” the breakout song from The College Dropout. On cue…
And our Lord walked up to Yeezus, who exclaimed, “White Jesus!”
As if sensing something was amiss in this sudden display of humor, Jesus pulled off Yeezus’s mask to reveal that it was Kanye West all along. He went full circle, the nightmare was over, the trauma was over, etc.
Obviously they played “Jesus Walks” and a whole slew of jams. West went on a spiritual discovery, stripping off all the bullshit and pretense, returning to a simpler era. (You couldn’t see his face because it was covered with opulent jewels, get it? It was symbolism.)
Presumably his next tour will be back to basics. Just a flat stage and a mic. In a sense, he’s born again, and all it took was the power of prayer, love, and a good woman. May they live happily ever after.
But, if they divorce then future albums will probably be better. And then he’ll perform “Gold Digger” again.
Opener: Kendrick Lamar
Pictured as a bat hanging upside down from a streetlamp was probably the perfect visual for opener Kendrick Lamar, the latest champion of West Coast hip-hop, who borrows the extraterrestrial imagination of ATLiens era Outkast and Lil’ Weezy’s, uh, wheeze. Already established with two solid albums, Lamar recently leapt in profile for a single enormous, lung bursting verse on Big Sean’s “Control.”
As if the technicality alone wasn’t impressive, he also had the gall to mention that he’d like to kill all but about half a dozen other rappers, which upset more than that. On the Yeezus tour, Lamar also seems to be working on some myth building of his own, visualizing a Compton that’s as much a fantasy as the Oakland in “California Love,” that’s more Terence Malick than George Miller: horses riding down the city streets, living room floors practically covered with spent liquor bottles, slo-mo drumlines, foxy women hitting speed bags/traipsing down railroad tracks, and flashes of gun violence.
Backed up by a full band, Lamar was aggressive and energetic in a way that West only occasionally let himself reach, all the way from “Money Trees” off his exactly one year old album good kid, m.A.A.d city through to the end. Lamar seems to see himself as a successor to Tupac, particular in dread-filled terms, as an air of gun violence pervades a lot of his songs, augmented by the sound of shots. But midway through the set, after ripping ASAP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problem” he launched into the a signature track saying, “As long as I’m representing the West Coast, nobody -- nobody -- will kill the fuckin’ vibe.” We hope so.
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