To begin, there was a mountain. But you probably already knew that. Still, it was the only thing I was aware of going into it. If you use the internet and have a pulse, it’s been pretty hard to avoid Kanye West-related news recently. And by recently I mean for the better part of the past decade. Naturally things reached a freakish fervor when he dropped Yeezus on the world with a lack of ceremony fitting the raw beatscape and nightmarish imagery it contains. Things went real apocalyptic when tour dates were announced. The tour was promoted as Kanye’s first solo tour in five years. The last one was the Glow In The Dark Tour for the critically undervalued 808s and Heartbreak (2008), the undeniable black sheep of West’s prolific output. I regrettably missed those performances and abstained from the Watch The Throne tour a few years later. Somewhere along the way in the mid-2000s, while I was still in high school, West was supposed to play a show in Gilford, NH which he cancelled because, well, it was in New Hampshire. Nobody was terribly surprised.
Suffice it to say, I have waited a long time to see Kanye West in concert. At present, even the most reclusive, secretive artists within the popular indie sphere (Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Godspeed You Black Emperor, etc.) have out-toured Mr. West. Yet, despite his five solo albums in nine years, a slew of guest verse and production credits and an impossibly busy itinerary that somehow makes time for Harvard and Ellen Degeneres, Kanye emphasizes quality over quantity. The Yeezus tour was no exception. By comparison to, say, the recently announced Arcade Fire tour that begins next spring, the Yeezus tour is relatively brief. It was made even more succinct by regular postponements and cancellations due to malfunctioning production equipment. The stage setup included the aforementioned mountain, which was sleekly minimalist, drawing on Kanye’s continued fascination with Japanese design, a triangular mini stage whose nose rose up into air the like a carnival ride, an enormous LCD screen that projected a mix of live footage and arty visuals, myriad lasers, and plenty of pyrotechnics. Before I even laid eyes on this entertainment behemoth, I already understood Kanye’s sense of perfectionism and knew he wasn’t the type to do things in half measures.
Yet the stage itself was only part of the experience. Throughout the two hour, 20+ song set, Kanye wove a startlingly surreal narrative that blended Western religion with Eastern mythology. Highlights include an Uncle Boonmee-type beast with glowing red eyes that looked especially creepy from the back row of section 312, costumed dancers, and a Jesus look-a-like that definitely raised a few eyebrows. Meanwhile, Mr. West donned an array of bejeweled masks possibly as a tribute to his ongoing affection for and collaboration with electro-pioneers Daft Punk or perhaps as some kind of oblique statement on identity in artistry. Either way, between the mountain’s inevitable eruption (assisted by bursts of real fire), the performance’s numerous references to resurrection and Kanye’s ferocious energy things were expectedly and yet unpredictably weird.
Before the concert even began, I was struck by how young the audience was. If Kanye had made this an 18+ event (and I’m glad he didn’t) there might have been far fewer attendees. Concertgoers of all ages were decked out in threads inspired by Kanye’s recent look: plenty of black leather, oversized t-shirts, and uncomfortably tight pants. Kanye is a phenomenon in this regard: not only is his music the most extravagant and experimental on the pop charts, he is also a fashion and design icon. He is restless in his pursuit of new looks. Remember the nerd chic look he perfected around the time of 808s and how it spread like wildfire throughout the NBA? While the high-end fashion via 70s punk look has definitely had its impact on Kanye’s fans, I imagine he’s already moving past it into some region that fuses a grasp of design history with a brash attitude about what is and isn’t currently “in”.
This is perhaps the greatest thing about Kanye West. During an impassioned rant he demanded to know, “What does it take to prove that you’re creative?” Later on he would admit loving to “talk my shit.” The bottom line? Kanye courts his haters. This has been going on since the start of his career. He revels in proving everyone wrong. “Soon as they like you/make em unlike you,” he seethes in “I Am A God.” While this outlook may overemphasize the value of being “liked” in the digital age, as an artist Kanye works relentlessly to realize his vision and has been undeniably successful, both critically and commercially, in his endeavors. In doing so he continues to achieve what all creative people should be striving for: the ability to trust yourself and say “yes and…” You do not get to perform at the top of a constructed mountain for 20,000 adoring fans without saying “yes and…” to your impulses and your ambitions. While ambition is not always enough, it’s a good start. What sets Kanye even further apart is that he has the resources to bring his ideas to life. There were times during the night where I felt like I was seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time all over again. At every turn there was a sense of studious irreverence for what came before and the undeniable feeling that nothing will be the same after.
A protege of Mr. West, young Kendrick Lamar opened the show with a high energy performance that featured live musicians and beautifully shot scenes of life in his hometown of Compton. A fitting tourmate, Kendrick also regularly expresses a reactionary position similar to Kanye. After dropping the critically lauded, West-coast gangsta rap indebted Good Kid M.A.A.D. City last year, Kendrick jumped on Big Sean’s “Control” and used his guest verse as a bully pulpit to express his disappointment in the compartmentalized, clique rap that has surged in popularity since the turn of the millenium. Kendrick’s indictment, by name, of rap’s biggest stars, ignited the hip-hop world in self-aggrandizing rage. An innumerable number of “response” tracks were released upon the internet community and seemingly everyone, from college hipster know-it-alls to bemused hip-hop outsiders, got a chance to chime in. Kendrick lacks the same kind of paranoia-fueled vigor that’s lead to some of Kanye’s more infamous public statements. Still, he raps extensively and vividly about his upbringing in Compton, one of the poorest and most violent neighbors in the greater Los Angeles area. His lyrics make regular reference to the emotional atmosphere of the area and the various ways he and the people he knows have coped with it. Toward the end of his set at the Garden, Kendrick explained to his audience that, as he sees it, there were only two predestined outcomes for him: this stage or death. While many rappers have espoused on the paths out of poverty (the trifecta of drugs, sports and music), the plain terms Kendrick used to spell out the stakes of his life, coupled with the raw intimacy of his music, even when it banged and boomed, created a sense of understanding that stretched from the floor to the rafters. Even while some of his material failed to translate in an arena setting, he succeeded in being more emotionally available and personal than Kanye whose his decadent, self-created apotheosis and literal ascension to the stratosphere of pop culture royalty has put greater distance between himself and his fans with each new fashion line and big name collaboration.
Yet, what separates Kanye from, say, his musical and financial mentor Jay Z is his willingness to throw everything away and start from scratch. Especially if he isn’t getting the results he wants. This week, Kanye announced that he will be breaking with Nike in order to partner with Adidas who’ve agreed to pay royalties on the sneakers he designs. While this may provoke some negative reactions about the rich getting richer, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that Nike made $25 billion last year alone and that demanding compensation for one’s art all too often gets mislabeled as greedy. Furthermore, making peace with a company that may be trying to undermine you isn’t healthy either. Case in point: Jay Z’s deal with Barney’s, the luxury retail store who’s been accused of racial profiling. Jay has handled the situation as a businessman: he’s made several non-committal statements and will be pursuing the partnership despite what it represents to the victims. Kanye, on the other hand, handled his relationship with Nike as an artist: by publicly hitting the self-destruct button, he preempted backlash and turned the entire situation into an act of self-promotion. Kanye comes away looking like an uncompromising artist. Meanwhile, Jay Z looks like an opportunist who looks more at home in Park Slope than Bed-Stuy.
I don’t see too many shows in large venues. I’m bad with crowds, worse with heights and am easily disappointed when I’ve been encouraged to raise my expectations. The last concert I saw that rivaled Kanye West was Radiohead at the Comcast Center in Mansfield. I was on the lawn and anyone who’s been to a show there knows that the lawn is a dark carnival. It was difficult to tell where the pleasure of the music ended and the recreational drug use began. An audience can ruin a good performance but the unbridled enthusiasm of Kanye West’s fans favored the reverent over the rowdy. And while the post-show crowd had its share of white bros screaming “nigga” in the street and older dudes hitting on teenage girls on the subway, it was harder to be disgusted than usual. It felt more like watching someone roll around in the mud after being baptized. I was just confused. How do you so casually step back into reality after being taken so deeply into someone’s imagination? As the spectator, how do we return the favor? Admiration and admission are only part of the process. Veiled within the heart of the performance is the real responsibility of the participant: to be inspired. Self-idolatry aside, Kanye’s eulogy on creativity summarized this cycle perfectly. Artists create first and foremost to fulfill a need within themselves. What follows after is the performance element where an audience gets to interact with the artwork and take from it what they will. It is the selfless act of the artist as they do not get to dictate the terms of engagement. While Kanye may have greater control than most at harnessing the attention and energy of his audience, we are still free to interact with his work however we want. This means that some will exploit the misogynistic or racial elements of his music for their own gain. But it also means that others will gain confidence in their stories and their creations. As an American art form, hip-hop excels at disseminating the message that it isn’t your position within society that stops you from being successful. By saying “yes and…” to his dreams, Kanye arrived at the top of a mountain before an arena of worshippers. Where will your dreams take you?