I made a last-minute decision to catch the first night of Kanye West’s Yeezus tour stop in New York at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last night. The tickets, as with most mega star arena shows in 2013, were prohibitively expensive. But as the date grew closer, it began gnawing at me that I was going to pass on this, this guy, at this moment of peak power and controversy and insane ambition. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, as much as $60 bucks for top section seats seemed sort of crazy, seeing the Tweets roll in from home would sting more. So, I caved, crawling to Craigslist over the weekend. Oh man, it was so worth it. With the technical craft of a major Broadway show and a sense of control-freak perfectionism that’s vitally on par with West’s hot air balloon of hubris and self-regard, the show was one of the best pieces of pure entertainment pageantry I think I’ve ever seen. (If you’re on the fence about trying to get into the three remaining dates, and you have the means, you should probably do it.)
The photo at the top of the post was the semi-mysterious, but still effective view from the not-that-cheap top rows. From the floor, it looked more like this:
For those with the proper angle to benefit from the enormous LED screen, more like this..
So, even given the astronomical prices, no one in the room was left wondering where all that ticket money went. The production values of the show were insane and unique, probably the most distinctive and well-executed that I can remember for a recent tour. A giant mountain, a huge hydraulic lift to rise the front of the main stage at moments of fitting melodrama, a snowstorm from the ceiling that reminded me of the stop on Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals tour I saw as a teenager, a series of mirror-ball face masks glimmering over Ye’s hidden mug for most of the show, a troupe of blank, nude body-suited dancers who held sparking traffic flares or formed themselves a human ladyflesh throne for Kanye to sit in on-command. It was a grand spectacle of the sort that even the biggest rock bands failed to pull off at that genre’s peak.
On the first episode of author Bret Easton-Ellis’ podcast this week, Kanye talked a bit about his frustration that’s there’s no middle ground for middle-class people to access high-fashion in the same way that Apple lets people access consumer electronics at a steep, but not totally unattainable price. That sentiment informed the way the concert visuals were calibrated to still work for the furthest Barclays views. On some level, at least. Besides the huge sets, the oval view-screens, and the pyro, careful consideration was given to how a single figure would factor into the big negative space of the main stage triangle. It thought about story as conveyed with motion and timing. It was all sort of over the top and ridiculous if you analyzed it second to second. “Now there is a red-eyed spider monster waiting for Kanye on the side of the mountain! Look out Kanye!” But those weird broad strokes gave the show the feel of top-end opera company more than a Jay-Z concert, say.
What was missed at a distance, beyond the big storm cloud sky of the LED screen, were the brief flurries of signature Ye ranting, which you sensed in the moment were crazy and amazing and inexplicable, but were pretty impossible to suss out, in large part because they were being delivered from behind a be-jewelled death mask. The most epic, Nicola Tesla-checking one has already made it’s way online…
Kanye’s wild ego, his open embrace of every drop of pop idol adulation he receives, his demand for more of it, is what bugs people most about him. He has the gall to believe that he deserves everything he gets! That sort of dismissive stance towards his work seems crazy wrongheaded to me. Would he be a more interesting cultural figure if he went for the same sort of faux-humble modesty that his nemesis Taylor Swift attempts from the same vantage point? Who can really think that? Why would we want the people at the top of the entertainment industry to give us less than their biggest, craziest ideas? Why shouldn’t he believe that he can pull them off? In a shrunken music business who else has the clout to get shit like this done?
Kanye performed the show without the presence of any of his big-name collaborators. (He was just scared that the sheer star-wattage of Bon Iver would upstage him, probably.) As charismatic a guy as Kendrick Lamar, who played a 40-minute or so opening set with a heavy backing band, seemed small in comparison, even with a half-strength early arena crowd singing along to his hits. Lamar’s biggest strengths, his athletic flow and the strong narrative sense of his songs, were partially negated when blown up to this size. The things he’ll learn on this tour about big-event art direction, the up-scaling of imagery and emphasis will help him in his attempt to make another leap. Right now, Kanye’s is delivering on a much more elevated plane.
The set was heavy on the harsh, metallic Yeezus stuff as you’d expect, but it was hardly a case of an artist forcing fans to accept difficult new work, denying them comfier old hits. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, “Power”, and especially an extended, taunting version of “Runaway”, all set the room to fits of giddy mania. But, in context, the Yeezus songs worked as big-room smash hits much better than you might expect. Even the ickiest lines were shouted by thousands. As weird and complicated and troubling a song as “Blood on the Leaves” was turned into an absolute arena rock monster, complete with volcanic fireball pyro bursts. People who dismiss the album as abrasive to the point of being unlistenable are kidding themselves as to the appeal of the material.
The Jesus comes to Kanye moment, destined to be the first thing most people mention and the last thing they’ll forget about the show, was essentially a super elaborate throw-away gag. The mountain split, and a traditional church-painting Jesus emerged from a beam of light, the sight of which made Kanye finally shed the mirror ball Destro mask he’d worn for the first hour plus. (“White jesus,” he said, a joke with a fair amount of cultural bite.) And then, as “Jesus Walks” kicked in, he did. It was kinda dumb, kinda funny, kinda subversive, but given a place of real drama in the set, it worked. People point to Gaga as the natural successor to Madonna, but it might actually be Kanye. (A point made by a review in the NY Daily News this morning.) He gives more lip service to Michael Jackson, but in practice this was classic Like a Prayer-era stuff.
There’s a fatigue that surrounds Kanye in some parts of the media. Hasn’t he had enough success? Isn’t he big and crazy enough? Can’t he relax and appreciate what he’s gotten? It seems he really cannot. Right now, it feels like he’s going to keep going out to space for bigger ideas, more extravagance, to find ways to be an impactful musician in an environment where musicians are further and further devalued in the culture at large, and do it with more difficult sounds and sentiments all the time, whether it makes him seem foolish or pretentious or crazy or whatever. It can be off-putting and ridiculous, but its quite often totally thrilling. May his reach always exceed his grasp.
Send It Up
I Don’t Like
I Am a God
Can’t Tell Me Nothing
Hold My Liquor
I’m In It
Blood on the Leaves
Lost in the World
Through the Wire
Diamonds From Sierra Leone
All of the Lights