Hip-hop wunderkind Kanye West doesn't have the best track record as a live-festival attraction: most of his fans remember an ill-planned performance at Bonnaroo in which he emerged hours late, performing a lighting-show-reliant set as the sun came up to a bitter, rapidly-emptying corral of fans. So, the notoriously fickle performer's festival-closing set at this year's Coachella festival in Indio, CA, was under a fairly intense microscope, since another major screw-up in such a high-profile environment would cement his reputation as difficult and unreliable.
Thankfully, that was far from the case. Starting just 15 minutes after his scheduled 10:30 start time (the blame for which rests squarely on other acts earlier in the day), West delivered a grandiose, theatrical performance destined to be remembered as one of the great hip-hop sets of all time – and, if he decides to tour the massive production, yet another monster smash to add to his already loaded, lauded collection.
Every moment of the carefully-choreographed set was larger than life, from the ancient-Greek-style bas relief that towered behind him to the gorgeous, lithe ballet dancers that writhed behind him throughout the set (in the audience, comparisons to “Black Swan” were prevalent, and correct), to Kanye's entrance itself, which had him rising above the audience via an enormous crane that swung him over nearly the entirety of the main stage's gigantic swath of real estate while blasting through “Dark Fantasy”. The high-intensity start was followed by a run-through of nearly all of West's hits (“Stronger,” “Gold Digger,” “Through The Wire”) divided into a cinematic, three-part arc that was mostly special-guest free and hit surprising emotional resonance mid-set, when West declared his Coachella performance the most important to him since his mother's unexpected death in 2007. The heft of that statement carried through the performance's end, when West nearly teared up during the poignant “Hey, Mama.”
West's strength felt needed on a day that was oddly flat in the afternoon before slightly picking up steam after dark; other than a solid, stoned main-stage set from “Black and Yellow” rapper Wiz Khalifa, not much resonated with the sold-out (if exceedingly tired) crowd. A much-hyped reunion of Canadian rockers Death From Above 1979 turned out to be more noisy than worth making noise about, and LA's cute Best Coast were just that, no more. Even the National – the moody, dark rockers who seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough – had a hard time connecting, with many fans sitting or sleeping rather than appearing engaged.
Standing above the fray in the evening were veterans Duran Duran, out to re-prove their hipness after years of being a state-fair mainstay, and Chromeo, a Palestinian/Israeli dance-pop duo who are Coachella veterans. Both delivered different versions of 1980s-style, synth-heavy, interaction-encouraged pop (though only one actually helped invent the genre), and both featured surprised guests, with Scissor Scissors singer Ana Matronic helping out Simon LeBon & co., and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig playing some smooth, smooth sax with Chromeo.
The Strokes also drew a monstrous crowd to watch the New York band continue the jaded throes of their comeback, while indie songstress PJ Harvey attracted considerably less fans to a drab, if well-intentioned set that found her playing everything from auto-harp to acoustic guitar.
Without West, though, the day would have been a wash: as it stood, it was a major coming-out moment for a performer who's already had many – though, in this case, even the harsh light of day would likely not have been able to slow him down.