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At the sold-out Staples Center on Saturday night, the Yeezus Tour found Kanye West wearing a Dionysian theater’s-worth of masks that screamed and shrouded exactly what makes him so compelling. Enter the five phases of Yeezus: Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding. These definitions appeared in white block letters above a gigantic Space Mountain stage prop and cleaved West’s set into distinct phases.
It was Joseph Campbell‘s hero’s journey for those who love leather jogging pants.
The Greek chorus was supplied by a dozen models wrapped in sheer nylon, their faces obscured, but their breasts exposed. At various junctures in the two-hour plus performance, they trailed West like votaries, pretzel-twisted into orgiastic contortions, and hoisted him to the heavens.
Other cameos included a half-Sleestak, half-Yeti beast that skulked the ersatz silver mountain. His glowing eyes matched the color of West’s ruby-red high tops. Perhaps the biggest name that West wrangled for his revue was Jesus himself, who floated out in all white on the Staples Center catwalk, crowning West before the headliner’s performance of “Jesus Walks.”
To West’s credit, he was the most captivating figure in his menagerie. He may have touted the tenets of minimalism in the press circus that surrounded this June’s Yeezus album, but its live performance was syncretistic extravaganza. The spectacle’s influences included everything from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to Disney’s Matterhorn ride. You could see flecks of Star Wars and confetti falling from the sky. High fashion merged with musical theater, Mexican wrestling masks, Beauty and the Beast, and Michael Jackson circa Moonwalker. It was arena rock in Margiela for the post-Internet age. It’s what you pay for at a Kanye West concert and the production value was worth every dollar.
It would be largely worthless if West hadn’t matched his own vision to that of his Donda design team. The set list was meticulously constructed — the first four fifths adhering heavily to the hyper-emotive and fog-gray tones of 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus. From the first Daft Punk-produced bleeps of opening song, “On Sight,” West staggered out, muscles rippling, face hidden behind a bejeweled luchador mask. The crowd roared his more unprintable punchlines and performed the power clap.
In a soliloquy intended to inspire, West told the audience that he calls himself a God because “in a world run by brands and corporations … [that sort of confidence is needed] when you’re meeting with your boss or going for a jog.” He condemned the media, pronounced himself a creative genius, and compared himself to Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, 2Pac, Ralph Lauren, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. He declared Yeezus is “that sonic cocaine, that sonic espresso.” And he bellowed to the crowd that there was “NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT THIS,” shortly after his shirtless ascent of a fake Himalayan mountain — where he reached for an obese moon beaming on a big-screen projection, directly above the Lakers home floor.
If his proclamations sound absurd on a computer screen or talk show, they strike a bizarre thunder in person. West might be the most charismatic man in music. He understands the first rule of a successful cult leader — you have to cast yourself as god incarnate. But the demiurge of Yeezus isn’t restricted to the New Testament model, even though at one point, West reaffirmed that “of course, I’m a Christian.” Through his sundry masks, jaguar pounces, and savage, flailing, on-stage locomotion, he came off as both redeemer and raptor.
West is America’s monster. He’s one of our tragic heroes and most creative musicians — one capable of playing the vainglorious superman and fire-stealing villain in the same song. But at the moment when you thought it might descend off the precipice into sci-fi pseudo-mystical melodrama, West reminds you why it isn’t bragging when you can back it up.
There were innumerable highlights. You might have gravitated towards the final fifth, when West rattled off a perfunctory greatest hits litany that included “Through the Wire,” “Good Life,” “Flashing Lights,” “Jesus Walks,” “All of the Lights,” and “Stronger.” You might have been dazzled by the costumes and conceptual ambition. You might have been wowed by the sheer energy expended onstage.
But the most poignant part of the performance arrived during its most down-tempo ebb. Directly after the triumphal stomp of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” West paused to address the crowd.
“I dropped that song on Graduation and I felt on top of the world,” West explained. “Until I got off a plane in London one day and someone told me my mother had passed away. It suddenly felt like I had lost everything … my closest friend, my faith, my reason to create. A lot of people don’t know this, but I wrote this song for her.”
Then the icicle chords of “Coldest Winter” glumly boomed out of the speakers and West slumped to the edge of a cliff at the edge of the stage. The fake sky went dark and he sang in a numb and dire auto-tune tenor. He lay backwards, body slung supine on the rock, his arm outstretched into the abyss, croaking goodbyes over and over. It was startling and sad, a reminder that Kanye West, the man, remains more compelling than any conflation of monsters and myth.
In fact, West’s most brash act of confidence might be his selection of Kendrick Lamar to open on the Yeezus tour. Over the last year, Lamar has been rapping like it’s his explicit intent to upstage everyone on Earth. Thus far, he has almost unanimously succeeded.
If it were any other tour, the narrative would be about how Lamar embarrassed the headlining act. Instead, the ultimate compliment is that he more than held his own. Backed by a searing four-piece band and mini-movies that illustrated the plot of last year’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar delivered arguably the most impressive opening set Staples Center has seen.
He’s become as vivid and expressive of a live performer as West, waving his arms to convey a point, arching his spine, tilting his head back, rolling his eyes, and bounding across the floor like a puma. He’s sublimated and synthesized the eccentricity of Lil Wayne, the technical mastery of Eminem, and the musicality of Outkast. His band delivered bruising Black Sabbath licks, instead of the normal gorgonzola arena-rock that usually comprises most bands attempting to do live replays of rap.
Lamar declared himself “King Kendrick” and it was almost impossible to argue otherwise. He left to the coronation strains of “Compton” — a triumphant performance that could only be topped by West. The only question left was, “What’s a King to a God?”
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