I wasn't surprised to read Kanye West's Yeezus tour stop in Kansas City drew only a fraction of the Sprint Center's capacity. Though he is arguably the world's biggest pop star, he's a polarizing one. I also wasn't surprised at the headlines that followed: "He's in trouble!" "tour woes continue" "Is Kanye West losing it?"
There are no fewer than hundreds of thousands of articles — not to mention comments from thumb-typing social media critics — casually examining what West "means", from his stage banter to his lyrics to what he's wearing to his reaction to something said about him on late night television. Jimmy Kimmel literally infantilized his comments made in an interview with the BBC by making children read West's responses. In the interview, West said, "Rap is the new rock and roll. We the rock stars, and I’m the biggest of all of them." He's right. Rap is the dominant cultural force in pop culture. Kanye West is the leading figure in that world. Anyone who disagrees hasn't been paying attention. West responded on Twitter — and on Kimmel's show — but the Internet called it a "rant," a typical go-to invective that nowadays is shorthand for "a crazy thing someone said because they're crazy." (There are more than 16 million Google search results for "Kanye West rant".) Cultural critic Ayesha A. Siddiqi rightfully accused Kimmel and others for embracing mainstream America's embedded racism that attempts to limit black artists: "one thing White America can't abide is a poc who takes themselves seriously, worse, a creative black man who won't be excessively humble."
He invaded white America with a corny, soap opera video for "Bound 2," was immediately made fun of when it debuted on Ellen, of all venues, then explained he wanted it to look as phony as possible: "I wanted to take white trash T-shirts and make it into a video." The mainstream wasn't offended because they already made their mind up that West is crazy, or ignorant, and his latest video confirmed their opinion — and they're left out of being in on his joke, because they are the joke.
So obviously, on the heels of a dismissive press rampage while promoting a frightening follow-up to one of the best albums of the decade, now is no better time to launch a national headlining arena tour that looks like Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, includes a Catholic mass, a four-act biblical redemption story, nude bodysuit disciple-models, and a one-on-one moment with Jesus.
West's latest album, Yeezus, is aggressive, volatile and resembles nothing else on rap radio. Its best chance for a radio hit is called "Black Skinhead." Its stark album art features just a blank CD inside a clear CD case with a small red sticker. Consider 2010's masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in contrast: after releasing three albums (College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation) that chronicle his inevitable rise to hip-hop's throne (alongside Jay Z), and an offbeat electronic-pop influenced album (808s & Heartbreaks), West set out to prove he could make the massive hip-hop album that transcends the genre, and pop music, into an enduring, universally acclaimed classic. And he did. He won. Fantasy collides art, excess, fashion, sex, death and a gorgeous musical canvas creating a definitive maximalist work.
He has the world's attention. He literally claimed hip-hop's throne. How does he follow that? Yeezus strips away the grand exterior and bares an uncomfortable American nightmare, with grinding industrial-influenced tracks and disturbing imagery, whether it's samples from "Strange Fruit" warped into a profanely selfish melodrama ("Blood on the Leaves"), or an aggressively sexual track with the line "put my fist in her like a civil rights sign" ("I'm In It"). West rejects the slick, safe world of pop and changes the rules.
West brought this persona — the gloriously blasphemous Yeezus creation — to the New Orleans Arena Dec. 5. Following Kendrick Lamar's opening performance, stagehands removed massive black drapes that revealed a white, two-story mountain-like iceberg, with a long catwalk shard extending into the audience. Ambient synth pulses and bass bumps filled the arena like a lurking John Carpenter score.
A large oval screen flashed "Fighting" with a definition and a voice that read along. "Fighting" marked the concert's first movement (followed by "Rising," "Falling," "Searching" and "Finding").
A dozen flesh bodysuit models, dressed in white acolyte robes, led a procession as West exploded onstage for Yeezus album opener "On Sight." West wore a gold, luchadore-esque mask with gold fringe on its edges. It was the first of several masks he wore throughout, including a black sequined mask and one that resembled a disco ball, all designed by Maison Martin Margiela. West raced through other Yeezus tracks "New Slaves" and "Send It Up" before a crowd-erupting sprint through his verse on last year's "Mercy."
"Rising" concluded with West performing on the catwalk, which rose at an angle during "Can't Tell Me Nothing," after which he collapsed on his back on the catwalk's peak for "Coldest Winter" as fake snow flurries fell from the rafters and the screen broadcast snowy static. West spoke to the audience for the first time, telling them he wrote the song after the death of his mother Donda.
In "Falling," West performed his most self-deprecating, soul-bearing tracks of the night — but not until a red-eyed wolf-creature crawled on stage up to the peak where West stood, seemingly haunting the stage as if it was a dark shadow of himself. It crawled up the mountain and watched West with his disciple-models' bodies writhing to his sexually frank "I'm In It" followed by "Heartless" and "Blood on the Leaves," which West, draped only in red light, stopped to let the arena sing its opening verse a capella.
The mountain erupted, spewing video-lava and pyrotechnics, which cooled before the "Searching" segment, during which the mountain broke open to allow a mass procession, led by the model-disciples carrying a Virgin Mary figure and swinging frankincense, which concluded with a teasing "Runaway" and a spectacular laser show for "Stronger."
Then Jesus appeared. For "Finding," West met Jesus — Yeezus met Jeezus — at center stage, and West finally removed his mask, before an encore barrage of "Jesus Walks," "All of the Lights" and a closing "Bound 2," which concluded as Jesus appeared at the top of the mountain, arms outstretched, with a bowing West and his disciples below.
The lights in the arena unceremoniously flipped on and the crowd filed out. Faces leaving the floor looked either offended or bewildered, or maybe just tired (the show started at 7:15 p.m. and wrapped at 11:15 p.m.).
West didn't ignore his headlines. In the middle of the show, West delivered one of his sermons, a recurring, stream of consciousness feature in the Yeezus tour, that amounts to a 10-minute, partially auto-tuned monologue. In some cities, he discussed The Hunger Games or classism — whatever happens to be on his mind. At the arena, it was more sermon-like. He expressed his dual absolutes: I don't hurt anyone, but if you try to hurt me I will stop you; If I get in so much trouble for telling the truth, then what are they telling you?
With a show dripping in religious iconography that is begging to offend, West doesn't fear or deny being provocative or controversial or pretentious. It's what has propelled him to fame. In his sermon, he compared his critics to slave masters, who would beat the biggest, strongest slave to keep the others quiet. Here, West is the biggest and strongest, and we are the others, and he suggested if we weren't so quiet, "we could change everything."