Where: Downtown Brooklyn, New York
Venue: Barclays Center
On: 9:15 p.m. Off: 11:30 p.m.
Crowd: Less flashy than what the MSG
crowds will be. Still a lot of drop-
crotch pants, happening, though.
Spotted: Kim K, LiLo, Anna Wintour, Kris
Jenner. All in one row. Yes: Anna goes to
Brooklyn every 100 years.
Incredible Music Nerd Moment: Foreigner's
"Cold As Ice" vocal track as an intro to "Cold."
Better than the Glow In The Dark
tour? My boss thought so.
The show starts about fifteen minutes before he gets on stage. That's around the time the long, black curtain shrouding a giant structure gets yanked off, and there it stands in full view—a gothic, borderline comic monolith towering before us: Mount Yeezy. It was received with loud cheers. You know to expect it. You know what it suggests. It's serious about what performative theater is, and also, bombastic, hilarious, something nobody else would have the audacity to do, which is why you have to resign yourself to awe or laughter, and either one, out of sheer respect for the ambition of this enterprise:
Kanye West just built a motherfucking mountain over the Brooklyn Nets' court. Amazi—
And then the house lights black out. Opera pipes over the sound system, getting louder and louder as we get closer to the crescendo, as a cadre of robed figures (trim, obviously attractive ones) move onto the stage. A white spotlight blasts onto the front of the set like a divine light, and we hear His voice:
"I am not here right now. I am not home. Leave a message after this life. After I'm gone."
And then, like a bat out of hell, Kanye West shoots through the crowd of skin-suit wearing models, wearing a diamond-studded mask, and begins to blast through the first verse of "On Sight":
"Yeezy season approaching, fuck whatever y'all been hearing..."
The place goes nuts. The sound mix is perfect. For what stands to already be one of the most divisive rap albums ever released—as much as some Kanye fans can claim to despise Yeezus for the way it doesn't sound like a traditional "rap" album—this crowd knew every word of every song from every track on that album, and sang them, too.
As a studio record, Yeezus is a brash, dissonant album that's sonically and thematically an aggressive assault on its listeners: Kanye's talking about your spouse again, about your mouth again. In person, it becomes a congregants' service about the collective "you," who are against "us," anyone who isn't at the show that night.
Kanye's face didn't come near his mic during the opening bars of "New Slaves," and he didn't need it to. One of the most political rap songs in years makes for an odd singalong ("MY MOMMA WAS RAISED IN AN ERA WHEN/CLEAN WATER WAS ONLY SERVED TO THE FAIRER SKIN"), but nobody of color or gender blinks. Everyone goes with it. Nobody's laughing at the two white kids coming straight from work in suits in the pit, wilding harder than anyone else at this song, because the only thing that matters at that moment is Why aren't you having as great a time as them? Kanye goes from a snarl to a scream when he gets to that part about your Hamptons spouse, at that moment, less Chuck D, more Tom Araya.
The opening notes of "Send It Up" blare through the crowd like a siren, and starting the vocals without King Louie's verse, Kanye's lit from below in resplendent light that shimmers and makes him appear almost translucent. He won't let the crowd get the better of his thesis statement, though: "Yeezus just ROSE AGAIN!" It kills, but the crowd does their job on Beenie Man's outro:
Don't live like people do...
Most of these people will never have a better dancehall moment in concert, until the Fuzzy Jones sample from "Mercy" sounds off next, another siren. Kanye moves to the front of the stage, like the tip of a cliff, and launches straight into his verse as the stage rumbles up and down, a little. It's hard to tell if it's controlled by hydraulic lifts, the man standing on the edge of it jumping up and down, or if it has simply surrendered to the bass notes, and for a moment, you're worried 'Ye might be launched off of it into some galactic dunk contest, but more likely, a broken leg from a spill into the pit.
The Yeezus tour is equal parts Jesus Christ Superstar, Klaus Kinski, Spalding Gray, and call-and-response chruch.
Instead, Kanye runs to the back of the stage, materializing at the peak of his structure, shirt off, mask on, chain on, as the claps and keys from the "Power" remix sound off. But he's only at its peak for that one sermon, as he runs back down to the very front of the stage now—the blips opening "Cold" starting to flit through the end of "Power"—back to that cliff's edge at the front of the stage.
He starts in: "CAN A YOUNG NIGGA GET MONEY ANYMORE?" The cliff's edge is slamming up and down now, four, five feet in the air, a piece of rock about to separate from the earth from sheer force of bass, at the same time, a geologic low rider bounce. You can almost hear Kanye smile as he raps about falling in love with Kim (seated stage left) over Khaled's bass-heavy track, right before the line that gets another round of screams and smiles and laughs: "Lucky I ain't have Jay DROP HIM FROM THE TEAM!"
It's totally indulged, gossipy fun, and there might not be a more thrilling place to hear it, given that he's rapping it, grinning it as he lords over the court of the team in question where Kris Humphries no longer plays, which Jay no longer has any part of. It's perfectly stacked against the opening notes of his "I Don't Like (Remix)," as he gives the crowd a chance to fill in for Pusha-T's bars, no sound, no beat:
Fraud niggas/y'all niggas/that's that shit I don't like
Your shit/make believe/rapping 'bout my own life
And it goes without saying, but that "WHOO!" is a far different sound with 14,000 people helping make it. It's hearing that song—hearing that insane staccato Young Chop beat—for the first time all over again. A stadium of people singing the chorus to "I Don't Like" is probably illegal in certain parts of America, or feels like it should be. It's that much fun, the kind that borders on sedition. Seven songs into Kanye's theater of the absurd, and riot cops waiting for everyone outside wouldn't be shocking.
By the end of "Black Skinheads," Kanye is laying on his back, and his body-suited cadre of women return to the stage. For "I Am A God," the trim, slender women pick him up on their shoulders, as he sits there, rapping about a conversation where Jesus greeted him with "What up Yeezus?" like he's sitting in a chaise lounge, and of course, he gives the line they want to them: "HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!" The same treatment is applied to all the most absurd lines on Yeezus, the one about sweet-n-sour sauce, the one about "swaghili." Yeezus may be his most gothic album, but it's also Kanye's funniest, and the unspoken common knowledge are its hilarious punchlines. It's an odd thing, for everyone to tell the same joke at the same time, but when you're wrapped up in the moment that is a stadium of people screaming about croissants, you tend to let go of the weirdness of it all.
The dancers crawl away on their hands and knees, and the tip of the stage rises to form a peak, a ledge Kanye stands on as he scowls through "Can't Tell Me Nothing," an angrier version of the song than what was recorded, one key word change in the second verse: "This is my life, nigga, you decide yours." It seems tiny. It's just a word. But it's a loaded word, a key word, a difference between that and the original line ("homie, you decide yours") that explemplifies the way he sings it now: There's no remorse, no dwelling, and it's less an instruction than a borderline dicatorial mandate.
Finally, for the first time, Kanye softens, explaining to the crowd that "Coldest Winter" is a song he wrote after his mother passed away. He sings the song laying on the peak, staring at the fake snow illusion, appearing to teeter on disasterously flopping off the ledge off the stage. As he does this, a Yeti starts stalking around Mt. Yeezy, it's red eyes glowing in the background. It's an obvious allusion to demons, less menacing theatric than Matterhorn Bobsled set piece, but a fun one that gives Kanye someone to play off of when, for "Hold My Liquor,"he scales Mt. Yeezy again, and raps "Okay, I smashed your Corrola" face-to-face with the Kanyeti, eyes glowing red, obviously upset that its car is still in the shop.
That's the image he wants you to have: Kanye West, sitting on a throne of beautiful, naked, faceless white women.
Unlike King Louie's part on "Send It Up," as his dancers writhe around on the floor in a faux orgy, Kanye lets Assassin's dancehall verse bang through. There were a lot of people who wanted to try their best patois last night, and cutting such a big album highlight would've been cruel. He lets the crowd take theirs, and belts out Justin Vernon's verse in heavy autotune, more than passable, going right into "Guilt Trip." The dancers form a throne on the floor that he sits on, and note: When you hear them describes as wearing "flesh-colored body suits," that's less than accurate. It's "white-flesh colored bodysuits," and they're practically naked. That's the image he wants you to have: Kanye West, sitting on a throne of beautiful, naked, faceless white women. Aside from Jesus—who'll come out later—it's the least subtle image of the night in terms of visual language, but its appearance is almost inconspicuous as it happens. Kanye ends the song singing Kid Cudi's throaty outro vocals a capella—"if you love me so much, then why're you letting me go?"—a submission for you to consider: this is the most vulnerable and heartbreaking of all the Yeezus tracks. "Heartless" is an obvious and seamless next step. Kanye, long removed from the sadness that produced 808s—a miserable separation, his mother's death—can bring some levity to it, and just as is the case with that album, it's more fun with other people who love it, too.
Finally, the first flash of color on the stage: The spotlight turns red. Kanye asks New York if they want "Blood on the Leaves," twice, and when he gets the response he's looking for, he sighs—"God bless you"—and the piano notes begin to slink in as Kanye sings the opening verse. Everyone knows what's about to happen: It's the song that makes people want to do this, or something like it, one of the best beat drops in the last decade of rap. When it hits, the place goes completely insane: Fire shoots out of Mount Yeezus as it starts to literally break apart under a projection of fire and lava. Anybody who hadn't jumped up at that point finally gave in. The epically cluttered bounce of "Lost In The World" got muddled in the moments after "Blood on the Leaves," as Kanye's still catching his breath a little, but there are more theatrics to distract: A procession of his models, with a priest, this time, carrying a cross and leaving in their wake the stand.
You know the one. Everyone else does, too. He hits the key, that E note once. Then, two more times. And stands over it, waiting for something. He gets the screams he wants, and then, hits the E sharp again, and lurches to the front of the stage, staggering, like the power of the note sent him there. It's melodramatic witholding, Kanye's comic timing in full effect. He walks back to the machine, and thunks down on the D note, to wild cheers. He's got everyone, now, and moves forward with "Runaway" which has now become the platform from which he starts a lot of his mid-show speeches. This one didn't disappoint.
"Send It Up"
"I Don't Like (Remix)"
"I Am A God"
"Can't Tell Me Nothing"
"Hold My Liquor"
"I'm In It"
"Blood on the Leaves"
"Lost in the World"
"Runaway" > "Street Lights"
"Through The Wire"
"Diamonds From Sierra Leone"
"All of the Lights"
The final act of the show is Kanye in hitmaker mode: "Stronger" is a fun release from the tension of his monologue, a mindless jam that gets everyone singing about Klondikes. But he's still building: "I feel like I'm on a second life," he mumbles, before the glory of Chaka Khan's sped-up sample comes blasting through on "Through The Wire." He only serves up the first verse though, because there's more, and he knows you love the old shit. Out comes Jesus, who is greeted by Kanye—finally, hold a moment in his post-"Runaway" speech, taking his mask off for the first time in the show—in the only way Jesus could possibly be greeted here:
"Hey, white Jesus."
White Jesus blesses Kanye, who goes from there into the entirety of "Jesus Walks." It's maybe the most telling moment, to see Kanye breeze through a song that used to be the hallmark indicator of what made him controversial: He's gone from singing about not having Jesus on the radio to having conversations with Jesus in a stadium (and addressing him the way one would, say, your local bodgega guy). "Diamonds" and "Flashing Lights" get ripped through, and "All of the Lights" is an explosive climax. You think you're done, until Kanye drags out the end of the song, urging the bass to roll on from his support musicians, mumble-singing: "Turn off the lights in here baby..."
The energy starts to drag, for a thirty seconds, a minute. You're not sure where he's going with this, the bass fuzzing out, Kanye's moaning, like he got hit by a car, on the floor, hunched over, and this is going on two minutes, until, without any warning: "LIKE WE ALWAYS DO AT THIS TIME!"
Bang. Straight out of the AC/DC playbook, right on cue, the stage lights up with more fireworks as "Good Life" blasts through. Kanye's making the rounds below the stage, high-fiving the audience, rapping with them, smiling, grinning, in fact. Before you realize it, "Bound 2" ends, and Kanye's at the end of the stage behind his procession of body-suited women, they're all staring at Jesus on the top of Mt. Kanye, the sample from "On Sight" on repeat, Yeezus's thesis statement—"Oh, he'll give us what we need/it may not be what we waaaaaant"—rolling on. Kanye hands his mic to the audience (someone from the audience actually has that mic right now), and he hops off the stage, just a guy, a mortal, walking backstage to go change, and see his wife and kid as soon as he can. The transformation—from rapper, to guy who climbs mountain and faces off with Yetis and Jesus and who talks a bunch of shit about Nikola Tesla for ten minutes in the middle of his show, to infallable rock star, to just another guy (who thinks he's a genius)—is complete.
And you're all the better for it.
When Kanye goes off, it's a funny thing, it's the first moment of dispersement in the show. Some people are enraptured, standing the entire time. Some people sit down, or go to the bathroom. Some people just laugh, and others get pissy: We're at a concert, not a lecture. That kind of thing. But it's hard to argue with Kanye when he says, as he did last night:
"Every celebrity is so goddamn scared of losing everything, that they won't ever say NOTHING to you! And y'all see that shit too!"
He's right. Jay Z played the same venue the week it opened, for a week straight, and the most inflammatory thing the self-anointed Brooklyn's Finest told anyone was that the New York Times were hating because they correctly noted the fact that he only owned a microscopic percentage of the Nets. We should ask more of our entertainers, but we don't, mostly because it's easier that way—for them, and for us. Homogeny doesn't fuck up anyone's money. But when Kanye West delivers—and when he delivers in the middle of a show that is hit after hit after hit, and each one bangs, and exemplifies a dedication to stage craft and performance that's a rarer and rarer commodity when artists can just sell out venues on name, play some songs you heard on the radio, collect a check, and go home? He should be more than allowed that, he should be encouraged, small-minded impatience or cynicism about it be damned.
The Yeezus tour is equal parts Jesus Christ Superstar, Klaus Kinski, Spalding Gray, and call-and-response chruch. Even if you were to set all of the religion iconography aside, it'd still be all of those things, and more. After all, when was the last time you saw someone scale a mountain during their act? Or perform entire set pieces while lying on their back? Or sitting on a throne made up of essentially naked women? Or while talking to Jesus?
It'd be hyperbole to call the Yeezus tour a religious experience, sure. But it's exactly what the rapture of a great concert should be: Raw energy of live music, where any theatrics only serve to supplement (and not overwelm) it. And that's what this show is. In other words: Fucking incredible.