Kanye West turned 39 this summer and hasn’t lost his ability to control the Youth’s ever-shifting attention. More so than any of his similarly aged peers. How?
In February Kanye pulled the rare two flexes with one stunt, premiering his seventh solo album, The Life of Pablo, alongside the third run of his clothing line Yeezy Season, in a packed house at the most storied arena in the nation. This week, for two nights, he returned to the scene of the debut for the latest stop on his Saint Pablo tour. I’ve seen both of Kanye’s previous major solo tours—for lack of a better term to describe the live movies that were Glow in the Dark and Yeezus—but there’s still nothing that can quite prepare you. Seeing Kanye at the Garden felt brand new.
Even with the central conceit of the show “spoiled” by social media from earlier dates, the lack of theatrics was still shocking. Around this time three years ago, Yeezy performed in a diamond-encrusted Margiela mask in front of a mountain of biblical proportion surrounded by priestesses in nude bodysuits; there were cameos from a red-eyed demon and Jesus Christ. Glow in the Dark depicted an even tighter narrative, with 'Ye lost in space, interacting with a talking spaceship. And yet, for 75% of last night’s show, his presence was no more commanding than when he simply stood at a laptop in the same arena seven months ago, pressed play and danced.
But of course, nothing Kanye does is regular. Saint Pablo’s aesthetic is very advanced, with a whole panel of ceiling lights and thick smoke that renders an Instagram filter IRL. And in lieu of a grounded spaceship or a mountain, the only setpiece is an oscillating stage, a one-man hovercraft straight out of a Ridley Scott schematic that hangs twelve feet in the air. The tour’s setup most resembled the Watch the Throne tour with Jay Z, wherein each rapper took turns performing on a cube positioned in the center of the floor. Five years later, the floating stage is a the natural technological progression. Riskier, flashier, and almost uncomfortably cutting-edge, like everything Kanye does. But, much like the clothing line that launched after Yeezus tour, the quality is understated, the execution was aggressively minimal while also creating a pure and outsized vibe. Here was 'Ye, so often wrongly vilified as being a narcissistic egomaniac, removing himself from the spotlight and pressing the 'Ye button on the fan experience. At various times throughout the show, you can’t see him no matter where your seat is; The Artist is intentionally obscured by either smoke and/or light design decisions that cloaked him in darkness, all the better to illuminate the floor’s Duracell powered hypebeasts—the storied mosh pits of Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo tour with a blockbuster budget.
Did Yeezy observe the environment his protégé manifested and pinpoint that as what the kids want? Or, in the wake of finally achieving creative validation in the fashion world, are his demons finally exorcised, like when Jesus removed 'Ye's mask during Yeezus? With so much fulfillment in his life now, maybe this show isn’t so much a tour than it is a nationwide celebration.
The setlist for his first night at the Garden, especially the first seven songs, was a high-octane sequence of relentless jams; slower, moodier anthems from both the new album (“Real Friends,” “FML,” and “30 Hours”) were cut. And when he did dip into the non-turnt well, the presentation was re-contextualized—the self-deprecator’s anthem “Runaway” was introed with “If you came here with someone you love, put your hands up.” Also absent was any semblance of a “stream of consciousness” monologue, usually a Yeezy mid-show staple that always halts the momentum. Short of 'Ye taking a breather or reconfiguring the light setup, his Yeezy boot stayed firmly on the gas pedal. At times he went beyond the usual trope of dropping the beat to let the crowd rap a bar and entrusted them to fill in dam near entire verses. At one point he even let Jay Z’s verse on “Niggas in Paris” play straight through instead of just skipping to “Can we get married at the mallll?” The intensive focus on the fan turn-up also recalled the WTT tour, where you’ll remember he and Jay experimented with fan interaction by encoring “Paris” as many as twelve times in a row. In addition to sourcing inspiration from Travi$, it seems Yeezy also drew from his time on the road with Big Brother (known for commanding his crowds simply by himself on a stage, armed with a never-ending bag of hits and not much else), streamlining his show of outsized theatrics and cutting for brevity. The show clocked in around 90 minutes; it’s the shortest show Kanye’s put on in years.
The eponymous Saint Pablo descended from the heavens, not to posture, boast or commiserate but instead to commune with his disciples solely through the music. The message: jubilation and triumph. Leaning out as far as his harness would allow, at times pulling his weight against it like a leashed animal, Yeezy’s demeanor was that of unrestrained energy, not the anguish that personified his behavior on Yeezus tour. Yet the connection, however visceral—he lied down and reached out to those below him, six feet shy of being able to make contact—felt inevitably brief. “This the last beat drop of the night,” he said during the last minute of “Fade,” a warning that fell on bemused ears. Sure enough, two songs later, the stage unceremoniously glided towards an ultralight beam, and Yeezus was gone.