I have beheld his bejeweled face. Now that I have regained control of my faculties—now that my ears have stopped ringing, now that my mind has stopped reeling, now that I can raise my voice above a hoarse whisper, now that my assorted joints and tendons have recovered from four hours of protracted fist-pumping—I feel obligated to share the Yeezus experience with you.
First things first, though—the wait. Me, my younger brother and my dad are waiting in the lobby of the Palace, clutching the printout tickets that will be our only physical keepsakes from the concert, and people-watching is the only kinda-sorta entertaining thing to do when you’re waiting to get frisked with a metal detector. The room is a kaleidoscope—every perceivable hue of skinny-jeans is on display here, and a few exceptionally self-possessed young people have taken the effort to get completely tuxed-up. I become conscious of the fact that we’ve put more thought into our attire for this show than we have for events where you’re ostensibly “required” to get dressed up, like theatre productions and symphony concerts. We’ve also paid more for this event, too—about sixty dollars each for the cheap seats. When the doors open, we see people sprinting up the steps to get into the stadium. By comparison, we take our time; no one is really in a hurry to get to row 214. Of course, your distance from the performer doesn’t REALLY matter when you go to a concert; once you’re in the same room as a superstar, all those extraneous concerns fall away. Or so I tell myself, while we wait for Kendrick Lamar’s set to start. We settle into our seats and listen to Kendrick’s DJ spinning a bunch of 90s-era California gangsta funk, the kind of music that was probably really fun to listen to back when it was still scary but doesn’t hold up that all that well today. The house lights go dark for a hot second and everybody goes nuts, but then they turn on again with no explanation—false alarm. We watch a roadie matter-of-factly climb a rope ladder from the concrete floor up to the rafters to operate a follow spot. One of these days, I want to see a movie about the tech workers who operate behind the scenes of these massive shows—mundane actions accomplishing extravagant goals1.
Finally, the lights shut off for real, and the greatness begins. We see a projection of a little glossy-gritty film, showing scenes from Kendrick’s hometown of Compton—then we hear the sighing strains of “Money Trees,” and Kendrick calmly takes the stage. It’s rare that the opening act doesn’t have to say a single word to make the audience go crazy, but Kendrick’s reputation precedes him: a diminutive kid from Compton who got signed by his idol Dr. Dre and became a legend in the span of less than a year by releasing good kid, m.A.A.d. city, a concept album that tells the story of his spiritual transformation from gangbanger to guru. He followed up on the acclaim by dropping a downright vicious verse on a Big Sean song called “Control,” in which he impudently crowned himself the king of New York and called out every big-name MC in recent history, cheekily daring them to outdo him. The ensuing hype sent his public profile through the roof, but listening to his music, it’s impossible to forget that he got where he is today through talent, charisma, originality and heart. Lyrically, he’s got an uncanny knack for mixing the poetic and the pungent, the pretentious and the personal, often in the span of a few bars, like in “The Art of Peer Pressure” when he describes the experience of cruising with his high-school friends: “We on the mission for bad bitches and trouble / I hope the universe love you today / ‘cause the energy we bringing’s sure to carry away / A flock of positive activists and fill the body with hate / If it’s necessary / Bumping Jeezy’s first album, looking distracted / Speaking language only we know, you think it’s an accent.” In terms of timbre, he’s a man of many voices—he can be a cool outsider, a paranoid kid, a gruff veteran, and a bizarro-world alien with an offbeat croon that’s as mockable as it is musical. His songs range from laid-back philosophical meditations to hard-driving depictions of senseless violence, and most of them are filled to the brim with relentless waves of words, as if he’s afraid that an “ADHD-crazy” audience will lose interest in his fervent sermons if he stops to breathe.
Kendrick performed with a DJ as well as a guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer, but the DJ ended up carrying most of the set. There’s no guitar lick that could approximate the woozy almost-melody of “Money Trees,” no synthesizer that can emulate the sensuous strings that float through “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and no drummer who would be able to replicate the clattering drum-machine track of “Backseat Freestyle,” so these professional and capable musicians didn’t have a whole lot to contribute to the proceedings, besides adding distorted power chords and cymbal crashes to the codas of harder-hitting joints like “m.A.A.d. city” and “Fuckin’ Problems.” It’s not that I don’t think power chords are awesome, and it’s not that Kendrick is incapable of meshing with a band2, but whenever rappers add live musicians to their shows—and they aren’t an actual BAND-band, a self-contained unit like the Roots or Kids These Days—it seems oddly forced. It’s unnecessarily self-justificatory, like the rapper is saying “Look at me! I have musicians playing so-called real instruments and slavishly imitating rock clichés at the expense of hip-hop’s unique musical language! My artistry is valid! Now will you accept me, rock cognoscenti?” There’s a certain species of music fan who believes that truly great music can only be created by musicians who actually play instruments or sing, but to me that’s a purely technical consideration that has nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. When I listen to music, I don’t care if the artist I’m listening to has been practicing guitar for forty years or if they couldn’t play a kazoo to save their life—I’m only interested in the sounds that come out of the speakers. I’m not trying to disparage musical training in any way, but to the average listener, the means are irrelevant to the ends.
In spite of the superstar status of both acts, this was not a double bill—Kendrick was still only the opener, as evidenced by his short half-hour set. When he pointed out near the end that all the people in the video projected behind him were his friends from Compton, it made me wish that he had a bit more time, time that could have been spent spinning stories about growing up in Compton, like a West Coast Bruce Springsteen. Still, even if he did have to wrap things up too soon, he still managed to blow the entire room away in a very compressed amount of time with his mix of irrepressible energy and intimate storytelling, flipping flows with the syncopated precision of a jazz drummer, repeating choruses and verses to make sure we caught every word. Seeing a legend is always a worthwhile experience.
Now we’re just waiting for the other legend. As the house lights go up and the crew prepares for Kanye’s set, I see several empty seats in the house. I know this is most likely due to a number of factors—an unexpected rescheduling due to the accidental destruction of a piece of stage apparatus, plus the fact that Kanye just dropped a defiantly cacophonous cubist-crunk album, Yeezus, which gained him a fan in the late great Lou Reed3 while alienating a good chunk of his fanbase—but it still depresses me to see a house that is less than full. Whatever, could be worse—at least he’s not like Roger Daltrey4, playing some rock-forsaken casino, valiantly asking a gaggle of dilettante Mods who clearly got old before they died to see him and feel him. What a nightmare that would be—“Coming Soon—Kanye West Performing LIVE At The Windsor! Hear The Voice Of A Generation Perform All Your Old Favorites, From ‘New Slaves’ To ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing!’ Watch ‘The Andy Warhol Of Rap’ Vainly Struggle For Relevance While You Sip Martinis And Chat Idly With Your Fellow Middle-Aged Millennials, Or Generation Y-ers, Or Whatever Pejorative Media Nickname There Is For The Generation That Grew Up With Ipods And Helicopter Parents! GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!” Ugh.
Still, the disturbing emptiness of several seats does have an advantage. Using the tried-and-true “look like you know what you’re doing” method, my brother and I work our way into the inner circle of the Palace. Instead of heading straight for the first row, we take a couple of seats in the sixth row, not wanting to attract the suspicion of the security guards patrolling the arrow-shaped apron stage. Soon enough, we get kicked out of our seats by their rightful owners, so we move down a row. This earns us the ire of the people sitting behind us, who realize that we’re a couple of shameless thieves and are understandably upset that they paid two hundred bucks a pop for seats that they could have just stolen, but we don’t care what people say. After a few more minutes, we get ousted again; by process of ejection, we work our way down to the second row. We decide not to press our luck by trying to infiltrate the VIP mosh-pit zone; we rationalize this sensible decision by noting that leaning pelvis-first against a police barrier for hours on end in hopes of catching a stray globule of Ye-sweat is not the ideal way to experience a show. By this point, the centerpiece of the Yeezus show, THE MOUNTAIN, has been unveiled, and it is awesome in the original sense of the term, inspiring awe, a jagged behemoth of a stage prop. We notice it, but at the moment we’re fidgeting in our chairs hoping we don’t get removed from our seats again, or worse, hoisted out of the auditorium by some hard-faced security brute before the show even begins.
But we’ve finally made it. All of the lights go dark, the room is enveloped by a massive blast of bass, and a heavenly choir ushers us into the kingdom of Yeezus. Soon, a piercing guitar line blares out from the speakers, followed by a thunderous drumline, and we hear the voice of our hero: “I AM NOT HERE RIGHT NOW, I AM NOT HOME—LEAVE A MESSAGE AFTER THE LIFE, FLATLINE TONE.” A preview of a totally new Kanye song—already we’ve gotten our money’s worth in spades. Then, a blast of amoebalike noise, the same terrific din that opens Yeezus, and we’re going insane—Yeezy season approaching. Suddenly, Kanye JUMPS out of the darkness, and holy crap he is IN IT. He’s wearing a mask that looks like something a medieval disco executioner would wear and he’s STILL one of the most engaged performers I’ve ever seen, lunging and leaping, growling and screaming, scaling mountains and singing his heart out while lying flat on his back. He’s such a charismatic performer that he could do the whole show on a cardboard mattress and it would still be one of the hypest shows of all time—in fact, a setup like that might have been truer to the minimalist, ostentatiously stripped-down nature of Yeezus—but Kanye has always favored excess over understatement, so he turns the Palace into a theatre. By the end of this show, gauzy priestesses will have emerged from the mountain, carrying gilded crosses and swinging thuribles of incense. A hirsute monster will stalk the stage, like Chewbacca or Sweetums with burning red eyes, most likely representing the demonic side of Kanye’s personality. Finally, Jesus of Nazareth Himself will arrive to bless the newly unmasked and reborn Kanye (all in all, the Son of God is in and out of the venue in a minute flat. Presumably he has other things to attend to). It’s hip-hop as high drama, and I love every second of it. The combination of Kanye’s furious energy with the ridiculous grandeur of the stage show makes the show something more than a hip-hop concert—it’s something visceral and transcendent.
By the finale of the second song—the Cinemascope freakout that closes “New Slaves”—I’m already on the verge of tears. Not only is the energy through the roof, it’s a marathon show—close to thirty songs—and five songs in, I remember that I haven’t drank anything in the past two hours except for the tasteless and meaningless blue sugar-water from the $5 snow-cone I bought before Kendrick’s show (I held it to the sky during his performance of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and immediately felt like an ass). I realize that I need to conserve my energy if I want to live to see this show in its entirety. Thankfully, Yeezus is a merciful god, and he knows how to structure a set—in addition to being one of the few hip-hop producers who can harness the raw energy of heavy rock, Kanye also has the finest and most affecting catalogue of melancholy-famous-person songs since Roger Waters—so there’s a few scattered moments where the audience can chill. A synthesizer player, a guitarist, and a male vocalist tastefully embellish upon the familiar backing tracks to his songs; these musicians ensure that all of Kanye’s ubiquitous tunes don’t sound too familiar. The people behind us titter derisively when snow begins to fall from the rafters for “Coldest Winter,” but me and my brother don’t care—Kanye fanboys of the first order, we are suspended in an irony-free zone. We’re the goons who hardly ever get to go to concerts, wildly pogoing, executing improvised choreography and hollering “MIDDLE AMERICA PACKED IN, CAME TO SEE ME IN MY BLACK SKIN” without a single solitary shred of self-consciousness.
The moment when Kanye’s power as a musician is authoritatively proven comes three-quarters into the show. One of the high priestesses has set up a contraption that’s half pulpit and half MPC; after contemplating the music-making machine for a moment, Kanye gingerly taps one of the electronic pads, sending a single piano note reverberating throughout the Palace. At this point, the entire room goes crazy for a full MINUTE, because EVERYBODY knows exactly what song that piano note is from. It’s insane—most acts have to play at least a couple of chords from their biggest hits before recognition sets in. Not with this song. Not with “Runaway.” The crown jewel of Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Runaway” is not the first song I’d play for someone who knows nothing about Kanye (that would be “All Falls Down,” for what it’s worth), but it’s a song that perfectly demonstrates what Kanye does well. He’s one of the few hip-hop musicians who can write genuinely moving songs without getting maudlin or losing his flair for incisive, analytical commentary. More importantly, he can get the music to match the poignancy of his words, and vice-versa.
After the song, the keyboardist begins to vamp with a few piano chords. Kanye cries out “CAN I TALK MY SHIT AGAIN?” and everybody screams assent, because this is the part that everybody is waiting for—the VISIONARY STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. It’s audience banter to the umpteenth power: Kanye takes the time and effort to tell you every single thing he’s thinking about at the present time—his demonization by the media, the difference between dreamers and haters, his plans for the future. It is the most inspirational thing I’ve ever seen, and because he’s back in his native Midwest, Kanye goes all-out, ranting for almost THIRTY MINUTES. Hearing any other musician jabber on for a half-hour could potentially get boring, but I guesstimate that half of the audience considers Kanye to be a visionary genius and hangs on his every word (me and my brother included), and the other half bought tickets to the concert with the expectation of seeing a 21st-century celebrity freakshow (like the snotty kids behind us), so it’s a win-win situation.
Kanye’s usual spiel seems a little different this time, however. It feels bittersweet, as if he knows he can’t scream forever—“I won’t always be this wild,” he admits, “so please embrace this moment right now,” even though he says “I will not lie down” a few minutes later. He gestures to the mountain and tells us, “this is my DEMO TAPE,” and I think he’s talking about some future tour, but then he says “when I start doing movies, or when I have my own clothing stores…I might not be right here, and able to talk to y’all.” It makes sense—the guy’s got a wife and daughter, and he’s a half-decade shy of forty in a genre that is even more obsessed with youthfulness than other forms of music. Call me crazy, but I could see Kanye settling into the life of a creative executive. It would be like when Jay-Z made that bogus claim that he was retiring in order to run his record label full-time. The only scary possibility is that, unlike Jay-Z, Kanye might actually follow through with it, permanently.
When Jay came back from retirement, it made sense, because he never changed; he’s had the exact same persona from day one, the dignified, laconic, witty hustler of indeterminate but advanced age, the elder statesman who will be “Young Forever” because he was old before his time. He’s quite possibly the only rapper in history who managed to age gracefully as an artistic and commercial entity. By contrast, Kanye’s persona—the grown-ass kid who got blinded by the flashing lights and lost himself in a beautiful dark twisted fantasy—is all about youthful impulse, and may have a shorter shelf life, much as it pains me to say it. It’s hard to age gracefully if you’re still running around screaming “fuck you and your Hampton house.”
Maybe Kanye could take a page out of the Beatles’ book, running his dream company5 while still taking the time to release studio albums every so often. Still, what a crime that would be—the one truly crazy, tragic, brilliant loudmouth of our time stepping out of the spotlight once and for all. One of my favorite moments in any Kanye song comes from the outro to “Lost in the World,” when a ghostly choir screams “RUN FROM THE LIGHTS.” Now I’m hoping that Kanye doesn’t heed their advice. Kanye is often considered to be someone who is all ego, but at the present time, this is an inaccurate label; right now he is all id, a million contradictory impulses grasping for something greater. It would be a terrible waste of potential if he chose to fade into the background now, at the height of his powers.
Still, maybe all hope is not lost—an hour later, as the final notes of “Bound 2” play out, me and my brother are holding our hands to the sky, praising Yeezus. Kanye looks back in our direction, and an irrepressibly cheesy grin comes over his face, the first smile he’s shown all night. In spite of all his masks and shutter-shades, it seems that Kanye still feels the need to connect with an audience. He ain’t finished, he’s devoted—and we know it.
1 Kind of like this terrific documentary, “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle”
2 Proof that he can: this performance of “Poetic Justice”
3 Seriously: here’s the Godfather of Punk’s review of Yeezus
4 No disrespect to the Who—I’m not trying to cause a big sensation…
5 For the Beatles it was Apple, for Kanye it’s DONDA—the nebulously-defined tech-and-design company that Kanye hopes will one day become as big as the OTHER Apple—the Steve Jobs one.