To say Kanye has had an interesting 2016 is an understatement. His hyperactive Twitter fingers vented his frustrations with Wiz Khalifa’s pants and skinny frame, Amber Rose’s finger up where the sun don’t shine, Bill Cosby’s innocence, and Mark Zuckerberg financing Kanye’s creative genius just about scratch the surface of what came from his own social media page. Let’s not forget the ever-evolving The Life of Pablo album of ever-changing names, Yeezy Season 3 and the Madison Square Garden album launch-fashion show, an on-again off-again friendship with Taylor Swift, among a whole hell of a lot of other things. With all of these making gossip, music, and fashion headlines just a few short months ago, Kanye headlining Paradise IMF with the first performances of his latest, The Life of Pablo, would be, at the very least, one hell of a ride. Anything short of soaring high above the trees or, at the very least, crashing and burning would be a disappointment.
After Wiz’s crowd-surfing giant inflatable blunt of a show, a small armada of stage crew members then proceeded to cover the entire stage in black cloth and set up Kanye’s instrumentalist and producer Mike Dean’s impressive array of instruments. Barely-audible Michael Jackson songs played on the concert speakers as fans jostled for prime real estate as close as their tickets allowed. “Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy!” chanted the crowd in between every King of Pop song as if Kanye’s set was about to start.
Then, a wall of sound blasted the audience like the growls of Cerberus itself. A kind of visceral, throat-crushing sonic boom of bass and distorted gospel choir vocals that announced the arrival of Yeezus himself.
It’s time to get strapped in.
A massive bank of several-hundred lights descending from above to reveal the hip-hop übermegastar they’d been waiting for. The smoke machines working overtime with the constant gust of wind made a tempest of smoke and fine dust illuminated by the powerful lights only a few feet above him. And yes, he was draped in what we can bet are the next trend in Hypebeast-approved menswear. Only the most ham-fisted of #iPhoneOnly Instagrammers could screw up capturing as captivating an image as that. Kanye stans, eat your heart out.
And out came the Daft Punk-sampled chorus from hit song, “Stronger”. Harder, better, faster, and stronger indeed. This is Kanye beating his chest like a pissed-off gorilla. “Power” came up next like a punch to the throat and into just about every single one of our senses. Each song came out swinging like every concert speaker was weaponized to beat you into submission. “Black Skinhead” and “All Day” sounded appropriately apocalyptic and violent with the crowd rapping alongside him as if they’d all come from the middle-class suburbs of Chi-Town.
But those lights, though. Three-hundred and sixty individually-controlled lights on the bottom alone would cast a spotlight on him amidst the swirl of smoke, pulse along to the relentless beats, angle upwards and blind the crowd with every punishing photon obscuring Kanye ‘till he was but a silhouette, and even look like sun rays peeking out from stormy clouds. Are these a literal interpretation of TLOP-opener “Ultralight Beam(s)”? One can only surmise.
It was apparent that this is his self-ascribed creative genius at play. The next song in his setlist? “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”. This is his product. This is what rocketed him from being a producer only dedicated hip-hop fans knew about, to the man whose every word is hung on to. But with the many trappings of fame, fortune, and platinum albums come the complications of constant scrutiny. What jacket is he wearing today? What did he say about then-president Bush? He crashed the stage to say she didn’t deserve that award?! For a man who, let’s face it, chooses his words quite clumsily, every single one is analyzed, criticized, quoted and misquoted to hell and back.
Somewhat karmically, a crasher intruded Kanye’s stage mid-song. He’s soon dealt with by a heavily-bearded member of security some in the crowd mistook for superhuman Yeezus producer Rick Rubin.
This is Kanye’s truth. His life experience and his pain and his suffering.
Yeezy then whips out the first TLOP cut, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” as an apology for all his stuntin’ and controversies over the years. “If I ever instigated, I’m sorry”, he croons out of wanting to just feel liberated from all the walls around him. “Pt. 2” starts but ends abruptly as he tells Mike to start the whole thing from the top because, well, a rocky first performance of it ain’t good enough. What was wrong with it, you may ask? Who knows. Kanye apparently does, and that’s enough of a good reason for him to stop the song and do it again.
The first TLOP single, “Famous” was up next. He says he made that b*tch famous by saying her music video was inferior to Beyoncé’s One-Of-The-Best-Of-All-Time-Video. Those who thought he went too far that infamous night in 2009 must’ve not gone to the show because the crowd shouted along to every word – enough for Kanye to play the Rihanna-sung Nina Simone intro verse again. “Y’all agree with what I’m sayin’ on this song?” he asks. Apparently, yes. Yes we do, Kanye. And all our middle fingers are up in the air along with you bouncing to the dancehall BAM BAM sample.
This time he plays the whole song, mostly unbroken other than a few call and responses with the crowd.
He takes a break from the music to give a shining example of one of his now-famous soliloquies in fragmented sentences. “… in the spirit of real artists,” he rants, “this is the song that broke the writer’s block for me. ‘Cause it’s the song I wanted to say so bad. That they told me I couldn’t say. That night when I went on the stage was the beginning of the end of my life. Lady Gaga cancelled the tour the next day. You know what night I’m talkin’ about. When I just said what everyone else was thinkin’. So if I get in trouble for sayin’ the truth, what’s being said the rest of the time. And I had to fight every day of my life when the whole world turned against me for sayin’ out loud what everyone else felt. But that’s the job of a artist, of a true artist. Not to be controlled by they finances. Not to be controlled by perception. But only to be controlled by their truth.” He shifts gears and thanks the crowd for the warm welcome of his first time performing the song – so much so he has to perform it all again. To recap, he’s played the intro verse thrice now, with the rest of the song twice.
So is he really sorry for all that he’s instigated? Who cares. Yippee-Kanye, mother*cker!
He then goes straight into another song from the latest album with “Waves” and ends it by saying he loves all of us he came through to see him. “We love you too, Kanye!” shouts someone from the audience. A fair assessment, especially when he brought out “Jesus Walks” all the way back from his first album, College Dropout.
Ye’s verses from singles “Clique”, “Don’t Like”, and “Mercy” from posse-album Cruel Summer bring us back to the good ‘ol club bangers just when things were perhaps getting a little too philosophical. He throws his hands in the air along with the beat. The crowd does the same. Kanye removes one of his shoes, shows it to the crowd, and changes the last lines of “Mercy” to “You gon see lawyers and n*ggas in… Yeezys.” It wouldn’t be Kanye without some reference to his current spat with Nike.
Somewhat surprisingly, Big Sean and Drake’s “Blessings” plays next, seemingly just to say that, yes, everyone’s very lucky to be here now. Maybe not all that surprising, all things considered.
His next verse was from Drake’s “Pop Style”. Not that many people knew the lyrics since it hasn’t exactly been out for long yet. “N*ggas In Paris” from the Jay-Z collaborative album Watch the Throne was a totally different story though. The whole crowd knew she ordered fish fillet at that restaurant like it was her first time stepping foot in an establishment better than the corner Burger King.
“You see it’s leaders, and it’s followers. But I’d rather be a d*ck than a swallower,” he chants on the Yeezus cut “New Slaves”. Are we his followers, or are we the leader-d*cks? Everyone chants along. Any musings on our status in life fall to the wayside as he sings the nigh-unpronounceable-for-a-Filipino Gyönghajú Lány–sampled outro of the song. “We could’ve been somebody!” he shouts on the next track, “Blood on the Leaves” – an unholy matrimony of TNGHT and Nina Simone samples – classic Yeezus. Then the lights dimmed.
One could kind of make out faint outlines of stage hands setting up a drum machine and mic stand. “Sh*t, what’s next?” someone asked his companion beside him. Those in the know knew what they were in for. It was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy masterpiece “Runaway”. As Kanye started triggering the faint piano intro, the crowd went berserk. “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags!” everyone shouts later on in the song. “Let’s have a toast for the assholes!” Kanye continues. We were, via his own description, toasting the mother*cking best in the world, Kanye West.
The soundgasmic outro of the studio track is flipped with Kanye asking us to throw our hands up in the sky if we’re having a good time through that same effects-heavy vocoder. We cooperate. He triggers the “Look at ya!” sample relentlessly. “If I gotta be like what everybody else be like, then I don’t wanna be liked!” he warbles while summarizing his main advocacy for the night succinctly. “God is love, so I would rather follow God than follow the media. I would rather follow God than to follow perception. ‘Cause most artists aren’t appreciated in their own time,” he pivots as he reiterates his prior monologue with a religious twist. For Kanye, it’s not about being constrained by external factors – it’s about speaking his truth and letting God be the judge of that. “I’m only gonna do it this way!” he sings. Well, Kanye, that’s what everyone paid and waited for.
“Right now, put your hands together for Wiz! Thank you for a beautiful show,” Kanye sings unexpectedly. Sadly, he didn’t talk about Wiz’s pants, though. Consider that beef well-squashed.
For some extra Kanye to go with all the Kanye so far, Ye then threw a 1-2-3 punch combo of “All Falls Down”, “Gold Digger”, and “All of the Lights”, Mike Dean cut the track as Kanye led the crowd on a call-and-response of the songs’ hooks. The lights were blasting in the face of the crowd and, man oh man, the heat of those several-hundred lights. No wonder he had his jacket perpetually off his shoulders, that tanning bed of a stage setup must’ve felt cruel. Who knows if manipulating the ambient temperature was part of Kanye’s plan? Who’d put it past him at this point?
The lights dimmed again with the crowd chanting the T-Pain–assisted hook of the next song “Good Life”. Then… silence on a Kanye-less stage. Where did he go? Is it over? F*ck no. He comes back with a vengeance and shows that yeah, his life is pretty good, especially since he’s pretty good at puttin’ sh*t down. And if that message didn’t come across, he comes out extra-fly with “Touch the Sky”. He promised a full set list and Yeezus was delivering.
As he’s done several times now, Kanye flips the mood to the other extreme with the delicate “Only One”, only to end it mid-song. It was supposed to be his last for the night, but decided last-minute to pack in a few more. After a quick word with the ever-flexible Mike Dean, Kanye starts singing, “I know, you’re tired of loving, of loving with nobody to love! Nobody, nobody! So just grab somebody, no leaving this party, with nobody to love, nobody, nobody!” from Yeezus’ “Bound 2”. Kim did not arrive naked on a superbike.
The piano continues and morphs into the hook of “Run This Town” from Jay Z’s The Blueprint 3 album back when, “All black everything” was still a new thing. He wholeheartedly sings, “I’m addicted to the thrill, it’s a dangerous love affair….” He knows his big mouth is going to keep getting him into hot water, but what else can he do? Be quiet? Yeah, and pigs can fly.
Rihanna and Paul McCartney collaborative track “FourFiveSeconds” was the penultimate performance that ran like a cool down jog after an intense workout. “Hold me back, I’m ‘bout to spaz,” Kanye sang as he gesticulated wildly like the crowd was getting too mellow or something. No, Kanye, we have little intention of holding you back. Please, spaz all you want.
And like a lullaby, we’re back to his last song for the night, “Only One”. “I talked to God about you, he said he sent you an angel. And look at all that he gave you. You asked for one and you got two. You know I never left you,” he serenades with the certainty of a man with his heart on his sleeve and all his honesty in the world laid down on wax. This is Kanye at perhaps his most delicate and most confident. It takes more of an ego than the average Juan to brag on stage about all your accomplishments in front of thousands. It takes more to show your vulnerability. “I love you all. Thank you very much,” he says as he fades out into the darkness – a stark contrast to his entrance. “Thank you, Kanye!!” some shout. Others pledge their support: “Kanye for President!”
Back when The Life of Pablo still went as the Max B-inspired name Waves, Kanye went on Twitter and proclaimed it better than album of the year – it was “the album of the life.” Maybe he was referring to his very own. Fitting, then, that maybe one could take the entire performance that just ended as some kind of performance-metaphor for his life experience – his own truth. Here is Kanye, the young, upstart producer turned rapper megastar changing the face of hip-hop. Here is Kanye, the maven dictating the next trends in fashion based almost entirely on the clothes on his back. Here is Kanye, with the unfiltered and dirty mouthing off at who-knows-what-now. Here is Kanye, tortured by his own ego, but pushed onward and upward because of it. And here is Kanye, the now family man, professing his undying support for that which and those whom he loves.
As his very-public life “as a true artist” unfurls itself on Twitter, gossip rags, award shows, platinum records, and world tours, we see the life of Kanye and how Mr. West has won the life he leads. The Life of Pablo is now the first album to reach number 1 on the Billboard charts based on streaming numbers alone. A tour is also in the works. We loved it, “like Kanye loves Kanye.”
Video captured by Andrea Ang.