What I saw last week was not a hip hop concert.
It was a theatre experience. With hip hop as one of its many artistic elements.
As the show continued, it became clearer that Kanye’s rapping was just one of many vessels used to express a greater story — really a story of himself, Kanye West the man.
For the better part of three hours, Kanye West graced the United Center stage and the live movie that unfolded before our very eyes was complete with a cast featuring see-through cladded ladies, innovative light designs, a shaking arrowhead stage, and a multi-masked Yeezus himself. And oh yeah, a freaking mountain and Jesus.
But by now, you and I all knew this. No matter how hard you tried to avoid it to save the surprise (and I tried pretty hard), you couldn’t escape the striking images of the set from your friends on Instagram, the rants visionary stream of consciousness videos of ‘Ye lashing out at the last brand designer who didn’t take him seriously, OR… yes, even Jesus being brought out before “Jesus Walks”.
So what I successfully kept a surprise was how Kanye structured the show. I knew all the aforementioned elements were going to add to the show, but I was excited to see how they would all connect. After the first stretch of the show was “all rise” with “On Sight” and “New Slaves” followed soon by “Power”, “Cold”, and “Clique”, the songs and moods began to change, and the structure started to come together. Kanye used words like “Searching” or “Finding” (below) as a transitional buffer that closed a previous stretch of songs and set up another. He created the motif for this new stretch of songs by using a spacey female voice (akin to the Glow In The Dark Tour, in fact) to convey the definition of the word and positive, reinforcing messages like
Whatever you ask for, it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find.
Whenever one of these transitions took place, I quickly reflected on the series of songs I just heard and anticipated the ones I was about to hear — all to see how they connected to that word. As a result, songs took on a new meaning. For example, “Hold My Liquor” & “I’m In It” fell after “Coldest Winter” and the Falling transition. It links ‘Ye’s adherence to vices to what’s widely known to have greatly ignited his depression: his mother’s death, which he wrote “Coldest Winter” about. And thus makes Kanye West as transparent as ever, when it seems like he’s not. Kanye performed “Coldest Winter”, laying down, draped over the edge of the stage, which now was raised 50 some odd feet in the air as snow fell over him in the spotlight. That visual drove home the feeling of “Coldest Winter” even more.
The connections between transition word and song later continued when two of ‘Ye’s most emotional relationship songs — “Heartless” & “Blood On The Leaves” — preceded the next transition of “Searching”. He donned different masks in each of these chapters (Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding), further representing the emotion. For this stretch, a white Margiela matched the overly white aesthetic of the rest of his attire, the ladies walking and circling him and the MPC for performances of “Lost In The World” and “Runaway”, respectively. These two songs, again, took on a new meaning when thought of under the “Searching” motif, as Kanye tries to cope and express himself in both of those My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy records. It is fitting then that after “Runaway” ends, is when his #YeezusVisionaryStreamofConsciousness begins. The next 15 minutes become our unfiltered look into the mind of Kanye West, who is openly searching for answers, expressing his frustration, and at the end of the day spreading his joy through the veil of misunderstanding. Some highlights, as I live tweeted:
As I later disclaimed, Yeezus did not come off that demonstrative as the tweets may read. He delivered all of the above with a sense of calm that you didn’t see on Sway, or even in earlier visionary streams of consciousness on tour. It looks like ‘Ye’s already learning to communicate better, as he’s been saying he’s trying to do in the past couple months of interviews. I personally enjoyed the “intermission” of sorts and part of me is always puzzled when I hear the opposite reaction to Kanye’s talks during the tour. I mean, when can you hear your artist express such raw, unfiltered thoughts in a setting like this? I would have been just as riveted if that went on for another hour. But alas, the show goes on with one more transition: “Finding”.
“Finding” is where the show, and story, all come together. ‘Ye’s personal journey of finding himself through the emotional highs and lows that come with fame and relationships are embodied within his many classics throughout the past 10 years. And to top it off, Kanye came out unmasked for the first time in the show, which I thought at the time, “Wow. Seeing Kanye’s face means more for these songs he’s about to perform.”
As such, this culminating section began with “Stronger”, a metaphor for conquering life’s obstacles and the instantly infectious summer anthem of 2007 that could have easily been a summer anthem had it been released in 2013. Kanye then took it back to “Through The Wire”, prefacing the emotional fan favorite with “I remember the day I almost lost my life.” The crowd was in a frenzy when the new loudest moment of the show took place next, as Kanye brought out Jesus for “Jesus Walks”. The ceremonial and cinematic fashion of this was simply chilling. These images will long be embedded in my head as it likely took on deeper meaning for anyone who can relate spiritually like myself.
The next string of Kanye classics went from “Diamonds” to “Flashing Lights” (featuring a dope new layer to the beat) to “Good Life” to the chilling “All Of The Lights”. The latter yielded another high volume response from the crowd, especially when ‘Ye asked for, well, the lights to be turned on.
It was then that the show hit a brief pause — and one that looked unplanned as Kanye walked nearby to Mike Dean and DJ Mano (who were adding nice subtleties throughout the show). Sure enough, an impromptu performance of the hometown favorite “Homecoming” had the UC crowd singing at the top of their lungs as Chris Martin. Easily one of the night’s most special moments and one that you can even see was affecting the unmasked Mr. West.
The performance of “Homecoming” eliminated my idea of an encore as ‘Ye closed out the show for good with the appropriate ending and the last track from Yeezus he had yet to perform: “Bound 2”. The crowd joined in with Tony Williams playing the role of Charlie Wilson, as perhaps the biggest fan favorite off the album sent Kanye behind the mountain, and us to the cold Chicago winter trying to take in what we just saw.
And wow, what did we just see? Again, this was more than just a rapper performing the songs we’ve played over and over again. This was a visual artist interacting with a set, lights, and a cast of characters creating an experience unlike any other “rap concert”. This was truly a movie that as we saw unfold from scene to scene, absolutely enriched the music and life of Kanye West…
…who, oh by the way, just said of the Yeezus Tour: “I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can really do.”
All-caps *TIBS FAV. Performances:
“Send It Up”
“I Am A God”
“Blood On The Leaves” (featuring red light and pyrotechnics for the first time)
“Stronger” (featuring new neon laser lights)
“All of the Lights”
(Basically… the best show I’ve been to all year.)