Marooned on a lonely sea of his adoring fans, the biggest rock star in the world perched atop a stage piece—a triangular ice floe—jabbing at the pads of his Akai MPC. Even with the studded Maison Martin Margiela facemask (the second of four he'd wear this evening) obscuring his features, he seemed pissed. He had the opening piano chords of "Runaway"—but the overdriven vocal snatches (taken from a live Rick James recording) didn't seem to be loaded into the MPC's soundbanks before it was placed onstage. As he began what would be one of the emotional high points of his set, on the very first stop of the Yeezus tour, Kanye Omari West snapped that "EVERYBODY FIRED."
The titanic maiden voyage of the Yeezus Tour didn't exactly hit an iceberg—but it sure as hell brought one with them. On this jagged glacial mount, dancers cavorted, West shouted down the heavens, and Jesus Christ himself did Jesus Christ poses (just not as many as West). The set looked every bit as stark and epic-minimal (to borrow from the homie) as Yeezus sounded. Things just didn't seem to be running smoothly from jump, as a late soundcheck (still happening 30 minutes before twice-pushed-back doors) led to a late start (leading to a union overtime-deep closing time of 1:30am or so); once the show started, there were blown cues, off-mark spotlights, stumbling dancers, and an occasionally irate Yeezy—"HELP ME, TONY," he spat out during one song, presumably at his cousin and constant collaborator, singer Tony Williams.
The sound was the kind we put up with in arenas, which is to say, not good, especially on the vocals; not helping was the fact that West—either forgetting his lines or testing his fans' love—frequently let the crowd say his verses instead of him. Some lines sounded muffled, mumbled, perhaps momentarily forgotten—not exactly uncommon for Yeezy—but the next he'd suddenly spit authoritatively, clear as day. Perhaps he was emphasizing some lines, but it was at the cost of de-emphasizing others. Sadly, the "dress rehearsal" standard persisted all night.
That said: by force of his will, this was still one hell of a show. I was riveted from the first sighting of the the creepy body-stockinged chorus line that marched out and knelt, awaiting their savior. (Later, they'd form a human throne—oh, that Kanye—ecstatically writhe on each other, and slink offstage like scared animals.) Kanye himself, besides the vocal issues, moved like a beast, pushing himself to the literal edge at every opportunity, spazzing out, attempting a Double Dragon-esque spin-kick to punctuate the stomping "Black Skinhead."
A roiling storm rolled across the swiftly-tilting sky-screen above the mountain, fog billowed out, the mountain split open for that Holy Mountain-esque procession. Religious iconography, sex, all that good shit, were all smashed up (it should be noted that quite a few people left, bored, confused and/or offended), as he splayed on the floor in a circle of his dancers, all reflected on screen above the peak, forming an unmistakably meant-to-look-vaguely-occult tableau. In his masks and church-police-from-the-future fashion, he was Bane purifying Gotham, he was a final-boss Resident Evil mutant, he was a post-civilization warlord in his handmade Thunderdome. During "Stronger" he stood under a curtain of lasers that made his iced-out facepiece glitter and refract, shooting beams everywhere. It was monstrous, and had it all landed in the middle of some earlier civilization, they would have surely believed him when he said "I Am A God."
Kanye's true power, however, and the power of every rapper that has followed his lead, lies in his penchant for messy disclosure, his non-filter. Stagey as it all was, every bit felt genuine. West perched on the ice floe's tip as faux snow flitted from the rafters, describing for the KeyArena the moment he got the call that his mother, Dr. Donda West, had died—then performed "Coldest Winter," a lone figure adrift, smoothing out his pain and loss for the cameras. When he then surprisingly started up Late Registration's "Hey Mama," he didn't get far, going silent—either forgetting the words or too verklempt to get them out—slumping down to his knees, as the beat blared and the crowd, touched (perhaps a couple ways), cheered him on. It was the one fuck-up of the night that felt endearing.
In his two-plus-hour, 27-song set, he wrung it all out, bringing some IRL urgency to songs he'd never played live before—the entirety of his controversial latest album, plus joints like 808s & Heartbreaks' "Street Lights", which sounded huge in its plaintiveness. He finished "Blood On The Leaves" testifying to the crowd in full Auto-Tune, imploring them to recognize their own inner greatness—as he had, naturally. There were some actual great rap-concert moments, as well—West spazzed particularly hard on much of the Yeezus material, but also on the B-side "Cold" (formerly "Theraflu") and his verse from Chief Keef's "Don't Like (Remix)," posing like a king from the mountain or bouncing triumphantly, seemingly aloft on a sea of upturned palms.
Much has been made of the merch, with its very '80s metal-inspired shirts, trucker hats (?) and totes sporting, among other things, Confederate flags—typical West provocation, and as usual the work of a coolhunted visual collaborator (in this case, artist Wes Lang). Yeah yeah, it's daring, it's art with a silent f, it's an excuse for a punch in the nose—I knew Kanye would not skimp on the shock for his tour merch, and he didn't disappoint. His point, as usual, is not quite clear here, but I'm sure ultimately its worth will be summed up by today's catch all—"at least it started a conversation." So did him ripping the crotch of his pants, not the first pants-related scandal he's given the world this fall.
That night, though, all the try-hard subversion suffered a bit in my eyes, at the exact moment that the co-op cashier-looking "White Jesus" walked onto the set, prompting West to remove his final, disco-ball mirror-mask, and ask "White Jesus, is that you"? (Right after this, as he performed "Jesus Walks," where he declares that "I ain't here to argue about his facial features.") In the days since, though, it just gets more and more funny to me that he turned the lord and savior to many, allegedly including himself, into the night's one moment of comic relief.
The most resonant image I took away from that sloppily executed epic of an ego opera, however, was this: West, climbing down from the temple mount, slow and deliberate, down the mostly hidden metal steps behind the prop rock. At that moment, he looked tiny, alone, discouraged—perhaps by the lukewarm applause wafting up from a crowd that never did much better than lukewarm. Who can say—maybe he felt on top of the world. Maybe he was thinking of all the cruel faces that'd laughed at him, and driven him to the pinnacle. Right then, though, West moved like he was carrying a huge, shifting weight—or maybe like the chip on his shoulder had grown big enough to live on? Uh huh, honey.