By Jeremy D. Larson
“That’s why I turn up: I want my turn.”
Thus spoke Kanye West during last night’s self-proclaimed “rant” portion of the performance. I say “self-proclaimed” because there were murmurings over whether or not Kanye’s stream of conscious, Class 5 word rapids that he’s been delivering since long before the Watch The Throne tour should be labeled as “rants.” There’s obviously a pejorative connotation to the word, but Kanye said it! “I wish I could have given you a better rant tonight,” saying the word “rant” with a tinge of self-awareness, like a guy finally acquiescing to the dumb nickname his friends wanted to give him. It is written: The Rant.
God, can you imagine anyone else saying the words “I wish I could have given you a better rant tonight” other than Kanye West? It made me wonder whether or not his band (a DJ, a guy surrounded by synths, and Kanye’s cousin Tony Williams filling in on some vocals) have the words “Rant Vamp” printed out on the setlist.
What it probably should say on the setlist is “Sermon,” which is absolutely how Kanye’s rant is framed on the Yeezus tour. It’s not hard at all to glean the religious overtones of Kanye’s spectacular, from a formal processional — complete with swaying censers of incense and a crucifix, all carried by a dozen or so lithe, long-haired women wearing sheer, pantyhose masks over their faces — to Jesus Christ actually being on stage.
“Hello, White Jesus,” Kanye said to the actor with a robe and beard, finally revealing his face to Him after an hour and a half of performing behind a mask. Kanye kneeled down before White Jesus in an act of contrition or atonement or just one of several cool poses he did in his pursuit of unbound physicality. Then the military march of “Jesus Walks” came on and everybody lost their collective its.
“Jesus Walks,” Kanye’s erstwhile masterstroke at bringing his marginalized beliefs to the mainstream, marked the apex of the entire performance. It is the above all truest song that Kanye has ever written, for beneath all the megalomania and the mawkish kiss-blowing at Kim Kardashian, there is God and Jesus and prayer. And had I gone to church as a kid I would have better words for it, but don’t let my lack of ecclesiastical faculties take away from Kanye’s: His immovable faith was writ large last night.
The art of Kanye lives in one moment and one moment only: the moment of truth. It’s as if this lavish and theatrical production were born out of the surreal scenes that would flash before Kanye’s eyes in a near-death experience, just as he moved into the light. A host of beautiful anonymous women as supernumeraries (and, uh, furniture at times), a mountain in the sky where a God may dwell, terminally grey skies filled with snow, a Metaphorical Yeti that stalks him in the shadows with red eyes, and Kanye, wearing a couture bedazzled Maison Martin Margiela mask to keep everyone out and look good doing it. We were watching his own rapture. These are the kind of fantasies that play out in his music videos too, be it the legend of the phoenix or the legend of Thomas Kinkade’s Easy Rider. Kanye’s spectacles exist only in high stakes environments, broad strokes of classic, surreal and commercial colors. He’s Raphael who would do anything for a blonde dyke, he’s Dali whose Range Rover just smashed your Corolla, and he’s Warhol whose devils are always trying to break him down.
This being the Yeezus tour, the majority of his new album was up on full display, opening with a medley of tracks (“On Sight,” “New Slaves,” “Send Up”) before moving out of the industrial abrasion of Yeezus and into something a little less thorny. The DJ Khaled Cruel Summer track “Cold” was unsuspected and jarring. Not even a year ago this was the kind of down-the-lane status quo hip-hop Ye was doing with Hit-Boy. Now, it sounds even better juxtaposed against the watery electronica of Arca, Gesaffelstein, Evian Christ and the many other young, avant producers who helped build the gnarly skeleton of Yeezus. As Kanye continues to invade and conquer new social and musical spaces, tracks like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” now serve more as quaint nostalgia about a time when West might have been forced to “wait” for anything.
No, Kanye is now all propulsion and momentum, in life and on stage. He’s always been a physical performer, contorting his body into athletic lunges and Christ poses, balancing private moments splayed out on his back (808s & Heartbreak’s “Coldest Winter”) with being his own hype man up to get the crowd in it (“Don’t Like”). More than any other Kanye show of the past, and more than any other live music show, the Yeezus Tour is performance art clowning around as a rap show. Gaga would elide it to scream PERFORMANCEART. Jay Z would be doing this under the aegis of The Met and shoehorn Marina Abramović into it somehow. Kanye’s performance last night was without pretension, without high-profile Art Signifiers, and magically aligned with the tenets of theatre.
There was a Greek chorus, masked performers to give the semblance of the other on stage, all to better communicate the religiosity of the night and the story of Kanye’s pain and plight. This mode is the greatest delivery method for his politics, for his struggle to be accepted into the high fashion industry, for his unwavering devotion to God and Christ, and for his love for Kim. If all you know Kanye is a voice you hear re-blogged for snippets he said in interviews, go see him in his natural habitat — dexterously spitting his songs isolated on top of a snowy mountain.
This is Kanye’s sermon on the mount, and his masked performances of “Black Skinhead” and “Blood On The Leaves” were the liturgy, “I Am A God” a stern reminder from the scripture, and his sermon is the rant, spoken in Auto-Tune with the cadence of a preacher channeling the Holy Spirit. And like traditional church service (I’m thinking it’s traditionally Catholic, but again, of these things I am poorly versed), it was all theatre — Aristotelian drama communicating with plot, theme, diction, music, and spectacle. Finally, there was “Jesus Walks” for the congregation; the baptism, the time to testify, the show’s real moment of truth.
What followed was the party in the lobby, spilling out onto the streets with the still perfect “Good Life” and “All Of The Lights” and a rather bare, anticlimactic performance of “Bound 2.” It was never more clear than last night that “Bound 2” is exclusively a song for Kim, and for no one else. As people filed out of Barclays, and Yeezus aesthetic slipped away, Kim stood in the VIP risers on the floor as Kanye sang his devotion to her. It might as well have been just them in that moment.
One final amazing thing: Halfway through his “rant” someone was talking in Kanye’s earpiece and he got sidetracked. He paced around stage, laughing, saying that this sound guy was talking about this or another thing. It was the first time it felt like the house lights came on and we were just seeing casual Kanye, jocular and self-aware, off script, disconnected, nervous. “You were about to have a genius moment! About to cure cancer!” He didn’t know —couldn’t know— that stepping out of character for a brief second was the most genius moment he could have given us.