In Yeezus, Kanye West succeeded in creating an album more controversial than the enigmatic man himself, if such a feat were even possible. Indeed, few aspects of pop culture in the past year have garnered as much attention, debate, praise, criticism and overall controversy as did the minimalistic industrial synth-driven sonic landscape that West created. From the very first noise on the album (a highly abrasive distorted synthesizer oscillating between various pitches), one realizes that the next hour is going to provide anything but easy listening. What follows is a collection of disjointed beats, droning synths, primal screams and croissant references that at times feel more like an aural assault than a rap album. To some, the result is exhilarating and mesmerizing, while to others it is merely headache inducing.
Regardless of how one feels about the album, it’s hard to deny that Kanye is at the zenith of his career. Self-labeled as the “epicenter of culture,” the influence he has had on the musical trends of the past decade are profound. From breaking hip-hop’s strictly gangster-rap image with The College Dropout, to opening the door for Drake and Frank Ocean, among others, with 808s and Heartbreak, he’s been the most successful and critically acclaimed artist in the last 10 years. With Yeezus he follows the likes of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s and Radiohead’s Kid A, breaking free from expectations by challenging (and potentially alienating) his fan base. So upon hearing that he had extended his Yeezus tour and would be playing in Albany, I had no choice but to attend his concert.
I came expecting a highly produced rap concert featuring light shows, pyrotechnics and incessant audience engagement. Kanye would leave the stage only to return a few minutes later to perform an encore or two. What we got instead was an extensive and intricate, authentic performance, more reminiscent of a Broadway production than of a simple concert. The show, nearly two and a half hours long, was divided into five acts: fighting, rising, falling, searching and finding. Each section contained music and set pieces relating to its specific theme. Monsters roamed, mountains opened, volcanoes exploded and the stage rumbled. Hell, even Jesus made an appearance.
For the first four acts, Kanye remained masked, his face covered with various intricate, grandiose headpieces that gave him a celestial, almost inhuman appearance. He became a part of the set, bringing the audience deeper into his fantastic and frightening world. He was accompanied on stage by a troop of dancers who acted as props, contorting and configuring themselves abstractly from song to song. Their wardrobe consisted of nun outfits, nude bodysuits and ballerina sartorial that all accentuated and complimented the music. The only time Kanye directly interacted with the ensemble was when he used its members as a human throne during the barefaced ode to his sexual antics, “I’m in it.”
Despite the captivating originality of the five-set act, what really took the show to another level was the moment when Kanye broke free from the preordained structure. He compensated for the lack of an opening act by extending his show by 45 minutes, celebrating the 10th anniversary of The College Dropout by playing various highlights off the album. From there he worked his way up, playing hit after hit from each entry in his discography. He strutted to “Gold Digger,” rocked to “Stronger,” and led the audience in a slowed down “rap along” to “Ni**as in Paris.” But what perhaps was the greatest moment of the concert was when he broke free from the music entirely and entered into one of his infamous rants. What I initially feared would consist solely of arrogant hubristic bragging, petty ire and empty bravadoes turned out to be one of the most open, and dare I say it, inspirational speeches I have heard in a long time. Urging the audience to trust their instincts, get inspired and excited about their work and embrace their creativity, Kanye preached empowerment and self-fulfillment, crying out against a society that failed to give black artists the proper reverence and respect their work deserves. Tired of being marginalized, Kanye seeks to use his platform to give voice to the inner city. And of course … he didn’t miss the opportunity to remind everyone in attendance that they were in the presence of a “Rap god.”
In short, the concert was the embodiment of Kanye: ostentatious, brazen, overwrought, defiantly bold and ultimately, uplifting. His drive comes from his incredibly constructive, albeit somewhat obnoxious confidence. So yes, he may be arrogant, but at least he chooses to inspire rather than demean.