Searching for Yeezus, or re: Opening Night of the Kanye Tour
By Andrew Hall | 20 October 2013
By now, we all know that Kanye West is nothing if not ambitious, contradictory, and more often than not less deserving of ridicule than late night TV wants to make him out to be. Over the course of his career, his work as both producer and artist has probably influenced more musicians—mainstream, indie, DIY, whatever—than just about anyone else’s, and like few mainstream pop stars, he’s thrillingly unpredictable. Even when he makes mistakes, they’re interesting and engaging. They seem worth listening to.
We’ve already talked about Yeezus on this site, and I agree with a lot of the criticism leveled at the record. Kanye’s persona across most of its songs is pretty repellent; there’s the pretty close-to-unforgivable “eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce” bit; and I kind of don’t remember the second half of the record, “Bound 2” excepted. That said, Yeezus features some visceral, exciting music that tries to do things that no one else with Kanye’s level of notoriety or access to resources is doing. It’s vicious, almost subversive, and made by someone who clearly doesn’t care at all what anyone thinks of him. With all the good and bad that comes with that.
It was that Kanye I hoped to see on the Yeezus Tour. I wanted to hear buzzsaw synths, the “Black Skinhead” drumbeat at clobbering volume, and a lot of screaming, both with and without Autotune. What I got was a dress rehearsal with a mishmash of nonsense imagery, rough sound, and the frustrating sense that no one, Kanye included, was actually prepared to sell this music to over ten thousand people per night.
The first sign that something was amiss came when I showed up an hour after doors were supposed to open and everything was still shut. A line started to stretch for block after block around KeyArena while security explained that the stage had yet to be built and Kanye was unhappy. Collaborator Mike Dean posted that one of their trucks was stolen, delaying the show, and nothing really happened until about 9 PM, when a mob of people rushed the doors to get in. At that point, Kendrick Lamar was supposed to have been finished.
Instead, Kendrick went on at 9:40 after he and his backing band got nothing more than a linecheck. They played a set of songs from good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012) that felt like it was cut short, and in an arena setting, and without any time to actually get levels right, his very good songs still had hooks, but all nuance and sonic detail vanished in a wall of rattling bass noise. His backing band more or less rearranged the songs to be played by a rock band, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s any more effective than performing to tracks when trying to turn dense, introspective music into something that communicates in an environment with so many variables. Flying Lotus’ visuals seemed cool, but from the seats I ended up in I could barely see them. Fortunately, the show was undersold to the point that it took no work at all to move from the nosebleeds to the lower levels without anyone noticing and there was no risk of having to give up seats to their rightful ticketholders since Kanye’s set began more or less when it was supposed to be coming to an end.
And perhaps it was the fact that Kanye went on at 11:30 and didn’t finish until almost two in the morning, or perhaps it was that he didn’t get a proper soundcheck, or perhaps the stolen truck simply threw off everyone’s priorities, but the show was more technically off than just about anything I’ve ever seen, especially at that level and with the money involved that goes into these things. Kanye entered accompanied by twelve dancers, all of them masked, over a spoken narrative which was—due, again, to the sound—was kind of incomprehensible, tore through “On Sight” and “New Slaves,” and then moved through a sequence that felt strangely anticlimactic. He stood there hypemanning backing tracks during “Mercy,” then followed that with a thrilling rendition of “Power” from atop the mountain that occupied most of the stage, and led that into “Cold.” For most of the set, he lay on the stage, writhing while the dancers built shapes around him, and the dips into his back catalogue vibed on Yeezus’s negative energy: “Coldest Winter,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Heartless,” “Street Lights.” He attempted “Hey Mama,” but broke down before the first verse started.
Along the way, a red-eyed snow monster appeared on the mountain for some reason, an interlude seemed to borrow prominently from Klan imagery (merch for the Yeezus Tour includes Confederate rebel flag tote bags, by the way, in case that’s a thing you’re looking to purchase), and towards the end, a man playing Jesus emerged from the mountain to meet Kanye, who said, “White Jesus, is that you? Oh shit!” before White Jesus explained to him that Kanye was here to show people the light.
While it was all ridiculous (and in many ways simultaneously flawed and exciting in the same ways that Yeezus is), it would’ve probably been easier to get away with were there any semblance of a fourth wall, or a sense that I was watching a show where sonically nothing was working. When the beat for “Runaway” dropped, Kanye tried to trigger the samples on the MPC only to discover that they weren’t loaded; “Everybody fired,” he said into the mic, and it was clear why. To make matters worse, Kanye blanked on the lyrics to his own songs. He forgot at least a portion of and mumbled his way through “I Wonder,” stopped “Heard ‘Em Say” after less than a verse of limp singalong during which he said nothing, let “Through the Wire” play as an instrumental while, again, he did nothing. By the end of the night, at least a third of the crowd had left. A lot of people had fallen asleep. Fortunately, he found at least some energy to tear through “All of the Lights” and “Bound 2” at the end, and the remaining audience responded positively. “Bound 2” even sounded good, 140 minutes and twenty-six songs too late.
Yet here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure there is a good show somewhere in this mess, and I’m not unconvinced that another round of rehearsal or a longer fucking soundcheck would’ve made most of these issues irrelevant. I saw the first night of the Glow in the Dark tour in 2008 and that started when it was supposed to, mostly sounded great, and didn’t do any of the room-clearing that this show did. It’s clear that Kanye will continue to follow his muse wherever he wants to, and that there’s an audience willing to follow him there, but whether or not they’re going to be willing to spend at least a hundred dollars to see a show that was in no way ready to be performed is another question entirely. If the rest of the tour is as poorly executed as this show is, I’ll be disappointed because Kanye’s better than this; if it’s great, I’ll be disappointed because I paid to be part of the test audience.
An addendum: After I wrote this, Kanye postponed the Vancouver date of this tour. This was probably the right move.