Bedazzled masks, pyrotechnics, and white Jesus: A conversation about Kanye's shows in support of Yeezus

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The bedazzled-masked man speaks.
  • Bobby Talamine
  • The masked man speaks

If you're a rap fan living in Chicago you couldn't have gotten through the past few days without hearing about Kanye West's United Center shows in support of this year's Yeezus, even if you didn't have a ticket to the spectacle. A few of us at the Reader did manage to check out Yeezy's performance; I went on Tuesday, and Brianna Wellen and Drew Hunt took in the Wednesday show. The three of us traded e-mails about Kanye's hometown shows after he walked off the stage just before midnight yesterday. Here are our thoughts:

Leor Galil: By now you've seen Kanye West razzle and dazzle the United Center; I caught the first night's show from what you might call the nosebleeds' nosebleeds. Even though I couldn't get a good view of Ye's circular, 60-foot LED screen—the one that got damaged in October and caused Kanye to postpone his local shows to this month—I was still mesmerized by the presentation, though it wasn't perfect. I wish I could say the same thing for Kendrick Lamar, the rising prince of hip-hop who opened the show and performed much of last year's excellent Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City to a half-empty arena, which looked even more cavernous from where I stood. Lamar's generally a great performer, but he's also a rapper who feeds off the audience and spends plenty of time working the crowd, so when he focused on more low-key material (the first half of "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst") it floated away and Lamar was forced to fight through crowd chatter in order to be heard (an unfortunate twist given the theme of that song). How did Lamar go over on night two?

Brianna Wellen: I thought Lamar performed really well on our night, and he seemed to have a captivated crowd on the ground level. However, he definitely lacked a certain magnetism needed to keep a room that size amped up. I was in mid nosebleed range (the 300 level), and while people were on board with Lamar at first, they definitely lost interest toward the end of the set in anticipation of the Kanye spectacle about to take place.

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  • Bobby Talamine

Drew Hunt: The show was ridiculous, there's really no other way to describe it. And I mean that in a positive way as much as I mean it in a literal way. I've yet to see Kanye give anything less than 100 percent at one of his shows (this is the third time I've seen him live). The dude just doesn't stop moving—even when he stands still, he's standing still very aggressively. It's hard not to be in awe. He ripped through two dozen songs like it was nothing. As a hip-hop performer, he's essentially peerless. Amid all the music is, of course, the spectacle, punctuated by a multitiered mountain and that screen you mentioned. It wouldn't be a Kanye show without such theatrics, but I grew increasingly impatient with the various interludes of masked nude women, monsters, and, of course, "white Jesus." It seemed like there was something of a narrative, and I'm sure it all made sense in his head, but I couldn't make heads or tails of what was actually happening. I was mostly perturbed by the hordes of objectified women (he uses them as a chair at one point) who seemed to alternately represent evil, hope, passion, danger, and, uh, sex in equal measure.

I think this all points to Kanye being a living, breathing paradox. Every move he makes is a contradiction in some way, which is both fascinating and frustrating (hey, another paradox!). His mom once compared him to Walt Whitman—she claimed he "contained multitudes"—which I suppose is true, but Kanye is too shrewd to not understand that he doesn't always make sense. Ultimately, he's going to say or do whatever provokes the biggest reaction. Sometimes that means comparing himself to Steve Jobs, other times that means dropping "Good Life" to a stadium full of rabid fans. Either way, it leaves an impact, and no one leave an impact like Kanye.

I thought Kendrick was fine. It makes sense that he's on this tour seeing as he's the first rapper since Kanye to really, truly matter (sorry, Drake fans), but he's clearly not quite ready for stadium status. His love mic skills need lots of work.

I feel like we need to address the rant.

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  • Bobby Talamine

BW: I completely agree about the theatrics. He had to do it, he's Kanye, and they were captivating at times, but he doesn't need it. My favorite parts were the moments when he was on stage without any sort of gimmick: he can single-handedly command thousands of people's attention while performing "Runaway" without a gaggle of women writhing around. It's because of his confidence and conviction that those stripped-down moments work, but that's also what leads him to believe that ending a rap show with Jesus on a mountaintop is a genius move.

Speaking of confidence, yes, the rant. Leor, I'm not sure what happened when you went, but we got a solid 15 minutes about Michael Jordan that lead into Ye telling everyone to follow their dreams. Not quite the controversial topic I was hoping for, though it did lead to a declaration that humility should not be looked at as a more positive attribute than confidence. Kanye really had the audience in the palm of his hand and spontaneously had everyone singing, "We never should've let MJ play for the Wizards."

Let it be noted that through all of this, Kanye had a variety of bejeweled masks covering his entire face, another bit of theatrics I didn't care for.

LG: Yes, the rant—I was wondering if he gave the same spiel both nights, or if he hit all the same notes. When I saw him jumped from talking about his fall-out with Nike and Adidas; his idea that people are either "dreamers" or "haters" (a black-and-white concept that, in a way, reminds me of the "you're with us or against us" attitude of the post-9/11 George W. Bush-era politics); breaking down the facade of awards shows; wanting to bring smiles to peoples' faces (which is extremely interesting to hear given the confrontational nature of Yeezus); being made out to be a bad guy even though he just wants to make people smile; wanting to speak his mind despite the fact that others want to quell him, which he compared to a plantation owner shooting his runaway slave as an example to the other slaves; wanting to outsmart the media, a phrase he repeatedly sang in Auto-Tune as he exited the stage; oh, and that he's from Chicago and is with Kim Kardashian, another theme he repeated a few times.

What I liked about the speech was that it did appear to be so raw and in the moment—most people can't speak coherently when given 20 minutes and no clear road map of what words to say, so as much as Kanye was all over the place in his rant it almost felt like he was having a conversation with the audience, but speaking over everyone at the same time. He said some things that were a bit insane, and taken out of context sound completely nuts, but in the moment it was occasionally brilliant. After nearly two hours of tightly choreographed spectacle it was a nice break to get completely in the moment, even if Kanye penciled in "rant here" between songs in the set list before going onstage.

That said, with him juggling all the theatrical elements, Kanye seemed to be holding back at times simply to pull everything off. He admitted as much at one point, saying he started the tour performing with a lot of anger, but he had a hard time being so moody a week away from Christmas. Did he say the same to you guys?

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  • Bobby Talamine

DH: I think the rant has become as much a staple of a Kanye show as a drum solo show at Rush concert. It's inevitable and kind of crazy but we all secretly can't wait for it to happen. I agree, Leor, I think a lot of what he has to say is genuinely inspiring and pretty intelligent, but his authoritative nature doesn't exactly gel with his message of peace and equality. Again, multitudes! In getting back to the show itself, did either of you think the show kinda dragged in the middle? The last half hour or so was a knockout—hit after hit after hit—but the middle bit, where he pretty much plows through all of Yeezus, kinds dragged for me. Part of me thinks "Hold My Liquor" and "Guilt Trip" just don't belong on the stadium setting. They're too personal and intimate to really translate to such a massive stage. "Black Skinheads" and "Blood on the Leaves," however, wee knockouts, even though Kanye's efforts to get the crowd to shout the opening bars during the latter were kind of in vain—most of the audience didn't even know the words! How did you guys think the minimalist Yeezus material translated to such a huge setting?

BW: Yeezus as an album has a particularly dark edge to it that obviously shaped the mood of the performance, and the minimalism of the material is perhaps why Kanye felt the need to add so many visual stimulants. When he got into songs like "All of the Lights" and "Homecoming" (which was just perfect) the moodiness melted away and it felt more like a spontaneous Kanye instead of the meticulously staged piece of performance art.

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  • Bobby Talamine

So about this screen. I could barely see it from where I was sitting. Was it so necessary to the overall performance that it warranted the tour's massive rescheduling? It seems like none of us were fans of all the over-the-top elements and the show would have been just fine without it.

LG: The Yeezus material came out mixed, not just because of the huge setting, but also because the sound quality for such a large setting is just damn poor (the mix got muddy in parts, sound would cut out) but complaining about bad sound at an arena show is like complaining about the smell of pot at a jam-band show—why bother? But it made the experience of seeing Ye perform the lush "Hold My Liquor," one of my favorite Yeezus tracks, slightly underwhelming. Also, it gave me one source of disappointment; the lack of guests of any kind, especially from the dude's hometown. "Hold My Liquor" might have been better if Keef made an appearance (same to "Don't Like," though Kanye's maximized remix is a bit much anyway), and I would've loved to see King Louie do the hook for "Send It Up." Kanye had to juggle a lot during the show, so I imagine there wasn't much room for guests, but one can dream, right?

To be honest, my favorite moment was when Kanye sang "Coldest Winter" while splayed out atop the rising incline of the center stage—that's a minimalist tune, but he sang it with a passion that wasn't there for some of the other tracks. That and seeing the fake snow fall from the ceiling as the dude belted out lyrics about his dead mom while wearing his bedazzled Bane mask sure made an impression. And, yes, the masks—they would've been good in small doses, but by the end they wore thin. Also the one Kanye wore when he first approached the stage looked like a jewelry-cloaked face-hugger—man, if only Kanye fit a creature popping out of his chest into the narrative arc of the show.

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  • Bobby Talamine

And, yeah, the screen from above was fairly pointless. At times it felt like walking into a dark room lit by a TV screen—albeit a screen that's got a high wattage. Also, is it just me or are Kanye's songs in general hard for crowds to belt out? With a crowd of that size the ability to sing or rap in unison is pretty difficult—people were just out of sync. The songs that tended to hit hard were ones that had easy hooks to scream and jump to—"Don't Like," for example. How did that song go over when you saw it? And what was the size of the crowd, by the way? The United Center looked mostly full by the end of the show, but still spotty in parts.

BW: The venue was only about half full to start, which was slightly disconcerting, but filled in almost entirely by the time things really got rolling. It would have been a bummer to see a bunch of empty seats in a venue that large in Kanye's hometown.

I definitely agree that the strong hooks were crowd-pleasers. Some of the stranger beats left the crowd a little unsure of what to do with themselves, and it became clear that a majority of the audience was a bunch of squares who don't frequent rap shows (much like myself). Simplicity seemed to be the key for keeping the energy up: nothing weird happening on stage to distract, an easy song to bounce with, and a genuine delivery from Kanye.

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  • Bobby Talamine

Some final thoughts: This was an experience. Even though the show felt uneven at times, I certainly won't be forgetting it anytime soon. Part of what's always made Kanye great as an artist is that he's done exactly what he wanted and maintained his personal vision no matter what. In that regard, this show was Kanye to a T. There's no doubt that Kanye was a part of every song choice, every flare gun, and every jewel-encrusted mask.

DH: I was sitting in the first row on the floor seats, so I could see the screen, and while it might not haven been necessary, nothing about this show was in any way necessary, so it fit the bombastic nature of the evening. And yeah, it was pretty damn impressive. If you were able to properly see the images, they added a tremendous dynamic to the proceedings, particularly during "Black Skinhead" and "Coldest Winter." Again, maybe not necessary, but pretty fucking cool.

LG: Well, it would've been nice to get the full, um, view of the show with the screen—it's odd that a large portion of the crowd wasn't able to see the images that provided such a pivotal piece of the show. Then again, I don't think anyone buying a ticket for the upper-decks was thinking, "I can't wait to stare at a video screen;" folks were there just to get a sight of Kanye, even from afar.

Brianna's right, it's an experience, a mammoth show bigger than the stage-sized mountain Kanye stood on top of (or rather behind) to belt out "Power." Kanye knows what to do on a large scale to mostly hold people's attention for more than two hours, but it's imperfect too. I also felt uneasy watching a swarm of barely clothed women writhing and miming an orgy, but that's what Kanye was going for, and he totally succeeded. Arenas aren't the environment I prefer to see music, but Yeezy has the ability to reach to the very back of the nosebleeds and get people moving—not all the time, but enough to make the entire experience worth it. Most musicians have trouble holding a crowd's attention for more than a few songs, and Kendrick struggled to do that even though people clearly knew and liked his music, but Kanye did it. I'm not sure everyone ended up smiling (a woman behind me ended up screaming "take off the mask" over and over towards the end of the show), but I definitely did. What are your final thoughts, Drew?

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  • Bobby Talamine

DH: Ultimately, I think Kanye is a very divisive person even among his own fans. After the show, there was of course a flurry of instant evaluation, and I heard everything from "Kanye is a visionary genius and we are not worthy to be on this planet with him" to "Well, he's a great performer and I love his music but he's such an asshole" to "Why did I even go to this?" I think I had each of those thoughts at different points throughout the show, but I left the arena feeling lighter than air. Kanye is the kind of artist who's gonna put his audience through the ringer. Feeling frustrated with him comes with being his fan, I think. I definitely got impatient at times, but like I said before, the final third of the set was just incredible and more than enough to liven my spirits when the show hit a couple rough patches. I think he's well aware of his moves, both onstage and off; it's all part of a larger tapestry for him. I definitely think some of his messages could do with some clarity—I completely agree with what you say about his female accomplices, whose role and purpose I'm still uncomfortable with—but think of it this way: It's 2:30 AM, I have to be at O'Hare in a few hours to catch an 8 AM flight, and we're still up talking about this. This shit doesn't happen after a Taylor Swift concert.

LG: I know a handful of people who would consider your Taylor Swift comment as fighting words, Drew! I guess we'll have to wait until her next Chicago show.

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