(Taken at the Seattle performance, photo courtesy of Stereogum.)
Heading into Kanye West’s and Kendrick Lamar’s performances at the Sprint Center last night, I was ready for anything. I’d already heard the tales of mountains for set-pieces and the appearance of White Jesus, so I had a vague idea of what I’d be getting myself into. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Kendrick Lamar perform twice before, so I knew to expect verbal pyrotechnics from the reigning heavyweight champion of lyrically dexterous hip-hop. And I’d seen Kanye West perform before. Two years ago in Milwaukee, he arrived with a stone angel backdrop and was joined by ballerina dancers during the critical moment of “Runaway”. Knowing all of that still didn’t prepare me for what unraveled last night.
Kendrick took to the stage first, workmanlike in appearance rocking his now famous Nike Cortez’s and a blue hoodie. In many ways, he was presented as the anti-Kanye West for the show. Instead of relying on spectacle, he won the meager crowd of 4500 over with sheer talent. Bolstered by anvil heavy drumming and sweltering guitar riffs, “Backseat Freestyle”s “rin-tin-tin” opening provided the perfect sing along and sent more than a few over-eager fans running to their seats. When the bizarre full-band reworking of “F***in Problems” threatened to run off the rails, Kendrick salvaged it with his “pep talking” showmanship. Elsewhere, “B**** Don’t Kill Vibe” cued clouds of smoke almost in unison and though Lamar’s energy was ratcheted up to 11 for the track, no one’s mellow was harshed. A brief foray into 2Pac’s immortal “Hail Mary” had fans of the fallen MC screaming in excitement and everyone else recoiling in horror at the lurking number. Soon the subtle nightmare of “Hail Mary” was obliterated by good kid, m.A.A.d. city highlight “m.A.A.d. city”. A year removed from the album release and still the song inspires full-out mobbing when it arrives. Those Bernard Hermann indebted strings laid waste to the crow and ensured everyone was jumping up and down or at least yelling out “yawp yawp yawp.” Taking a final victory lap, Lamar rode through the sunny vibes of “Compton” and brought out KC-staple Tech N9ne; simultaneously saluting his hometown and the city of Strange Music. And while he could’ve ended there, Lamar humbly ended with the introspective “I Am”.
In between sets, washes of ambient music filled the arena hinting at the minimalist influences that informed much of Yeezus‘ aesthetic. Nothing about the intro though could be confused for minimalism. A heavenly choir dressed in white robes descended on-stage, their purity tempered by the threat of ski masks. “I am not here right now” an unseen West repeatedly bellowed out. Soon the wriggling electric tentacles of “On Sight” snaked into the arena and West came out decked in a gold mask. The sounds of a Decepticon on its dying breath only halted for the gospel-choir, but it re-assumed control to crush them under its mechanical heel. Gothic demons were unleashed for the stark ping-ponging of “New Slaves”. The sins of this infernal f*** everything racket were atoned by Kanye’s ascendant auto-tuned outro. Nearly 5 years have passed since he embraced the device on 808s and his mastery of the technology has only grown.
“Send It Up” came next, and though on Yeezus it’s a forgettable number (King Louie’s unaffected mumble never quite lands), live it was devastating. The Sprint Center became Britain circa 1940, with sirens going off that recalled a German bombing raid laying waste to entire city blocks. Appropriately “Mercy”, the song that kick-started West’s dancehall obsession, was up next. Robbed of the other guests, the track still raged; fitting right into the initial proceedings by weeping/moaning/wailing as loud as anything.
West’s setlist was bifurcated into 5 distinct parts for the night and after the aptly named “fighting” section drew to a close, it was time for the “rising”. Alighted on a white mountain and now bearing a black ski mask, Kanye sought to “bring the power back” by firmly clutching the crowd in his grasp as they joined in the now familiar chorus. All deference to 808s, but “Power” represented the moment of Mark II Kanye West, where the sonic-manipulation became both darker and more expansive. Brilliantly combined with Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice”, the skittish electronic-beat of “Theraflu” (“Cold”) confirmed this expansion. Weaving together such disparate strains convinced anyone who didn’t already realize that anything was possible on this night.
Though this section was named “rising” the name became a misnomer as the firmly-grounded monolithic stomp of “I Don’t Like” took hold of the crowd. “Black Skinhead” continued the trend. A bracing industrial-punk/electroclash hybrid, the number cut through the thick, sweat drenched air like a Ginsu knife and its high speeds had West down on the ground by the end, exasperatedly singing over a mournful piano. “I Am A God” came along to betray its holy title as presumably naked women pranced around in Caucasian flesh-colored skin suits. Inevitably they congregated around West to lift him heavenward, but his wraithlike screams signaled he was in hell. West then perched atop the pointed main stage, which had risen to a 45-degree angle, for the slow-mo bragfest of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; offering the first respite of the set. It was an opportunity for everyone to catch their breath and “get their money right”.
That brief moment of self-consciousness that opens “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” where ‘Ye realizes no matter he’s bound to “act more stupidly” turned to complete agony when he reflected on being told in 2007 his mother Donda West had passed. His brief anecdote of being in London, thousands of miles away when he heard the news was the first crack in his diamond veneer. The isolation of 808s-closer “Coldest Winter”, which poured out snow on the crowd, further cleaved West’s already fragile mind. “Falling” was the next segment, but the downward spiral had already begun. As a circular jumbotron defined the word, a quote appeared claiming “mere mortals cannot ruin their own lives.” We’re born into ruin the quote presumes and we can only attempt to escape it, never create it.
The Chief Keef feature “Hold My Liquor” listlessly floated in a sea of toxic emotions and numbing agents. The bitter nadir of the night seemed to have been found and then the “Computer Blue” covered by Leatherface vibes of “I’m In It” sent the crowd swirling further down the drain. “Guilt Trip” (an under-appreciated highlight of Yeezus) and “Heartless” which incorporated a record scratch recalling a sputtering chainsaw continued the bottoming out. However all of that was only the rehearsal dinner for unholy matrimony of “Blood on the Leaves”. Here the scorched earth of past relationships became literal when flames shot into the sky and the white mountain behind Kanye turned into a volcano. The first horn wallop provided by TNGHT remains 2013’s most arresting music moment and live that beat drop was somehow more captivating.
“Falling” bled into the soul “searching” of “Lost in the World”. Well into his fourth costume change, West’s face was obscured by a diamond mask as he frantically searched for riches he could never have. All of the pain and frustration of the limelight, of being misunderstood and being rap’s “super villain” weigh heavy on West and with “Lost” the weight was felt.
Given that no one outside of West can top his larger-than-life spectacle, it only seemed natural that “Runaway” would follow. Now alone, Kanye took his sweet time dipping into MBDTF‘s spiritual center, playfully taunting the crowd with countless strikes on the MPC2000XL machine before committing. “I just blame everything on you; at least you know that’s what I’m good at,” West confesses at a pivotal moment in the song. He’s never been a perfect person and he never can be. The moment of clarity came during the extended outro where he attempted to explain what he means by “creative genius”. And while the off-the-cuff explanation missed the mark, he hit the nail on the head when he sang in his shield of auto-tune “I’m just dreaming out loud.” And along with his nightmares, that’s what a crowd in KC got last night. The audible dreams of a man who will never wake up.
1. “On Sight”
2. “New Slaves”
3. “Send It Up”
7. “I Don’t Like”
9. “Black Skinhead”
10. “I Am A God”
11. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
12. “Coldest Winter”
13. “Hold My Liquor”
14. “I’m In It”‘
15. “Guilt Trip”
17. “Blood on the Leaves
18. “Lost in the World”
21. “Through the Wire”
22. “Jesus Walks”
23. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”
24. “Flashing Lights”
25. “All of the Lights”
26. “Good Life”
27. Bound 2
(Notes: You’ll notice the final section is absent from the review. More than anything this final segment became the “greatest hits” segment of the night and while welcome by everyone in attendance was largely disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. Also, while I attempted to incorporate as much of the extravagant stage-show into the article, some details like a demonic gorilla and road flares going off in unison couldn’t coherently fit. At one point during “All of the Light” West was light up by the cellphones of the 4500 strong. One final note, West went through at least four noticeable costume changes during the night and if anyone should be applauded for last-night it’s whoever helped him slip in and out of attire.)