Kanye West/Kendrick Lamar Live at the Sprint Center

(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.

Setlist:

 

Fighting

1. “On Sight”

2. “New Slaves”

3. “Send It Up”

4. “Mercy”

 

Rising

5. “Power”

6. “Theraflu”

7. “I Don’t Like”

8. “Clique”

9. “Black Skinhead”

10. “I Am A God”

11. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”

12. “Coldest Winter”

 

Falling

13. “Hold My Liquor”

14. “I’m In It”‘

15. “Guilt Trip”

16. “Heartless”

17. “Blood on the Leaves

 

Searching

18. “Lost in the World”

19. “Runaway”

 

Finding

20. “Stronger”

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.)

 

“Yeezus”- Kanye West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Jared McNett

I took my own sweet time reviewing this record for several reasons. First, trips into the awe-inspiring Mountain West kill almost any desire to work. Alongside the fact that it’s hard to find any Wi-Fi on the side of a mountain. But more importantly this is a Kanye West record, one of the few artists left in any genre whose release dates turn into full-blown events. Once the release date for Yeezus was announced, I found myself intensely circling June 18th with the sort of anticipation reserved for a kid at Christmas. In short, this is something worth taking your time on, less you risk being bowled over by the hypemachine that is always threatening to run off the tracks every time Kanye releases a new album. And finally, I took my time with this review, because after 10 full spins down into the rabbit hole, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m hearing.

Not that an album like this is without precedence, though the reference points may appear dated to some. The last commercial artist (for whatever that means anymore) to make this deliberately non-commercial of an album was Radiohead with Kid A in the face of the capital they garnered with 1990s touchstone OK Computer. Drifting back a bit further, we find another Yeezus companion in the prickly In Utero, Nirvana’s aural balking at the success Nevermind afforded them. Yeezus keeps company with these mangled predecessors. A dense, often impenetrable album, Yeezus is so subsumed with blind rage and paranoia it’s a small miracle Ye manages to craft a coherent line while spitting with such venom. In the case of the crushing industrial complex of “I Am a God” it’s the gospel, with Kanye’s righteous anger reduced to a serious of dissonant yells and blood-curdling screams. Whereas, Radiohead was wigging out over the perils of living in the Y2K decade, and Cobain & crew were doing everything to kill the 800-pound gorilla in the room that was Nevermind, Yeezus‘ fury is fomented without cause and aimed in every direction.

As is often the case with a great work of horror, an apparent lack of rhyme or reason to the madness is all the more terrifying. And on the first few listen-throughs, Yeezus is bereft of any method to the madness. “I’m In It” is positively stomach-churning in its thorough documentation of a party that reached its legal limit hours ago. A warped, coked up take on classic Prince circa Purple Rain, the song relies on a double-tracked Kanye voice that could fill in for Victor von Doom; creating the sort of party atmosphere where Leatherface would be a must-have on the guest list. Kanye manages several of his so dumb they’re genius lines on the track; turning sweet & sour sauce into something sexual, and reconfiguring the Civil Rights Fist for his own hedonistic purposes,  but they’re the only chuckles to be found on the claustrophobic song.

An immediate difference between this record and prior solo-release My Beautiful Dark Twisted is a steadfast commitment to a less is more approach. If West gleaned anything from producer Rick Rubin on the record, it’s that lesson in minimalism that Rubin perfected with Run DMC, LL Cool J, and The Beastie Boys and West employs to great effect on conversation started “New Slaves.” The song is little more than the bleeps and bloops West filtered throughout 808s broken up by the occasional orchestral menace that made “H.A.M.” so bracing. Chief Keef who has staked his career thus-far on masking minimalism as bombast, shows up for a subdued vocal turn on “Hold My Liquor” where the entirety of his performance can be boiled down to “I can’t handle my liquor, but these b***hes can’t handle me.” West raps over a muted drum beat and guitar swipes, futilely attempting to keep his destructive tendencies at bay.

For anyone that still has a proclivity for pigeonholing hip-hop as a genre rife with over-accentuated machismo and misogyny, they’ll be clocking overtime on this record. A friend commented that this album plays out like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Hell of a Life” blown-up to LP proportions, and in many ways he’s right. That song was the pinnacle of the decadence, hedonism, and narcissism found on MBDTF, but it pales in comparison to much of Yeezus. Past stylizing himself as a God, West declares this “the greatest s**t since “In Da Club” on the drill-scene inspired “Send It Up,” threatens to “turn the plane around if your ass keep complaining” on closer “Bound 2,” categorizes an unnamed woman on the mutilated Daft Punk production “On Sight” as doing little more than “tryna get a nut, and wears the crown of Big Poppa on “Guilt Trip;” and those scan as some of the tamest examples to be found on the album.

All of that is just foreplay for the poison pill Kanye force-feeds listeners on centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves.” If the song has a sibling in the West discography it’s in MBDTF‘s “Blame Game.” That song was a heartbreaking tale of betrayal, West desperately trying to make contact at 1 in the morning, “calling your brother’s phone like what was I supposed to do?” On that song, West was wounded and could hard make sense of the relationship that was crumbling before his very eyes. That’s not the case here, Kanye instead demands “let’s get on with it,” before a Spartan beat offered up by TNGHT obliterates a sample of Nina Simone covering Civil Rights anthem “Strange Fruit.” The sample harkens back to a “simpler” time for West, when rapping and making soul beats were his only concerns, before he became tabloid fodder and courted controversy. But that soul sample is the only recollection of 2004 Kanye on the track, lines like “let’s take it back to the first party, where you tried your first molly,” unlikely to pop up on “All Fall Down.” When he bitterly re-terms marriage “unholy matrimony,” it’s the ice-cold grasp of 808s & Heartbreak that is recalled and not the warm boom-bap of College Dropout.  Almost a decade into his career, Kanye seems utterly incapable of running in place, each successive album designed to deconstruct what came before it.

In Ryan Dombal’s review for Pitchfork, he wrote that “many of the album’s most powerful moments have him broken down, insecure, and bloody, railing against an ineptitude with the opposite sex,” which should come as no surprise to anyone whose followed West since the beginning. The great trick of Kanye’s career has been to construct a front of overconfidence in the service of concealing his Achilles heel of insecurity. For every moment West elevates himself to Godlike status, there’s an equal part of beating himself up to a bloody pulp. He can move from the consciousness of “New Slaves” to the oafishness of “Send It Up” and not even bat an eye. Back to “Blood on the Leaves” he confesses to wanting “what I can’t buy now,” conjuring up 2007′s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” He’s traded Mos Def & Freeway spots for Chief Keef and King L, cast aside much of his soul stylings for drill music/dancehall/and Titanic-sized electronica, and moved from the neon daydream of Graduation’s cover to the unadorned Yeezus. But one thing hasn’t changed and that’s the man at the center of it all, a restless rap savant who still “don’t care what people say.”