Some things I learned about Kanye West from his two-hour avant-hop extravaganza on Saturday night in Tampa, the tail end of his current "Yeezus Tour."
First, that he’s a meticulous and detail-oriented man when it comes to his creative vision, so when his tightly run production falters and that vision isn't realized, he isn’t happy nor is he afraid to show it. (In this case, it was one of the few most real — and likely only unscripted thing — that happened all night, when about 30 seconds into “Send It Up,” Kanye paused, demanded “What happened with the lights?!” then stopped the music altogether, angrily challenging “Somebody come talk to me, tell me why they fucking up the show in Tampa?” as he strode back up the runway towards the stage and what I imagined was a lighting board manned by a frantic group of techs, and sorted it out only a few minutes later. Then he started the track over again. And the spears of white light that shot up through his legs as he performed proved the wait well worth it.)
Second, that he has an eye for stark yet stunning visuals, and his taste runs to the avant-garde, a substantial divergence from what you'd see at a typical arena hip hop show. For the “Yeezus Tour,” the set was anchored by a massive white mountain peak jutting from the stage with a footpath to its zenith, and featured a long walkway extending into the arena floor that led to a wide arrow-shaped platform, its pointed end rising up to become another edifice opposite the mountain — an ideal spot for Kanye to sprawl dramatically bereft while moaning “Coldest Winter” amid faux snow flurries. A dazzling 60-foot-wide LED screen hovered like a moon over the peak, flashing images or video from the stage or text with stylized definitions of ‘Fighting,’ ‘Rising,’ ‘Falling,’ ‘Searching’ and ‘Finding’ or blank white and shadowed by billowing fog that made it look like a cloud-strung sky. Other eye catchers: a dozen priestesses/dancers who switched between flowing white robes and nude bodysuits, all of them with faces and heads completely covered in nude stockings with hair peeking out in long trails (Son, you got a panty on your head); rays of white light or pinpoints of colored laserbeams shooting around the room and onto the stage; sprays of pyrotechnic sparks and sprays of red gouting flares set off on stage (and at one point held by dancers dotting the mountain path); and Jesus Christ himself, aka 'White Jesus,' Kanye's icon in a box, trotted out at opportune moments.
Third, he takes himself very, very seriously, and seems to be fighting the war between sharing and hiding his true self, a 'look at me, understand me/don't look at me, you'll never understand me' sort of dichotomy that played out in his stage show. He kept his face completely covered for the majority of it, cycling through four different head-encasing masks (intricate couture designs created by avant fashion house Maison Martin Margiela), until Jesus came out to peel back the final one. The whole thing felt like an abstract metaphor speaking of Kanye’s reality; the masks representing his celebrity, his money, his public persona — everything he wears like armor and uses to hide the real man beneath, whose true face/self can ultimately only be seen by the lord (and a room full of 20,000 or so shrieking fans relieved to discover that beneath all those masks there is, indeed, a Kanye West, and not a real good body double).
The concert left me feeling a newfound respect and admiration for Kanye’s talents beyond music. The dude staged a high brow hip hop show not far removed from performance art, brought it to more than 25 cities in the U.S., and everyone (including the fans in the nearly full Tampa Bay Times Forum on this night) seemed to approve wholeheartedly. And he barely showed his face through the whole thing. I’m sorry but that requires some big fat cojones.
Also, his arena-playing experience has taught him how to really use a big space, both visually and aurally; the view of the stage was amazing anywhere I stood in the arena, and I could always hear what he was rapping, rhyming or saying over the mix, something that Kendrick Lamar still needs to learn, though Kendrick's set proved a solid warm-up despite the too-loud bass, replete with stagewide video screen and full four-piece backing band.
In tribute to Kanye's high brow presentation, and because I don’t have anything more to say about a concert that’s virtually the same from one city to the next (you know the songs, you know the highlights, you know about the one real moment that happened during his stop in Tampa), I’m going to offer a brief analysis of each of the show's screen-themed segments, their respective masks and key wardrobe items, broken up in linear order.
LCD Screen Theme: Fighting
Mask 1: Brown, tricked out in graffiti style, in a haphazard patchwork of beading, fringe, and finely worked metals.
Outfit: Black tank with American flag and eagle combo, airbrushed, brown jeans with more airbrushing designs, thick gem-crusted chain, trademark Louis Vitton high-tops (brown)
Possible theme: Being an American — patriotic, proud, fully dressed the part — but still feeling like an outsider, oppressed, misunderstood.
Songs (in the order played):
Send It Up
LCD Screen Theme: Rising
Mask 2: Black, covered in glinting black studs.
Outfit: Charcoal grey pants in sleek parachute material, tight at the calves, sagging below the ass with black briefs showing, matching flight jacket, no shirt, brown high tops
Analysis: His ascension — to fame, to power, to greatness, to his destiny. His righteous cry of triumph as he embraces it, his feeling of bitter cold futility about it all when tragedy strikes.
I Don't Like (Chief Keef cover)
I Am a God
Can't Tell Me Nothing
LCD Screen Theme: Falling
Mask 3: Black, covered in square white tiles
Outfit: A tunic mixing the shapeless qualities of a mumu, dashiki and an army-issue duffle bag, made of green military surplus material covered in pockets, hanging straps and belts.
Analysis: Stuck in a holding pattern, purgatory, paying a penance with ruthless behavior, fighting demons on he inside but hiding it behind a blank stoic exterior of celebrity, posturing, reaching a breaking point.
Hold My Liquor
I'm In It
Blood on the Leaves
[Kanye exits, the mountain cracks open, the priestess processional emerges holding crosses, candles, hanging incense burners and Kanye comes storming back out, new mask adorned.]
LCD Screen Theme: Searching
Mask 4: Mirrored, like a disco ball, and reflecting just as brightly.
Outfit: Floor-length deep green jacket, richly brocaded at the cuffs, shoulders and trim, grey-brown canvas apron/skirt thing with a trailing tie over matching pants, jacket shrugged off in favor of a creamy linen v-neck.
Analysis: Looking in the mirror, doing some self-seeking, re-identifying his place in the world.
Lost in the World
Kanye Preach/Rant (Dreamers and Haters, embracing life, etc.)
LCD Screen Theme: Finding
The Mask Removed
Analysis: Realizing his place, embracing it and revealing himself with the blessing of god, his rebirth into who he is today.
Through the Wire (Partial)
[Enter ‘White Jesus’, who dramatically pulls off Kanye’s mirror mask, and finally reveals his face.]
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Partial)
All of the Lights