Over the past few years, Kanye West’s offstage antics have threatened to obscure his prodigious talent as a rapper and producer. From famously sabotaging Taylor Swift’s triumphant moment at the MTV VMAs, to his relationship with reality TV star Kim Kardashian, to various angry and egotistical rants and tirades (one of which spurred President Obama to call him a “jackass”), Kanye’s name has become somewhat of a punch line.
But on Friday night at a packed AmericanAirlines Arena for his “Yeezus Tour” – his first solo jaunt in five years – West delivered an emphatic reminder of his place among the greatest hip-hop artists of all time with an energetic, artistically ambitious and at times majestic “concept” concert.
Heavy on tracks from the starkly brilliant “Yeezus,” West’s sixth studio album and fifth consecutive No. 1 effort, the show was split into four “acts”: Fighting, Rising, Falling and Searching, each with a message displayed on the video screen, such as “The bigger the ego, the harder the fall” or “Mere mortals can’t ruin their own lives.” The idea was clearly designed to at once inspire, warn, and impart great wisdom; how much the crowd bought into that conceit is hard to say, as Kanye’s fans seemed to mainly want to dance, cheer and sing along to his impressive array of hits.
The show began mysteriously, with 11 women in flowing white gowns and stockings shrouding their faces making the slow march to the stage while hypnotic, hymnlike music droned. Kanye’s sudden appearance wearing a jeweled gladiator-type mask – which would cover his face till very late in the show – jolted the crowd into action, and they pumped their fists and sang along to the energetic new trio of “On Sight,” “New Slaves” and “Send It Up” while he stalked the stage.
Two weeks before “Yeezus” was due to hit the streets, West called on super-producer Rick Rubin to step in and strip down its 10 tracks nearly to the point of minimalism at times. But when performed live, the songs sound full and vibrant, especially the tribal beat-driven hit “Black Skinhead” and the bombastic “I Am a God,” during which the women returned to the stage dressed in flesh-colored body stockings and nothing else, and lifted Kanye over their heads while he sang and held him as if he were levitating.
Other highlights from “Yeezus” included the profane “I’m In It,” whose message about the pleasures of the flesh was punctuated by the women writhing together and basically simulating an orgy onstage, and the heartbreaking “Blood on the Leaves,” featuring a sample of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit,” about the lynchings of African Americans.
Of course, the crowd also wanted older faves, and Kanye delivered, with stirring versions of “Power,” “Cold” (based on a sped-up version of Foreigner’s classic-rock track “Cold As Ice”), “Clique,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Coldest Winter,” which he said, as he addressed the crowd for the first time, was written about his mother’s death in 2007.
The night wasn’t perfect. Two-thirds of the way in, after lively versions of “Lost in the World” and “Runaway,” Kanye addressed his notorious outspokenness, saying, “I’ve been getting in a lot of trouble lately, so I decided I’m not gonna say anything tonight.” But all too predictably, he went on to say plenty, spending the next 20 minutes – twenty! – on a diatribe that started off praising God and family, but ended up as a surreal, foaming-at-the-mouth rant during which he compared himself to Nelson Mandela, Michelangelo, Henry Ford and Picasso, among others, exclaiming, “I’m not crazy. I’m not out of control. I’m just not in their control.”
Eventually, thankfully, Kanye returned to his true purpose, launching into the electronica-driven “Stronger,” whose manic energy shook the crowd out of its stunned submission. And by the time he reached the night’s biggest highlight – the raise-the-rafters “Jesus Walks,” during which Kanye finally took off his mask to be blessed by “White Jesus” – the ship had been fully righted. Hallelujah.