Hip-hop superstar Kanye West held high concept court at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night. The tour had been postponed, and several dates were cancelled after a truck accident damaged equipment, but it resumed in Philadelphia to seemingly no problems.
The concert was equal parts performance art and a religiously themed experimental noise rap show. For approximately 2 and 1/2 hours, West was incendiary and powerful, rolling out a solid 28-song set list that mixed all the songs from his recent album, Yeezus, with the hits, four mask changes, and a special appearance by Jesus. The rap firebrand, backed by a three piece “band” (who contributed programming, backing vocals, keyboard and guitar playing), came out on stage after twelve women (his “disciples”) covered in white prayer robes walked in syncopation onto the stage as the noisy intro to “On Sight” began.
The stage show was elaborate. A 60 foot high mountain, which towards the end of the show would erupt with fireworks and blasts of fire, looked over a walkway where West performed for most of the evening (save when he climbed the mountain). Hovering over Mount Kanye was a circular screen where closeups of Kanye and the dancers would be projected with pre-recorded scenes of the sky including rushing clouds, a sunset, and snow. It was a breathtaking visual compliment to the new material.
There was a loose narrative to the evening’s program. It was divided into five sections, Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding. With each new chapter, a female robotic voice would blast through the soundsystem, introducing each section while her description was projected in words on the circular screen above the stage. The dancers appeared throughout the evening. They alternated their robes with see-through flesh-toned head-to-toe body suits, walked slowly and at times creepily, reminiscent of the women in the classic Hammer Horror Dracula movies. Most of the time, the choreography felt stiff and forced, did little to give lift to the emotional intensity of West’s performance and got in the way of the song transitions (which could have given the show a quicker pace).
Throughout the show, West donned four masks, singing underneath them. Perhaps he was quietly making a point about identity and perception, however he reflected on his own self-perception and the media’s perception of him. At one point he delivered a rant, but also a soliloquy, about slavery. As the religious iconography continued, there came a corny yet climactic point in the show when White Jesus appeared, walked up to Black Jesus, held his head and – in a bit of overacting – Kanye rose from his knees and took the last mask off his head. The crowd loved the moment, and erupted in near deafening excitement.
While the staging and story arc were innovative and creative, West ultimately doesn’t need these elements of theater to provide the drama or the story line. On his own, sans Mount Kanye and his follower souls, under the spotlight, West provides enough of his own theater. His performance of both the new material, especially on “New Slaves,” “Blood On The Leaves,” “Black Skinhead,” and the closing “Bound 2,” proved why he’s one of the greatest rappers of our time. Some of the older material, like “Mercy,” and “Clique” were throwaways for the fans. Most of the “hits” came towards the end of the show and these underscored West’s importance as a rapper and songwriter.
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar opened the show with an explosive set of songs from his recent album Good Kid: M.A.A.D. City, backed by an exceptional live band. Two summers ago, few music fans knew about Lamar, and since then his stature in the hip-hop world has grown to dizzying, well-deserved heights. On Saturday, he came to impress, and treated the them half-filled audience to classics from his recent album like “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” and the poignant, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” Continue reading →