Seeing Kanye West perform, I learned not only what it's like to see a master at the top of his game, but also what it is that makes the polarizing artist so fascinating.
"This is the Yeezus tour; this ain't the who-ever-the-fuck-you-are tour."
And that, friends, is why you pay a $150 for a general admission-floor ticket at the 1st Mariner Arena on a cold Friday night in Baltimore.
And that, friends, is why you opt for a Valentine's Day devoid of all possible romance.
And, that, friends, is why no opening act is needed.
And, most importantly, that, friends, is why you go see Kanye West on his latest string of Yeezus tour dates even though Kendrick Lamar is no longer on the bill and even though the reviews have already been written, the details have already been revealed, and the man theoretically has nothing more to play for, having already crisscrossed the country with such a unique, unforgettable spectacle of a show for months, now.
The above quote came after a particularly vocal fan kept shouting for the star to remove his mask, a mask that in various interpretations, hid his face for at least an hour-and-a-half of his two-and-a-half-hour performance. West, in all his impatient, no-bullshit glory, responded by warning both the fan and the crowd about how he typically reacts to such demands and eventually wound up on that assertion: "This is the Yeezus tour; this ain't the who-ever-the-fuck-you-are tour."
The crowd went nuts. Shoot, I went nuts. Nuts with laughter, nuts with supportive yelping. Even the main attraction, mask still fully in tact, offered a tiny chuckle after hearing his fans cheer. It was the first time it actually felt as though West was in the building. Plus, it cut through the very serious and very seriously heavy undertones that lingered through the first half of the set, a first half that leaned heavily on his 2013 masterpiece of an album. And, because this guy really does love to play in that uncomfortable middle-ground between obnoxiously self-righteous and remarkably self-aware, the comment took at least some of the weight off what could have potentially been an explosive, concert-ending interaction.
But that's why you go: To see for yourself. To observe his mannerisms, his reactions in his own controlled setting, rather than looking in on some photo taken in an airport or some episode of a reality TV program or a chat during a late-night talk show. You take the good with the bad, when it comes to West because when the good is good... holy cow, is it good.
In fact, his good is better than anyone else's good at this moment in time.
The Yeezus tour serves as proof. Impossibly ambitious and wildly theatrical, the night was like standing through a concert version of Abdellatif Kechiche's recent controversial coming-of-age French flick, Blue Is the Warmest Color. It's exhausting. It's erotic. It's confident.
Through all the indulgence and pomp, you can't help but appreciate what you're witnessing, yet by the time it's all over, you need something much stronger than those $9 beers to decompress your brain. Chris Richards, of the Washington Post, tried to put it into words in November after he saw the tour's D.C. stop, and even he couldn't really figure out how to describe it:
"What was that?" he asked before offering a series of declarative statements aimed at trying to figure out the answer to his own question. "It was a concert. It was Kanye West... It was our most imaginative contemporary pop star at his peak — quite literally appearing atop an artificial glacier during the seething reveries of 'Power,' rhyming about the perks of invincibility... It was Vanessa Beecroft marching her models into Superman’s Fortress of Solitude... It was Stanley Kubrick shooting a porno on Broadwa ... It was a heist, with West getting something out of us that no other artist seems currently capable of extracting: an impossible blend of admiration and tolerance." ("Kanye West at Verizon Center: It was an experience unlike any other", 22 November 2013)
That last description -- that's my favorite. It was my favorite when I first read it three months ago and it's my favorite now that I've actually seen what he was talking about. Because Richards is right. Part of West's unique and somewhat timeless gift is his uncanny ability to both earn and lose the respect of his fans or his peers. Case in point: "This is the Yeezus tour; this ain't the who-ever-the-fuck-you-are tour."
It takes balls to say something like that to a smaller-than-normal, unfilled room (despite his proclamation at one point that he's "playing to sold-out arenas," subsequently forcing me to fire off an internal prayer to Yeezus' dad that the crew wouldn't eventually turn those house lights onto the upper bowl). It's even kind of annoying. I mean, with whom else do we as a culture accept bravado as an endearing trait? Yet the tolerance we seem to have for the rapper's unrelenting mound of it cannot be matched by anyone else in the current zeitgeist.
Plus, for the most part, West is still an anomaly to even his most fervent supporters (me included). His artistry can be genius, yet you can't help but scratch your head when you think of his romantic life. He crafts entire songs addressing racial discrimination and the many deficiencies of The (presumably white) Man, though there was a sea of Caucasian faces (again, mine included) screaming those very racially tense lyrics right back in the artist's direction (sans one particular word that I, as a small-town white kid, refuse to use even in the context of sing-along music). He can laugh when his DJ misses the cue to blast the beat to "N--- In Paris" at the end of a mini monologue, utterly ruining the impact of The Moment, but he just can't seem to shut up about how offensive Saturday Night Live can be to him.
None of this is to suggest that I didn't learn anything from the Yeezus experience, of course. In fact, maybe the most previously missed revelation came to me as I was zeroing in on one of his signature 15-miunute sermons at the end of a particularly killer version of "Runaway". As the ranting began, and the music faded into the smoke that kept rolling out of the mountain behind him, Kanye West -- albeit predictably -- began making his case for Kanye West.
And as his stories wavered and his criticisms mounted, he managed to touch on something that answered a lot of questions about his mysteriously passionate appeal: Inspiration. "I Am a God", one of Yeezus' best, darkest tracks, was made for his listeners, he explained, and not for himself. Contrary to the initial perceptions that suggested the rapper was merely proclaiming his own self-worth, West noted how he wrote it with the thought that people could listen to it before a job interview, before a competition or before one of life's Really Important Moments. "I am a god" wasn't uttered because he actually thought he was one; rather, it was designed to incite encouragement within those who seek as much from his music.
A cop out or not, I believed it. Why? Because I experienced it. Only a couple songs before that moment, the second of two notable sing-alongs organically manifested within the small crowd. As Nina Simone's sampled voice snuck through the speakers and it was clear that the spastic "Blood on the Leaves" was on tap, the crowd didn't even allow West to start. Then, right when the track was about to kick through the walls, he stopped his DJ, asked us if we really wanted to hear him perform the song, and then demanded we run through that first verse again.
"All I want is what I can't buy now / Cause I ain't got the money on me right now / And I told you to wait / Yeah I told you to wait / So I'mma need a little more time now / Cause I ain't got the money on me right now," everybody shouted, their hands waving in the air. And instantly, it dawned on me: West is inspirational. Because he messes up. He takes chances. He fails. Hell, even Jay-Z didn't want to have anything to do with him at first. West's outlook is earned; it's weathered.
Considering as much, I eventually landed on this: His version of inspiration transcends the typical connectivity commonly found in music and its fans. In fact, it hits the bull's eye on certain dark, complicated feelings we all eventually experience, while other like-minded artists simply often settle for close enough. During his "Runaway" monologue, he talked a lot about dreams, about how his critics continue to deride him and his actions because they forgot about their own dreams long ago. It was hard not to see his point. Because like him or hate him, dude's a dreamer. Actually, he'll probably never stop being one.
And in a weirdly singular way, hearing him embody all that through his work encourages our own aspirations, our own expectations. West's isn't the atypical hip-hop voice. His visions aren't what we expect from contemporary rap artists. At one point, he noted how happy he is with his life, endearingly citing how he "has his little office" where he "can work on his little clothes... like his little man-skirt." An interesting disclosure from a man so many people love to categorize as overly "angry" or "sensitive", no?
Which leads me directly to what the Yeezus tour taught me: West represents the parts of us that popular culture rarely allows us to reveal. In a world so reactionary, yet so fickle, we hardly ever fully agree with the perceptions others have of who we are. Whether praise be too much or too little, it's hard for us to completely buy into how others view our personalities, both superficially and intimately. There's always something wrong, always something a little off about the often abstract notion of perception.
In all his genius, though, West has taken that embedded ideal and exposed it in ways other artists haven't been able to accomplish. The most provocative element in this formula has been his fixation on both religion and erotica, namely through the Yeezus tour. Often dismissed as either taboo or too uncomfortable to diligently examine, West has produced not only a record that veers on the verge of audio pornography (both sonically and lyrically), but in this case, a gruelingly complete show that tackles those precepts head on. Nearly nude dancers. A few appearances from a dude made out to look like Jesus Christ. A Catholic procession fully equipped with a miniature altar.
It all adds up to the only real way such an accompanying piece of divisive art could be brought to life in front of arena crowds both near and far. Or, in other words -- and one more time for good measure -- it has every right to feature the main attraction proclaiming, "This is the Yeezus tour; this ain't the who-ever-the-fuck-you-are tour."
"Yeah, we ain't got no hits," he sarcastically and bitingly shouted during a 45-minute victory parade that wound the show down and featured an array of, well, hits. "Jesus Walks". "Touch the Sky". "All Falls Down". "Flashing Lights" "Good Life". "Diamonds From Sierra Leone". "Through the Wire". Even a surprising rendition of "Gold Digger", which set the place on fire, came alive as West stole a grin while quickly doing the "get-down" dance -- only once, mind you -- that he and Jamie Foxx made so popular in 2005.
Yet for all the glory that accompanied such a cathartic final run, it was a much larger point that West proved earlier in the night that I took with me as I, along with the rest of the crowd, filed out of the arena. I flashed back to how he gleefully pointed out that he hasn't needed help from radio or TV to continue his success as an artist, especially in the last few years, when the biggest help the guy got was from the theatrical trailer of a Martin Scorsese movie. Again, he was right -- the last real hit he had from one of his own records came from 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the Rihanna collaboration "All of the Lights".
It was somewhat of a brief revelatory moment. Like, "Oh, yeah. I guess nothing from Yeezus really did take off, now did it?" Such is a stark contrast from ten years ago when The College Dropout sort of accidentally took over the rap world. The difference now is that West doesn't really need hits anymore to thrive as an artist. All he really needs is that vision of his, that unique, essential mind that can dream up a tour as expansive, encompassing, bizarre and impossible as the one he's pieced together for Yeezus.
That could only mean good things for the prospects of another decade of fruitful fruition for the Chicago native. Maybe more notably, however, that could also only mean good things for the state of popular culture, for the state of hip-hop, and for the state of each and every one of the fans that showed up to bathe in inspiration and experience the spectacle that is the Yeezus tour in Baltimore, Maryland, on Valentine's Day, 2014.
Because for as great as roses and chocolate can be, you quite honestly haven't lived until you shout "Hurry up with my damn croissants!" alongside thousands of Yeezus Freaks.