Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar (Yeezus Tour) – Madison Square Garden (New York, New York), 11/23/13

Well…that concert was actually a lot less crazy than I thought it would be. Either I’m starting to understand how Kanye’s mind works or I had such a contact high that logic and reason became more fungible concepts.

I first became fascinated with Kanye West the person back in 2005; while I was already very familiar with Kanye West the artist from his fantastic debut album The College Dropout, I didn’t know much about the man behind it until he popped up on the Hurricane Katrina relief concert to announce that President George W. Bush didn’t care about Black people (Mike Myers super uncomfortable reaction through this whole speech is priceless):

This was the moment that I realized that Kanye was going to provide us with years of entertainment, not only on stage but off; here’s a dude that was going to say whatever he thought, whenever he thought with little care about what other people thought of him. This frequently extends to him talking about how talented and great he is, which isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world but makes people uncomfortable about his apparent lack of hubris. I mean, the guy’s latest album is named Yeezus and contains the song “I am a God.” To paraphrase the great philosopher Terrell Owens, Kanye clearly loves himself some Kanye. Half the fun of Kanye is that you never know what exactly is going to get him on his soapbox; his recent beef with Jimmy Kimmel was unexpected and seemingly came out of nowhere. You can call Mr. West a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them.

His unpredictability and his confidence in himself as an artist is one of the reasons that I wanted to go see him perform. I was honestly very curious to see what he had up his sleeve and his vision for his first tour in five years. I’ll admit that I had my doubts about how Kanye would be as a live performer – I hadn’t necessarily been impressed with some of his award show performances – but I knew that there would be such a spectacle involved that it would be entertaining regardless. The tour might be tremendously awesome or a train wreck, but either way I wanted to witness it first-hand. I was leaning toward the former rather than the latter, since what people forget is that Kanye isn’t completely delusional. The man is in fact ridiculously talented and extremely innovative. It’s a shame that his personal life and personality have somehow obstructed that; he’s really doing some creative stuff and it’s no surprise that his music is routinely used to score trailers for motion pictures. He is constantly reinventing his sound and you never know what direction he’ll go in next or what will inspire him (Yeezus was reportedly influenced by a Le Corbusier lamp).

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Whatever the Yeezus show was going to be, it was most likely going to be something unlike anything that I’d seen before.

As I boarded Amtrak for my pilgrimage to MSG, I wondered what exactly I had signed myself up for. I had heard bits and pieces about his show from earlier stops on the tour, but I had really tried to avoid knowing too much going in so as not to ruin the surprise. I was extremely curious what the composition of the crowd would look like; multiple people asked me if I was nervous to be going to this concert – which I wasn’t – but I had no real idea of what the fan base for Kanye would look like. My instincts told me white 18-25 year olds, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a much more diverse crowd awaiting me. Turns out that my hunch was right as to the audience demographic; at 37 years old, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew that the show would lean heavily on the material from Yeezus – this was after all a tour in support of that album – which raised a whole other set of questions. Yeezus is a great album, but it is a very dark and raw album. It isn’t an easy listen; if your primary reference for Kanye is his song “Gold Digger,” Yeezus would be a shock to you. I wasn’t sure what kind of show you could build around such a punishing collection of songs that wouldn’t be extremely depressing.

Things got a little weird from the get-go when we were handed rain ponchos as we entered the arena. What could this possibly mean? What is Kanye up to? It speaks to the man’s creativity that you could have told me just about anything and I would have believed it. Sadly, it turned out to just be a publicity thing and wasn’t related to the show, but it still set the mood for the evening.

Kanye also has an interesting collection of merchandise for sale at the concert; there is a lot of Native American imagery as well as several items that sport the Confederate flag. I hadn’t been planning on buying a concert T-shirt, but this pretty much solidified the deal. I don’t know that I would be comfortable wearing any of that stuff.

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Kendrick Lamar kicked things off promptly at 8 pm and did a very impressive 45 minute set. I knew of Kendrick and I’m sure that I have his music on my iPod, but I was admittedly not as familiar with his body of work. His song selection relied heavily on his 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which will definitely now move its way up in my rotation. He really was as good as I had heard he was and I thoroughly enjoyed him. I’d kind of looked past him while focusing on Kanye, but Kendrick held his own with the crowd. If you aren’t familiar with him, he’s worth checking out.

I was sitting on the second tier of MSG and the seats were further away from the action than I would have liked. My view of the giant video screen that derailed the beginning of the tour when it needed repair was obscured by some sort of catwalk seating at MSG. During Lamar’s set, behind him was a giant structure that was covered by a black sheet. As the crew broke down the state to reconfigure it for Kanye’s set, the sheet was removed to reveal a giant white mountain:

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Yup. Shit just got real.

The Yeezus show is broken into five parts: Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding. Each section of the show begins with a definition of the word displayed up on one of the many screens throughout the arena. After the definition of Fighting was projected, a group of women slowly walked out on to the stage, wearing white flowing robes and their faces obscured with a pantyhose like covering.

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They made their way to the triangle shaped main stage, while a beam of light shone down on the empty tip of the stage.

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The arena faded completely to black and then out came Kanye, clad in a mask that looked something like what a Mexican wrestler would wear.

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He launched into his first song “On Sight” and the arena exploded. I consider myself a Kanye fan, but these kids were disciples. They knew every single word of every single song and screamed them out with the same angst and rawness of Kanye. There were actually parts of the show where it was difficult to hear him over the fans rapping along; it was amazing to watch the quiet arena transform into pure energy as soon as he took the stage. Everyone was jumping around and gesticulating and I suddenly felt very old and out of place. I probably should have studied up before the show and given Yeezus a few more listens.

The women disappeared for a little while and Kanye was on his own on stage. He threw himself into his set list, throwing in some dancing where appropriate. The stage was built something like a wrestling ring and bounced up and down with him as he jumped up and down. It was kind of like watching a show on a low rider. The place stayed pretty crazy during the duration of the show, but it went especially nuts when he did “New Slaves.” This song featured a call and response portion, where Kanye would say the lyric “there are leaders” and the crowd would respond by yelling “and there are followers.” Kind of reinforced the whole cult-y feel to the evening, but the crowd was enthusiastic to accept their subservient role. I was just happy that I actually knew the words to this song well enough to participate.

Kanye disappeared too when the show transitioned to the Rising portion of the program. He reappeared on top of the mountain (obviously) with a totally different mask on. This time it was black jeweled mask.

photo from consequences of sound

photo from consequences of sound

photo from yahoo music

photo from yahoo music

Kanye slowly worked his way down the mountain and back to the main stage where he was rejoined by his Greek chorus of women, who had noticeably shed their white robes in favor of flesh colored body stockings.

photo from hiphopwired.com

photo from hiphopwired.com

The women then picked him up and held him in the air, one of the many overtly religious co-options of the evening.

photo from thisismax.net

photo from thisismax.net

The stage then rose up into the air, with Kanye performing on the very edge. It reminded me of Simba being presented to the herd in The Lion King.

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Things slowed down a bit as Kanye briefly addressed the crowd to talk about how his song “Coldest Winter” was written after his mother passed away. It was the most vulnerable that I’ve ever seen Kanye and as he performed the song he lay on the edge of the cliff of the stage. It was rather dramatic, but it felt authentic and the emotions were real. Plus Kanye made it snow inside the arena during this song. Is there nothing that this man cannot do?

photo from entertainmentwise.com

photo from entertainmentwise.com

We then entered the Falling portion of the evening, where Kanye sat on a chair made out of the women.

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The women also formed a circle around Kanye as he performed laying on the stage:

photo from entertainmentwise.com

photo from entertainmentwise.com

This also marked the introduction of some sort of monster, who appeared on the main stage and the retreated to hang out on the mountain. The presence of this creature was never addressed and it just kind of hung out, with laser red eyes ominously alerting his presence. It was weird, but at this point in the show it seemed to be the most normal thing going on. I actually would have liked to see more of the guy.

photo from kanyetothe.com

photo from kanyetothe.com

The giant mountain behind him was transformed into a volcano – I suppose to show his anger and angst or his descent into something – though it was done with lighting and not actual lava (bummer). It was a very cool visual in a night of very cool visuals. It seemed to me that Kanye was wearing the same mask that he wore for the Rising set, but I could be mistaken on that.

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The beginning of the Searching portion of the show was kicked off with the mountain – now no longer a volcano- splitting open in a sea of white light. The women returned, once again clad in their robes, and performed something pretty close to a mass. They had candles and a giant cross: I found it ironic that the closest that I’ve come to going to church has been going to concerts. Performers have really been doubling down on the religious imagery.

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Kanye reemerged with yet another mask; this time a brighter white jeweled mask. I knew about the masks going in, but the fact that he wore them for pretty much the entire 2.5 hour set seemed to annoy some in the audience. The guy sitting next to me occasionally yelled out “Take of your mask” in between enthusiastically and drunkenly making out with his girlfriend. Yup – they were super fun to be sitting next to all evening.

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Kanye hadn’t really spoken all that much to us during the show – he let the music speak for him – but it isn’t a Kanye show unless he goes off on some sort of rant. This is planned of course, but I’m guessing that he thinks of it as the sermon portion of the evening. It was kind of hard to really understand him from where our seats; I don’t think it was the mask’s fault but rather a common problem with the sound system at concerts. I find it difficult to clearly understand the performer when they are speaking at most shows, so this really wasn’t anything different. It appears Kanye was super annoyed at Yves Saint Laurent’s creative director Hedi Slimane. You know – something totally relatable. He was also ticked off at Nike:

This, unfortunately, was the last part of the concert that I got to see. The last train back to Albany was leaving at 11:35, which I thought would be enough time, but with Kanye not taking the stage until 9:40 and doing a 2.5 hour set, that wasn’t meant to be. Sadly, Amtrak doesn’t run on Yeezus time. I had expected to miss some of the show, but I was a little bummed that I missed what happened right after he completed his rant. After he said his peace, a special guest star made an appearance – none other than Jesus himself:

photo from NY Daily News

photo from NY Daily News

Kanye addresses him as “White Jesus.” Classic. This led into “Jesus Walks,” which I was disappointed to have not seen performed live.

I also missed Kanye finally taking his mask off; it is kind of funny that I sat through a Kanye show and never actually saw Kanye. I’m ultimately OK with it – I know what the dude looks like and I have absolutely no doubt that it was Kanye up on stage (I heard some conspiracy talk as I left the arena). In some ways, seeing that show was in fact seeing Kanye, even if I never saw his face. That concert was a pretty perfect representation of who he is and how he sees the world.

Even though I had to take off before the show wrapped up, I had a really fabulous time. The Yeezus show weirdly made sense to me and I think I pretty much got what Kanye was trying to say. It was really more of a performance art piece than a traditional concert; in a lot of ways it reminded me of the Madonna concert that I went to last summer (a comparison that I’m sure neither Kanye nor Madonna would be entirely happy with). Anyone can get on a stage and sing one of their songs; it was clear that Kanye put a lot of thought into this show and what exactly he wanted to say. For the most part, everyone in the audience seemed to be totally on the same page as him. As his “rant” continued, I could sense people losing interest. However, it wouldn’t be Kanye unless he spoke his mind.

I am so glad that I got to experience the show for myself and see what it was all about. It certainly wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t all just spectacle. Kanye really put on a show and has a true presence when he is out on stage. I’m sure that some people will find the show too self-indulgent, but I thought that it was more entertaining than most of the shows that I go to. It’s not a concert that I am soon to forget. It really is a show that has to be seen in person to be believed and though I didn’t get to see the last part of the show, it was still a memorable experience.

The Yeezus tour continues through December 23rd.

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One thought on “Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar (Yeezus Tour) – Madison Square Garden (New York, New York), 11/23/13

  1. Lance says:

    outstanding review Heather!

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