Saturday's Kanye West concert at Philly's Wells Fargo Center started just like any other show any of us have ever seen: with a procession of nearly a dozen women wearing only body stockings descending from the top of a mountain and, eventually, lifting the masked star above their heads as he performed songs that his casual fans don't even like.
Yeezus, Kanye's sixth studio album, was released after months of hype brought on by a staggering Saturday Night Live performance and guerrilla video projections at landmarks all across America (including Eastern State Penitentiary, the Betsy Ross House, and other local tourist spots). The album's "leak" and Kanye's sonic experimentation may have alienated some prospective buyers as Yeezus garnered the lowest, solo, first-week American sales of Kanye's career. And those figures didn't taper as much as they vanished, as the album's sales dropped 80-percent the next week.
So, considering the commercial popularity of Yeezus, it only makes sense that Kanye started his show with "On Sight," the album's two-and-a-half minute introduction track. Ye followed it up with the album's single "New Slaves" before breaking out a number of old staples to win the crowd over.
The nearly nude women contorted themselves to form a throne for Kanye and, at one point, enclosed the rapper in an, ahem, intimate circle as he sprawled face-up on the stage. There was a furry beast with red eyes looming in the background for much of the show, a Catholic processional (complete with a thurible), and someone dressed as Jesus Christ, Himself, made an appearance at the top of the mountain and later confronted Kanye, who kneeled before him on the lower stage. Even Baz Luhrmann would have been impressed with all of the explicit sacrilege at work on the Yeezus tour.
After breaking them in with some Yeezus, Mr. West trotted out some old favorites like "Power" and "Mercy" to get the casual fans into it. Then, he smacked 'em back with "Black Skinhead" and "I Am a God."
A little more than halfway through the show, just when people started to get comfortable, Ye stopped in the middle of his douchebag anthem "Runaway" to go on one of his iconic, autotuned rants, recounting the tale of Willie Lynch and the speech he's said to have given in early 18th century Virginia.
Has anyone ever heard of the Willie Lynch spirit? It's the story of a slave; an old slave, not like new slave. And what they would do is—if a slave got too strong, if his voice got too loud and he was talking too much sh** in front of the crowd—they would look at each other and say, "This type of behavior is not allowed. Because, if this slave gets too strong, then, others slaves will feel too proud. So, what we're gonna do is take this slave and put him in front of the crowd and we gonna whoop his ass every motherf***ing day and tell him, 'What's up now?!'" So, when you see the media talk sh** about me... So, when you see the media not want us to be free... I'm talking mentally... When I talk about "free" I'm talking mentally... If you see Media Takeout talk sh** about me... If you see any blog site talk sh** about me... It seems like that's their own insecurity. It seems like that's their own insecurity. So they beat that slave...'til he behaved. They beat, they beat, they beat that slave. They beat that slave 'til he behaved. But, I don't wanna behave. I just wanna be me. I don't wanna behave, I just wanna be free. I don't wanna behave, I just wanna be me. And I want ya'll to be you. And I want you to feel so new. I want you to feel so brand new; like you can do anything that you want to do. There's somebody in this crowd who's gonna cure cancer. There's someone in this crowd who's gonna find a cure for aids. There's somebody in this crowd who can fix the economy. I know it. I know it, I know it, I know it.
Of course, the only way for West to follow up that diatribe was for him to crank out a slew of crowd-pleasing jams, soaking in the squeals from his worshipers, churning out performances of "Street Lights," "Stronger," "Through the Wire," and "Diamonds" in succession. The congregation rose and lifted their diamonds in the air.
Kanye West has called himself the Steve Jobs of culture. He's called himself the voice of a generation. He's called himself a god. At the very least, he's a supremely talented performer with valuable thoughts on modern racism, celebrity culture, and new-age serfdom. The man puts on a hell of a show.
The Yeezus tour isn't just a rap concert. It's not built on the shoulders of hype men echoing Ye's punchlines. It doesn't need three opening acts who should really be sharing the stage at the Blockley with Cam'ron. Really, it's a one-man theatrical production so focused on exposing social follies that it is ignorant to the fact that it is perpetuating those issues on a new level. Kanye cancels a string of shows to repair a custom, 60-foot, circular LED screen but then gets on television and rants about classism?
Yeezus is high comedy. It's fine art. It's incredibly entertaining and, for some, a genuinely religious experience. Go for the epic, mainstream hip-hop, remain standing for the sermon.