Kanye West stood on the Wells Fargo Center stage Saturday night with his face covered by a stylish executioner’s mask that made him look like a high couture Mexican wrestler, and attempted to explain himself.
In so doing about two-thirds of the way through his grueling, boldly unorthodox 2 hour and 20 minute 'Yeezus' tour, the proudly provocative rapper, producer and fast food eater - he had dinner at Wendy’s on 15th and Chestnut with fiancee Kim Kardashian on Friday - talked about “the Willie Lynch theory” of keeping African Americans in order by punishing them in public.
“They beat that slave till he behave,” West said during an improvised interlude in “Runaway,” from his 2010 maximalist masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “But I don’t want to behave. I just want to be me.”
By any measure, he succeeds in that endeavor. Just as Yeezus, the album, ignored commercial considerations by valuing noise over rhythm or melody, the Yeezus tour largely put aside crowd pleasing conventions in order to pursue its auteur’s peculiar vision. Love him or hate him, Kanye is relentlessly committed to being true to Kanye.
Opening up with a barrage of confrontational Yeezus assaults - “On Sight,” “New Slaves,” “Send It Up” - West came out swinging in the first date of the tour since several shows were canceled or postponed after the stage set was damaged in a truck accident.
Dressed like a Roman gladiator, he wore a bejeweled mask that was the first of four head coverings he would don throughout the evening. He was frequently joined by up to a dozen women dressed in nude body suits or flowing robes, flanking him in eerie processionals on the arrowhead shaped stage which extended onto the floor of the not sold-out house.
He had other companions - a red eyed Yeti for one song, and for “Jesus Walks,” an actor dressed as the son of God for a Yeezus-meets-Jesus moment which finally enticed West to pull off his balaclava and meet his audience’s gaze. And besides the rapper himself, the other big star in the room was a faux Himalayan peak that reached to the Wells Fargo rafters, brazenly begging comparison to Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge.
The concert-cum-performance art piece was organized into five sections: Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding, as our hero sought meaning in a mythological landscape, rife with Biblical symbolism. Those with the patience of Job - in my section, several people walked out before the finish - would watch as his faith was eventually restored: The concert ended with West and companions kneeling on stage, gazing upwards at Jesus, bathed in light atop Mount Kanye.
But before he could find that redemption, West would have to sink to the lower depths. That was represented by the severe “Coldest Winter,” which he revealed was written about the death of his mother Donda in 2007. Along with “Heartless,” it was one of two songs that West sang (rather than rapped) from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak that proved to be at the Yeezus’s show emotional core.
All of this grandiose spectacle was fascinating to watch, but a struggle to endure. A few older hits like self-aggrandizing “Power” and self-critiquing “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” came early in the show, but mostly West made his people wait for gratification, backloading the set with inviting tunes such as “All Of The Lights” and “Bound 2” (the most atypically inviting Yeezus track.) With one punishing set piece after another, the show had little momentum and felt much longer than its running time, seemingly taking forever to get to the fun parts.
Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar warmed up for West, rewarding fans who showed up early with hard hitting set drawn largely from 2012 good kid, M.A.A.D. City, one of the strongest rap albums in memory. Lamar spat rhymes over crushing beats played by a too loud band that sometimes obscured the intricacy of his flow, and also offered gentler grooves on "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," in which he compellingly portrayed the path from the streets of Compton to rap stardom as a life or death struggle.