A foreboding, shadowy and sinister figure lurks at the edge of an enormous white mountain top. Buzzing synths permeate the arena, and the masked man of the hour saunters below. "Hold My Liquor," one of the standout tracks of Kanye West's most recent album, stirs over the ravenous crowd. He performs the song from the stage's point, trying to no avail to escape the gaze of the demon lurking behind him. It's chilling, an unsettling illustration of man's constant struggle between good and evil.
It is not overdone. As grandiose and theatrical as the Yeezus tour is, at its core it's starkly minimalistic, confrontational, evocative. It's a glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of a misunderstood man. And though it's off-putting that he says it every 15 minutes, you can't deny the man's a genius, especially not after seeing this show.
See also: Live from the Yeezus screenings earlier this year
Kanye West admitted last week at the Kansas City stop of his Yeezus tour, which only sold 4,500 to an arena built to accommodate 19,000, that he's prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. That's a big crime when your every word echoes across the vast expanse of the global media machine. His big mouth and bigger megaphone help make Kanye the most divisive figure in contemporary pop culture. That's not changing - he may care less about having a congenial public persona than any pop star in history.
What you might not expect is that the surprising message ringing out during his packed Dallas tour stop Friday was that he wants the people listening to his music to champion themselves as much as he champions himself. He didn't deliver a self-serving rant about the state of his current shoe deal or his difficulty breaking into high fashion. It was here, in North Texas, that he decided it was time to take a different approach.
Arriving early was definitely the move, but many did not. It's clear to see that Dallasites are ill-equipped to handle mildly icy conditions. Though a crowd of at least 50 swarmed American Airlines Center's front doors in the minutes before they opened, the venue didn't really fill out until well into West's first few songs. Opener Kendrick Lamar, however, had plenty crowd (at least ⅔ of the arena's capacity) to work with during his opening set.
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In his last three stops into town, we've watched Lamar go from mid-size music hall to large amphitheater and now to an arena stage. This kind of progression in about year's time is fair to classify as a meteoric rise. Dallas rap fans will remember this most recent performance as the night we watched Kendrick Lamar become a Grammy-award nominee right before our very eyes. The announcement of Lamar's seven 2013 nods including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album (Yeezus was also recognized for the latter) would go public about halfway through his opening set this Friday.
For the first time, we had the pleasure of watching Lamar with the accompaniment of a full live band, and it was definitely worth the wait. This is the way that these records were meant to be heard live. "m.A.A.D. city" absolutely shreds as a guitar riff, delivering extra goosebumps to the overall dark and sinister spirit of the record.
Lamar's video package backdrop looped dreamy, slow motion Compton city-scapes like colorfully adorned pronails spread over concrete slabs. There was the California sun kissing arms slouched out of open Cadillac windows, and blunt smoke wafting from dandelion-addled porch stoops. From his commanding performance, it's clear to see why the entire genre of rap music is currently living in the shadow of Lamar's debut album, just over a year after its release. Hopefully you've taken advantage of his multiple stops through Texas since then, because it's his progression has been a very special thing to witness so closely.
After a short time, the man of the hour took the stage. A dozen white robe-clad female dancers ominously sauntered out, stoic and single file, onto the stage's catwalk, which connected Yeezus' gigantic white holy mountain to the hydraulic, triangular, iceberg-like front staging area. The tour's dynamic set design is the work of the incredibly innovative mind of DONDA's Es Devlin, who served the same role on West and Jay-Z's Watch The Throne tour.
See also: Kanye West on Saturday Night Live: Five Reasons I Will Stay Home and Watch
As the dancers waited for Kanye at the front of the stage, an operatic and Wagner-esque choir filled the arena. Then silence. A woman's voice rang out, reading along from black and white text flashed over the 60 foot circular projection.
FIGHTING Noun: violence or conflict Adjective: displaying combat or aggression pugnacious, truculent, belligerent, bellicose "Light beamed into the world, but men and women ran toward the darkness."
After the quote from The Gospel of John came silence. A snippet of West's to-be-released record, "I'm Not Here" rang out (it has been teased in the intro sequence throughout this tour).
I am not here right now, I am not home Leave a message after the life, after I'm gone
These were the first of many references to Christianity and the afterlife we saw before the end of the night. The bumpers returned, splitting the show into four acts: Fighting, Rising, Searching and Falling. Each segment was introduced over the booming arena speakers, with similar biblical passage cited.
And after the intro, he was risen. West walked up the catwalk to the opening synths of Yeezus' introduction track, "On Sight," weaved through the dancers standing in a grid to the front spotlight. He wore an American flag print tank top, with an eagle emblazoned on the front, and the crowd roared as he rapped his first verse. When the first refrain came, the crowd erupted in applause. The track's sample, a Holy Name of Mary Choral vocal rang out.
Oh he'll give us what we need It might not be what we want
This haunting and beautiful lyric would prove to be the evening's main thesis point.
Throughout his set, West revisited older material. During "Can't Tell Me Nothing," the front stage rose over the crowd, resembling a towering cliff. At that cliff's peak, he curled into the fetal position and spoke of his beloved late mother before dedicating "Coldest Winter" to her as prop snow fell from the sky. During "Heartless," he perched on the mountain's edge as a black Lady Godiva stalked the catwalk below. Before "Jesus Walks," "white Jesus" himself appeared, blessing a kneeling West, and allowing him to finally remove one of many embellished Margiela face masks he wore throughout the night.
During "Lost In The World", which left the audience reeling and exhilarated, the robed dancers emerged from the split mountain and recreated a Catholic mass processional onstage, while projections of fire and brimstone turned the enormous white rock into a fiery volcano. The processional presented the pulpit, an MPC for West to perform "Runaway" on. After that, came what everyone had been anticipating, the rant.
On past stops, West has used his signature sing-preaching act break to wax poetic on the woes of superstardom. Jilted tales of media malignment, design collaboration deals, and his own genius are a hard sell to the working class Americans who buy his records. This Friday however, West unexpectedly advised the audience, "I changed my approach, ladies and gentlemen... Because you only get back what you put out into the universe so, it's only positive energy. That's all I want back is positive energy."
"What I'm dealing with is very, very, extremely complex. It's a tightrope that I'm walking right now. They try to control me with this concept of likability... If I get in so much trouble for telling the truth, then the rest of the time, what are they telling you?" asked West, starting in with the kind of self-aggrandizing we've come to expect, "I ain't humble at all, I'm ten feet tall. I ain't humble at all, I'm 100 feet tall. I ain't humble at all, I'm 1000 feet tall... You can still be polite, I'm polite, but I'm not humble at all." But then, the tone of the monologue seemed to shift.
"How many times have people told you what you could do and what you couldn't do? Trying to step on your dreams and shit," he said to the crowd, with us now. "Your coworker, somebody you go to school with, a relative that ain't never made shit out of theyself? Trying to step on your dreams and shit. If you believe you can do anything, put your hands in the sky right now. Say I'm 1000 feet tall. So we won't listen to them no more.
"There are two types of people in this world, ladies and gentlemen. See there's dreamers, and there's haters. They're only separated by one thing: Haters forgot about their dreams. Haters let people kill their dreams. Right now, I guess I'm just dreaming out loud."
That's a point often lost in the inflammatory sound bytes that plague his media coverage. On this night, however, the stars aligned and the empowering message took center stage. The crowd cheered for it, pleasantly surprised and uplifted.
The American dream has never been about following the rules or doing what you're told. It's never been about keeping the rich wealthy and the poor destitute. It's making something out nothing, and there's no formula for that. Paving your own path is the only true way to greatness, and it's no easy feat. It has proven to be even harder to accomplish without a few people thinking you're fucking crazy.
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West wrapped up his soapbox with a bow when he asked everyone in the audience to throw their peace signs up in memory of Nelson Mandela.
After closing out the night with "Bound 2," West's robed processional returned for the finale. In the definitive act of humbleness, he and his dancers dropped to their knees before white Jesus at the top of the mountain. Looped over the PA, the Holy Name of Mary Choir rang out, reminding us that while West may not have turned out to be exactly the underdog story we'd all aspired for him in the beginning, he's still dedicated to using his voice and his creative works to inspire the masses. If you can't separate Kanye West the man (or the monster, as he and the mainstream media often portray him), from Kanye West the artist, you just don't get it, and that's on you.