American Airlines Center, Dallas
Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016
Is it possible to review a Kanye West concert without reviewing Kanye West himself? Almost every conversation about the 39-year-old rapper's work turns into a partisan referendum on his character. But with his new Saint Pablo Tour, which visited Dallas Thursday night at American Airlines Center, West has managed to make himself the center of his own art in a way that's bold even for him.
Since the tour kicked off late last month, a buzz has surrounded the stage setup. It's a breathtaking concept: West, the lone performer on stage, is suspended from the ceiling on a platform, which moves back and forth across the room over his fans. The lights are kept low, with even West's face often in the shadows. It's a perfect contradiction for West, who at once obscures himself and makes himself the center of attention on a new level, with the throng of people below rushing back and forth to stay close to him.
West's arrival Thursday night was met with screams from the packed house, as virtually every one of the nearly 20,000 people pulled out their cellphones to document the strange sight. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie, as West's platform dipped and dived with lights coming from the bottom and smoke filling the room. During the interludes, the sound system played deranged horn sounds while the catwalks lowered and rotated with lights emanating from the sides.
But as the initial novelty wore off, the early part of the show succeeded more as an art piece than it did as a pure concert. West whipped the crowd into a frenzy, tearing through snippets of songs in rapid-fire succession, including early covers (well, songs he's featured on) of Drake, Schoolboy Q and Chief Keef — a move that most stadium-sized acts would never make. That's normally the territory of acts who don't have enough material to carry a set. West was more like the MC of some post-apocalyptic warehouse party, remixing songs into medleys.
The pivot came more than a dozen songs into the show, when West laid into a commanding version of "Power" that bled into "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and back again. The pacing began to make sense, as West prowled the platform, dancing, stomping and lunging back and forth in an outfit that looked like high-end army fatigues. "Jesus Walks," a reminder of quainter times when West only walked with Jesus instead of comparing himself to him, was one of only a few songs drawn from his first four albums, and it was instructive as it took on a particularly martial feel, performed with clenched fists.
There were over 30 songs on the set list, yet the show proved to be a surprisingly nimble one, lasting only an hour and 40 minutes — much shorter than the bloated two-to-three-hour affairs many of his peers commit to. It was a surprising exercise in restraint, and in fact West was so committed to the austerity of the presentation that he barely spoke between songs. Of course, when he did speak he couldn't help but pontificate about the importance of making art with a capital "A," even as he paid tribute to his late mother. Once again, it was perfect Kanye: heartfelt and self-serving all at once.
What made the Saint Pablo concept successful was that, in the end, it wasn't really all about West at all. The sight of West hovering over his fans put him front and center, yet there was something beautiful and poetic about how the crowd on the floor moved together, dancing and moshing with arms raised in one heaving wave. Normally fans are left in the dark, watching at a distance, but here they were in the action, bathed in the light of the stage even when West was shrouded in the dark.
As the show reached its climax, with older hits like "Touch the Sky" and "All of the Lights" bringing the energy to peak levels, West eschewed another concert cliche by doing away with the encore. It would have been too messy for the tightly constructed concept. But that was perfect, too: West may not be the first musician to use a moving stage, but he committed to it fully, and he's likely the only one who could pull this concept off. That's why you might not ever see it replicated, and why you'll never be able to separate West from his art.
Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1
I Don't Like
Niggas in Paris
Can't Tell Me Nothing
Blood on the Leaves
I Love Kanye
Touch the Sky
All of the Lights