I arrived at the Yeezus show both anxious and late. Late, because I was at a store launch earlier in the evening and was too enamoured with the promise of free champagne to manage my time responsibly. And anxious, because it’s been almost two years since I last saw Kanye and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect this time around. Upon arrival at Rod Laver Arena, one thing is clear: his audience has changed, a lot. The last time I saw Yeezy, he was far from a fledgling star, but there was definitely a sense of unity in the crowd. A hedonistic camaraderie that was typified by the chick I spotted throwing her lungs up while one guy held her hair back, and another held her drink. It was excessive, sure – but it was a community. This time though, there was a sense of ambivalence. The crowd that filtered into the stadium were as restrained as they were diverse. Dude-bros and middle-aged women mixed with ‘Ye stans with fake HBA on their shoulders and swag in their hearts. Anyone throwing up in the immediate vicinity would have been immediately escorted to the nearest exit by security, and the merch stands were at least as full as the bar. There were also legitimiate food vendors in the stadium. When was the last rap show that you went to where you could buy a full plate of nachos? What that meant for us I’m not sure, but I feel like Kanye would have an opinion on it.
See, in the Kanye universe, the inconsequential and the monumental seem to shift and meld into one horizontal plane. Nothing is insignificant, and the barriers between high and low culture shimmer and waver until they disappear completely. It’s not high art appropriating the symbols and tropes of popular culture à la Andy Warhol (a favourite artist of Kanye’s early mentor Jay Z). It’s something completely different: a new cultural order where those hierarchies simply cease to exist, more akin to the theory of the superflat championed by Takashi Murakami (a long time Kanye collaborator). It is, for example, sampling Billie Holiday vocals and pairing them with TNGHT production; it’s leather jogging pants and Maison Martin Margiela masks; it’s marrying a Kardashian.
Kanye knows this of course, and that’s one of his greatest strengths. Too much ink has been spilled in relation to ‘Ye and what he means to our society, but at the core of it he’s simply one of the best performers of this generation. The version of the Yeezus show I saw was a stripped-back approximation of the spectacle that toured the states. There was no mountain range on stage and Jesus did not appear mid-performance to give Yeezy daps. Instead, Kanye walked a stark black stage that jutted into the crowd with illuminated edges, more reminiscent of a catwalk than anything else. This was Yeezy without the frills. By contrast the last time I saw him was as he toured My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – a decadent album full of affectations and XXL production. When he appeared on stage at that show in 2012 he was suspended from a cherry picker above the audience, while the stage was crowded with a gaggle of ballet dancers. Last night Kanye literally materialised on stage in a cloud of smoke amid the frenetic drumming and gasped breaths of ‘Black Skinhead’, mask firmly in place. The opening bars, “For my theme song / My leather black jeans on / My by any means on / Pardon I’m getting my scream on,” set the tone for the rest of the evening: this was a leaner, pared-back Kanye experience. The jumbo screens that flanked the stage almost defiantly refused to show him, instead providing a schizophrenic strobe of green and red fields. When his face did appear on-screen it was deliberately distorted, warped by digital manipulation and hypercolour to render something familiar but abject.
The first part of the show was dominated by a feeling of veiled hostility, not that the audience seemed to mind. The teachings of Yeezus rained down on an eager crowd, whose enthusiasm matched the energy being thrown from the stage. A solitary beam of light illuminated ‘Ye as he worked through tracks from Yeezus and G.O.O.D Music’s Cruel Summer, including ‘Mercy’, ‘On Sight’, ‘I Don’t Like’, and ‘Cold’. These songs are not the easiest to digest. When Yeezus-opener ‘On Sight’ was released I had a crippling hangover and had to turn off the album and take some time to recover before trying again. Yeezus is not supposed to be a party record – it’s abrasive and aggressive, a cultural manifestation of anger and frustration fashioned into a violent auditory experience. On ‘I Am A God’, a track that was conspicuously absent from the set list last night, he throws out the line “Pink-ass Polos with a fuckin’ backpack / But everybody know that you brought real rap back,” and that’s the central theme here. In the Kanye canon, pre-Yeezus records carry a very different feeling to what was being projected last night. The experience was closer to a punk show, with the dynamism of the performance coming from the force of the audience and performer confronting one another. And all credit to Kanye, because that’s a hard experience to conjure at a stadium show.
As he launched into ‘New Slaves’, one of the most sonically aggressive tracks of the night, the refrain that hit the hardest was simple “Y’all about to turn shit up / I’m about to tear shit down.” There’s a discord there that’s pretty clear – the dude next to me was a skinny white kid (as was the majority of the audience, myself included). He spent the entire performance rapping every word aggressively. What’s stranger than a kid from Melbourne doing a pitch-perfect rendition of Kanye’s scowl as he raps about systemic racism in contemporary America? Is this really the teachings of the book of Yeezus, to have thousands of people from Melbourne waving their hands in the air and gleefully singing a Chief Keef hook – an artist who personifies the mentality of a city in the grips of a violent crime epidemic? It’s hard to tell. When Kanye encourages the crowd to form a circle-pit during ‘Blood On The Leaves’, is he toying with the power to provoke a crowd to wild out over a sample that draws on Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a poem that vividly describes the lynched bodies of African Americans decomposing in the Southern sun? That seems to be the uncertainty of Yeezus, and it’s one that it’s impossible to speak definitively on. But it was not entirely comfortable.
Those vexing questions about cultural identity in 2014 were put on hold momentarily as the show kicked into its second act, punctuated of course by a rant from a now unmasked ‘Ye. This one was particular pointed as ‘Heartless’ segued into ‘Runaway’ and as shots were fired directly at a mystery offender. (“I ain’t gonna say your name out loud, but I better see an email in the morning apologising.”) Then Pusha T joined the stage to close out ‘Runaway’ with his verse. From here it was almost a different show, “We ain’t even close to being finished,” Ye promised before launching into a medley of hits. His verse from Jay’s ‘Run This Town’ became ‘Clique’ became ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’, holding the crowd in rapturous wonder. The row of just-turned-18 girls in front of me wearing backwards snapbacks blissfully instagrammed selfies of themselves throwing up the rock and everything seemed right with the world again. This was followed by the rapid-fire succession of ‘Jesus Walks’, ‘All Falls Down’, ‘Touch The Sky’, ‘All Of The Lights’, ‘Good Life’, and ‘Gold Digger’. The anthemic progression of ‘Ye’s singles drove the audience into a frenzy, and the barrier of antagonism seemed to collapse. This was Polo-era Kanye, the genius who was still a little unsure of his place in the world. The Kanye that struggled on an individual level, as opposed to encouraging confrontation on a mass cultural and political level. Plus, I defy anyone to hear ‘Good Life’ and not scream along to the line “This is my life homie / You decide yours.” It’s physically impossible.
Still it seemed that ‘Ye wasn’t entirely prepared to let us off the hook. He closed with ‘Bound 2’ before reappearing for an encore that saw ‘Blood On The Leaves’ played twice over, each time with the instruction to those at the front of the stage to “Make the circle bigger… make the circle bigger.” His word was commandment to a crowd of bros who gleefully pushed outwards and then collapsed on top of one another each time the beat dropped. “Save the politics for the politicians. This is rap music,” Kanye dictated as he re-cued one of the most politically-charged songs from an explicitly political album. In the Yeezy universe, this makes perfect sense. The message and the mantra is so inextricable from the pounding beat that it becomes one force, the semantics of the words hit as hard as TNGHT drop – over and over again. This isn’t protest music, it’s the soundtrack from a post-apocalyptic wasteland. As ‘Ye launched into the indomitable ‘Ni**as in Paris’ three times in a row this became more clear. The track that dominated the airwaves in 2011 transcended it’s status as a monster single and became something else entirely, a hedonistic lamentation – or a cautionary celebration of excess when everything else is uncertain. As the lights dimmed for the final time the reverberations of that moment lingered, the crowd stood stunned for a moment and eschewed the normal stadium show scramble for the closest exist. For a second there, Yeezus silenced the masses.
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