“Gonna see Kanye West?” Amit, a twenty-something gent on the CTA Blue Line Friday evening, called across the car to a group of fellow millennials. They were preparing to exit at the same stop (nearest the United Center) as Amit and his companions Uday and Sohan. And yes, they were going to see Kanye in concert.
The three friends had traveled all the way from Charlotte, N.C., to catch West performing his roundly hosanna’d newest album, “The Life of Pablo,” in his hometown, and they were decidedly amped.
“Kanye’s a genius,” Amit exclaimed as the train doors slid open. “Not a god, but a genius!”
The trailblazing South Side-bred rap superstar, without question one of the most successful, significant artists our city’s ever spawned, has long been referred to as both (and other things, too, not all of them worshipful, as his high tabloid profile attests).
At the first of two sold-out Chicago shows on West’s recently launched Saint Pablo Tour, concertgoers were expecting something over-the-top, since big/bigger/biggest is Kanye’s modus operandi.
It was the rapper’s first show since he cut short a performance in New York and cancelled two tour dates earlier this week following the incident in Paris in which his wife, Kim Kardashian West, was robbed at gunpoint. (West made no mention of his wife or the incident, in a show in which he barely spoke to the crowd at all. Mrs. West was reportedly in Los Angeles Friday night.)
So it was after a delay of nearly an hour and a half past the advertised 8 p.m. start time, grand is what they got. It was an almost self-effacing sort of grandeur, with West bathed in shadows most of his hundred-minute set – all the while striding atop a floating (though not terribly high up) 20-by-16-foot platform, tricked out with UFO lights. Muted, warm-spectrum reds, oranges and yellows wanly illuminated West from the lighting array above, and floodlighted flocks of grasping supplicants below, in a tableau that mashed up “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with, a bit ominously, “Independence Day.”
Modestly garbed in loose-fitting pants and tunic of what looked to be roughhewn fabric (sackcloth? “San Pablo” refers to St. Paul the Apostle), Kanye glided from one side of the arena to the other on his low-tech Technicolor mothership, at times tilting close enough to fans that they could, seemingly, almost make contact.
West performed most of “TLOP”’s stylistic mélange, from gospel-rich “Ultralight Beam” to the goofy “I Love Kanye” to the jagged banger “Stronger” – often just starting a song until the arena of fans ecstatically drowned him out – along with more relatively vintage selections like the uber-popular “Jesus Walks,” and his 2010 hits, “Power” and “All of the Lights.” Representing the landmark 2013 set “Yeezus” were the chilling “Blood on the Leaves” and “New Slaves.”
The man who cheekily dubbed himself Yeezus last time around, and who at one point Friday night gleefully hollered, “Yeezy in the house and we just gotta pray!” was really more shaman than messiah in his “Pablo” extravaganza, thanks in large part to the radically reimagined concert space.
Arena acts have long attempted to surmount the spatial barrier between themselves (restricted to a stationary stage) and their audiences (confined, for the most part, to their bolted-down seats). But catwalks and booms can’t begin to compete with a floating stage, weirdly strobing lights – a whole host of ensorcelling effects. It was disorienting, even otherworldly, and immensely pleasing; the arena itself seemed to fade in and out of existence, everyone now part of a single pulsing organism with indistinct borders.
Tsunamis of bass lifted your hair and turned gray matter to mush, clouds of tinted fog blurred boundaries of things, and – wait, where had Kanye drifted off to now? It was odd, eerie and exhilarating. And very dark, which intensified the shamanistic sensations; more than a few of us were surely introduced to our power animals. And anyone taking notes was presumably just aiming pen at paper and hoping for the best.
Almost 15 years ago, in April 2002, this writer interviewed Kanye West as part of a roundup of rising Chicago hip-hop producers (who also included No I.D. and Xtreme). West hadn’t yet released a solo project, though his renown was increasing – thanks to his work with the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Twista, Ludacris and Alicia Keys – and he’d already collected a dozen or so gold and platinum records.
“This time last year,” Kanye reflected, “I was selling beats for $500 out of my crib. Now, I can get labels heads on the phone!”
He’s come an almost hilariously long way since then, and shows no signs of slowing down.
NOTE: Kanye West performs tonight at the Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont.
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.
—Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 (Extended Intro)
—Famous (Restarted 2 times)
—That Part (ScHoolboy Q cover)
—Don’t Like (G.O.O.D. Music cover)
— N—- in Paris (Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
—Can’t Tell Me Nothing
—Blood on the Leaves
—I Love Kanye
—Touch the Sky
—All of the Lights