They say it’s lonely at the top. Can we add paranoid?
At Kanye West’s hometown show at the United Center Tuesday, a mountain peak represented both. There, the artist climbed to the top, stood alone to sing, and eventually, at the show’s cathartic moment, the mountain broke open amid explosions and a simulated volcano eruption. He looked simultaneously mighty, but alone; fearless, but extremely paranoid. In other words, when you reach such heights, with no more rungs to climb, the horror is stasis — probably a close simulation of what fame feels like.
The staged purpose of the show’s centerpiece prop reflected the multi-mirrored portrait of the performer: He of supersized talent that earns him the praise of most cultural critics, but whose reflection shows a celebrity who feels hunted and hated by the same media.
Perhaps to express that isolation, West performed the nearly two-hour, 30-minute show in a rotating series of masks that made him look, partially like an executioner, and partially a terrorist. Both as hunter and hunted, he stalked a minimalist set alone. Besides the mountain peak, he often met up with his audience on an extended platform that shook when he moved, creating the feeling that stability didn’t exist in this world. Then it rotated him higher until, he stretched out on his back at the edge, looking like a lost boy at the end of a pier.
The defined images of this tour are not random, but reflect the complex psychology of West, who is on an artistic roll musically, while simultaneously appearing to be on a personal campaign to prove victimhood to his audience. “I’m not crazy,” he told the Chicago crowd during what amounted to be a 20-minute one-sided argument. “I feel I can create so much more. This is what I’ve been fighting for.”
Fighting to promote his latest Nike model shoe, he means. For next year he promised to deliver his fans more “shoes … TV shows … films … movies … experiences … products.” “And I know I can do it,” he said. The marathon monologue blasted the media, paid homage to moguls Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, and suggested, with pride, that his Chicago roots bring him strength: “I am from Chicago and my baby mama is Kim Kardashian — ain’t no media headline can outdo that.”
West seemed to absorb energy from this, more than even the music. Backed by only a DJ, a guitarist-keyboardist, and Tony Williams, a vocalist who is also his first cousin, he performed the entirety of “Yeezus” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), his latest album. The generous space inside song arrangements of “Clique,” “New Slaves,” and “Black Skinhead” gave the music’s stop-start synths and stuttering bottom weight particular menace. West took advantage of the stadium setting and borrowed heavily from classic rock flash, including the guitar metal chords that power “Power” and “Hold My Liquor”; The song “Cold” doesn’t simulate the flash of classic rockers, it features a signature hook of a bonafide hit: Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice.”
West showed a mastery of dark drama: The songs, so simple, yet at times, terrifying, provided built-in cues for dramatic light cues and stage poses. Overhead, a video screen showed only weather — Mostly dark clouds, thunder, and eventually falling snow. Instead of focusing on hits, this show was structured around turbulent moods.
Which meant nearly three hours of harsh electro-rock that struggled for momentum. West chuckled after handing a group wearing red ski masks his microphone so they could yell the lyrics of “Bound 2.” Otherwise, he stayed restrained until the show’s ending third, when he peeled off the mark and looked and sounded much more uninhibited.
Unlike most modern day hip-hop stars, West didn’t position the women accompanying him onstage as sensuous or desirable. Instead, here were 12 female performers clad completely in beige nylon, covering top to bottom, their faces and heads concealed. They moved slowly, like sirens. When they made contact with West, they lifted him up (“I am a God”); in another beat, they became furniture. Their role corresponded with much of the music: mysterious but cold.
West often sang, but his vocal was robotically enhanced; or who knows, behind that mask, was it even live? That didn’t matter. The effect became part of the overly simulated environment. That is, until “Runaway,” a certified party bouncer where all pretense vanished after the first note.
West has long referenced Christ in his lyrics and imagery, so there was no surprise when Jesus himself walked onstage to give him a blessing. That may have been too much, but so too was the simulated Catholic mass processional, or what about that black creature, lit with two electric red eyes, who lurked in the shadows of the mountain?
Like Roger Waters and Pete Townshend, West is finding inspiration from the dark absurdities of fame in work his grand ambition keeps expanding. However, unlike those two veterans, West won’t let his work speak for itself. He’s powered by complaints.
West returns to the United Center Wednesday for the second of a two-night stand.
1. On Sight
2. New Slaves
3. Send It Up
7. I Don’t Like (Chief Keef cover)
9. Black Skinhead
10. I Am a God
11. Can’t Tell Me Nothing
12. Coldest Winter
13. Hold My Liquor
14. I’m In It
15. Guilt Trip
17. Blood on the Leaves
18. Lost in the World
20. Street Lights
22. Through the Wire
23. Jesus Walks
24. Diamonds From Sierra Leone
26. Flashing Lights
27. All of the Lights
28. Good Life
29. Bound 2