Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013
SAP Arena, San Jose
Better than: Going home with another hood rat, we suppose.
On Monday night in San Francisco, Kanye West became engaged to the mother of his young daughter. On Tuesday night in San Jose, Kanye West performed a concert that was largely about inexorable loneliness.
How these two events can coexist in such close proximity is one of the current set of contradictions surrounding this 36-year-old rapper, pop star, and occasional genius from Chicago. It's hard to understand how a man who seems so happy with his new family could be as mired in misery and sheer ugliness as the songs on Yeezus seem to be, and could put on a concert that felt so stark, so distant, so entirely within his own head.
But there he was alone, wearing faceless masks for nearly all of his two-hour set, standing atop a stark, frigid-looking white mountain, or perched at the end of another stage whose iceberg shape suggested a man totally by himself in the world. His band was relegated to a nearly hidden spot on the floor in front of the mountain. The only figures who joined him on the stages were a fleet of worldless female dancers -- usually completely sheathed in body-colored nylon, concealing their faces -- or two other figures, a hairy demon with glowing red eyes, and the now-infamous white jesus. It all suggested a kind of arctic isolation, the sublime, terrifying depths of oneself. During the show, Kanye, masked and wearing various eccentric Kanye outfits (he at one point resembled a Tusken Raider), seemed be to battling himself -- jumping, lunging, falling to his knees, singing on his back, pouncing, exhausting himself so thoroughly that by the end of "Black Skinhead," the seventh song, he was so out of breath he could barely rap.
The show favored the stark sonics of Yeezus, too, with the man rap-shouting over tidal waves of low-end, and most middle frequencies drowned out. The effect could get dull, even on a powerful song like "New Slaves." But several of the Yeezus songs, like "I Am a God," "Hold My Liquor," and "Bound 2," proved among the strongest of the night. "Blood on the Leaves," especially, holds a line between utter bleakness, crowd-pleasing bass, and spirited rapping that will make it an enduring favorite off of Yeezus.
Kanye did not ignore his past, but rather chose pieces of it to fit into the themes of the evening. After a triumphant "Can't Tell Me Nothing" -- which won huge applause -- he sat down onstage and explained how he'd felt at the top of his career after releasing Graduation (more applause at just the mention of the album), until learning that his mother had died, when it felt like everything "started falling." He played "Coldest Winter" lying on the end of his iceberg stage, writhing alone in the bleakest moment of the night.
By the end, having worked through his most intense material, or perhaps out of exhaustion, Kanye had loosened up. He appeared in a sparkly mask -- his fourth of the night -- for a laser-soaked "Stronger." Afterward, the white Jesus strode out, they exchanged a few scripted words, and Kanye finally took off his mask, to huge applause.
Then he began perhaps the most crowd-pleasing series of the night, from "Jesus Walks," into "Flashing Lights" into "All of the Lights." Before "Bound 2, Kanye said -- in one of his few remarks to the crowd all evening -- that he wanted us to sing this song to his baby girl... "and my fiancee." The crowd erupted in cheers, and one of Yeezus' most sonically familiar, musical songs closed out the set. The last song on Yeezus, its lyrics seem to point to an arrival or resolution, and its presentation did, too: Finally unmasked, Kanye sang, "One good girl is worth a thousand bitches... Maybe we could still make it to the church steps." He'd spent the evening staging a battle with his demons, and at the end -- this night, especially, engagement ring accepted -- it felt like he'd won.
By the way: Kanye West performs again tonight, Oct. 23, at Oracle Arena, and tickets are still available. (There were plenty of empty seats and empty floor area in San Jose last night.)
Masked man: It was unsettling, sometimes deeply so, to spend most of two hours watching a man who wouldn't even show you his face. The LCD screen above the mountain would show close-ups of Kanye's head, but for what purpose? To give us a better look at his mask? (The masks were quite intricate, but still.)