By Sam Hodgkins-Sumner
A night before my family continued our annual tradition of attending the late-night Christmas eve service at Saint Paul’s Bloor Street, I bowed down along with 20,000 others in an electric cathedral. Instead of celebrating the birth of a king who was humbled for others, we packed into the ACC to join one man in the worship of himself.
One might call Kanye West many things: a hypocrite, a self-absorbed buffoon, a genius, an impassioned artist, the personification of arrogance-masked insecurity. This rapper/producer/maniac is at once the winner of 21 Grammys (more than any other rap/hip-hop artist in history), one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and the “jackass” (thus quoth president Obama) who commandeered the microphone from Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. He made the claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a live telecast, and has accused the US government of administering AIDS to black Americans on two different albums. And who can forget his recent ranting interviews in which he proclaimed that he would one day own a “trillion dollar company”, and spewed hate at the fashion industry that he perceives to be holding him back from establishing said company. This is his job after all. He’s is an entertainer, and never leaves us with a dull moment.
Yeezy is a whirling ball of contradictions; constantly dropping references to the “Gucci” and “Louis” he rocks while protesting that consumerism is producing “New Slaves” in America. He boldly named his newest album “Yeezus”, claiming to be a “close tie” with the “most high”, and then undermined his self-perceived divinity by rapping about very mortal subject matter ( he demands a “damn menage” and “damn croissants” in the track “I am a God”, and displays the melodrama of his failed love-life out in the sun for us on tracks like “Blood on the Leaves” and “Hold my Liquor”). What would you expect from a kid who split his time between being the black kid in the suburbs and the preppy kid in the hood. The man exudes duality- he brought pink polo shirts to the rap game for Christ’s sake.
I bore all this in mind as my friends and I took our seats in the 300 level. My expectations were high; I’d heard great feedback about the use of visuals during the “Watch the Throne” tour. I wanted to see how the soulful rap of “College Dropout” and “Late Registration”, glitzy “Graduation”, the electropop of “808s and Heartbreak”, electro-baroque “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, and the acid house-industrial-dancehall beast that is “Yeezus” would blend to create the show. I had loved “Yeezus” (one of the most acclaimed albums of 2013) for its continuation of Kanye’s evolution as an artist. No matter your opinion of the album, you have to recognize the fact that it’s unlike anything Kanye has ever put out. It’s creative, and the fact that it’s polarizing reflects that creativity. Admittedly, this album is one of Ye’s weakest efforts lyrically (he recorded the vocals for half the songs, and wrote two on the spot two hours before the deadline). However, this disturbing whirlwind of egoism, libido, sacrilege, and social commentary is conveyed beautifully in this album’s brooding beats. With every fresh listen it becomes more clear to me that Kanye doesn’t care about razor-sharp lyrics or easy listening. He’s putting his unstable interior life on display in this album, and it works perfectly. He says what he feels at the present moment, and that ranges from the angry minimalism of “Black Skinhead” to the despairing maximalism of “Blood on the Leaves”, from the arrogant misogyny of “I’m In It” to the romantic misogyny of “Bound 2”. This album is the perfect distillation of human fickleness.
Anyways, back to the concert. Kendrick Lamar opened, displaying impressive flow and a humble demeanour. As he rapped, images of life in his home town, Compton California, were projected in the background. He thanked the audience for supporting him, and stated that his motivation as an artist was to give back to Compton. A class act, no doubt about it. Then came Ye. The thing that struck me the most about his performance was that it was more of a piece of theatre than a musical performance. All of his production elements- lighting, music, actors, costumes, staging- informed his concept of “the hero’s journey”. The show had five sections, each governed by a thematic word.
The introduction to this section commenced Kanye’s religious motif; it commenced with an account of humans being corrupted by “darkness”. During the buildup to “On Sight”, a troop of priestesses process onto the stage before Kanye bursts forth, his face concealed in a mask. His raw energy surged instantly through the space as he swung punches at invisible adversaries, and vented his anger on the thrust stage.
The stage was elevated a good twenty feet above the audience as “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” began. His physical elevation above the masses informed the perceived superiority that he delivers in the song, and he snarled passionate bar after bar. Ye then disappeared upstage behind his manmade mountain, and was raised to its summit on a platform, where he delivered his next sermon, “Power”, and worked the audience up into a frenzy. As he descended to the main stage, he delivered “I Am a God” with such conviction that he had the audience believing it. But soon, as with everything Kanye, contradiction struck. The primal hubris found early in the song faded into primal fear as he collapsed into the arms of his dancers and let out piercing screams. As the music transitioned into “Coldest Winter”, an electro-ballad to his deceased mother, a drained Yeezy lay down on the edge of the stage as snow fell from the ceiling. As a red-eyed demon ascended the mountain and watched, the audience let out a collective breath. This man who had been leading them on a rampage minutes earlier was now sobered and very real. We saw that Kanye West was not some invincible musical deity, but a man who has his own demons and struggles. The pain and grief in his voice provided a brief glimpse into his vulnerability and inner struggle.
The downward spiral continued with “I’m In It”, as Kanye became enveloped by a swarm of dancers in flesh-coloured costumes. The frenzied faux orgy continued as Kanye lay in the middle of a circle formed by his dancers, which resembled the sex act. The performance “Heartless” was a piece of vulnerable and hopeless poetry. Finally, this section reached its climax with “Blood on the Leaves”. As he delivered some of his most exultant and despairing moments with explosive energy, the mountain upstage mirrored this turmoil as it erupted into a volcano (courtesy of the video screen above it, pyrotechnic explosions, and a projection of a lava flow).
At this point, our hero Kanye is at the low-point of his personal quest. What then, is a better remedy for Yeezus than a some good old-fashioned religion? The screen displayed a bible verse – “seek and ye shall find” from Matthew 7:7- to preface his time in the wilderness. Then, his mountain broke wide open and a procession of acolytes emerged, crosses, incense, and all. After the songs “Lost in the World”, and “Runaway”, he proceeded to one of his fabled rants. Lasting for 20 minutes, the message was less coherent and more fragmented than a “Die Antwoord” music video (check ‘em out, they’re messed and really entertaining). He addressed his haters, whom he classified as dreamers who had given up on their own dreams. He addressed his audience, whom he showed love to. He defended his erratic behaviour, stating that he wanted to “turn up” before he grows old. He ranted against the Grammys, who have only nominated him twice this year, yelling “F*ck the Grammys with love” (love born his 21 previous wins I guess). He concluded the rant, saying the “this might be the last sh%t you hear me talk in 6 months.” He vowed to dedicate 2014 to being positive and grateful for all he’s been blessed with, and to make the best possible art he can.
Ye has sought, and now he will find. But first, he backtracks about the Grammys, and proclaims that he is appreciates how they have recognized him over the years. The self-proclaimed “Christian revolutionary visionary creative genius” is visited by none-other than “White Jesus” (an actor playing Jesus Christ). “White Jesus” removes one of Kanye’s many masks, which have been in rotation throughout the show, and then leaves. As Yeezy’s real face is shown for the first time, all of his emotional tumult seems to have melted away with the mask. From thence on, through “Jesus Walks”, his two songs with Drake (who tells the crowd to “bow down to Yeezus”), “All of the Lights”, “Good Life”, and finally “Bound 2”, Kanye raps with a contented sense of celebration. He thanks Toronto, everyone who made the tour possible, and then is brought to his knees as “White Jesus” ascends the mountain and the lights fade.
Having reflected on this show for a few weeks, I’ve come to a few conclusions about Mr. West. Firstly, he’s not a villain, or God, or prophet, or even a rapper for that matter. He’s a human being, and an artist. Like all humans, he’s conflicted, he has emotions, and he has a soul. Then why do we love and hate Kanye the person so passionately? Why don’t we just focus on the excellent music he makes? We fixate on this man because he’s the voice of the Instagram generation. He’s a petulant teen in the body of a 36 year old, who says and does what he wants. And we young people like that. As aspiring rebels, we like that he flips off the media, the government, industries, and social conventions. We all wish that we could be as passionate about what we do as he is about art, and some of us strive for that. We wish that we could be creative and rebellious trailblazing geniuses. Why do we ridicule his vanity and contradiction? Because putting down the other distracts any introspective gaze. We scoff at the patron of self-deified individualism, because we don’t want to face the fact that all of our seflies, carefully constructed Facebook profiles, and 140 character chatter is creating a generation of Kanyes. Human beings are naturally biased, vain, and irrational. With Western society’s exodus from face-to-face interaction to the internet, from emphasis on community to the individual, the bonfire of our vanity has been fed with thick logs. We, unhappy with our mortal inadequacies, continue to remake ourselves into Gods through our trips to Internetland. As long as we each continue to view ourselves as geniuses and deities- stubborn in our refusal to recognize the beauty in collaboration with others, and in our imperfection- Kanye will keep on ranting. We’ll look into the mirror that is his face, and either love or hate him.
P.S. Check this out