“Kendrick Lamar could tap dance for sixty minutes and throw up on stage and I’d still be happy,” I said, half-kidding to my friend Matt, as we awaited entry into the Kanye West show at the Staples Center. It was the fifth show on his already-controversial Yeezus tour, and Kendrick Lamar was set to open. In my mind, Kendrick, the up-and-comer out of Compton, CA, was worthy of the stadium unto himself. “Kanye, on the other hand, needs to show me something.” I wasn’t kidding about that part.
Call it lame, call it lofty, call it ridiculous, but I didn’t fork over a half of last week’s paycheck to simply be entertained by Kanye West. I didn’t come to hear him perform all my favorite songs from his old albums so I could pump my fists and scream the lyrics with 15,000 others (though I probably did do that more than I expected to,) and I didn’t come because I’m his world’s biggest fan. I came because if I’m being completely honest, Kanye perplexes me more than any other musician I’ve ever listened to. I came because College Dropout may or may not have been the first piece of art that made me think, feel, and groove all at once, and ten years later, for better or for worse, I still feel like he deserves some of my attention. And of course, on top of all that, I came because Kendrick Lamar was opening. And if you love hip-hop, with all its cycles and trends, all its history, its East Coast—West Coast back and forth, its rising stars who turn into seasoned legends, the significance of this combination is self-explanatory. But if you’re unfamiliar with the genre, imagine Mumford and Sons opening for U2, or a young Bruce Springsteen opening for Bob Dylan. These are, admittedly, hyperbolic analogies, because Kanye West is obviously not Bob Dylan. But this is Hip-Hop we’re talking about, so you get the picture. I came because the tour itself is of great musical and cultural significance. Here is Kanye: the reigning prince of Ego Hip-Hop, the polarizing, VMA-hijacking creative chameleon; and here is Kendrick Lamar: the new kid, the home-grown street poet. He’s a lot like Kanye was 10 years ago: a promising voice in the genre’s turn towards something a bit more thoughtful, socially conscious, and self-aware.
I know what you’re thinking: Are we talking about the same Kanye West? I hear you, and I agree. I, like many other fans of good-old fashioned, groove-out MC-ing—the kind that Kanye was doing on his first 3 albums—was for a long time the opposite of a fan of his “new wave” shift towards insanity. A year ago, I would have been the first in line to call him a sellout, an egomaniac, and perhaps even a godless, self-worshipping whacko. To this day, my knee-jerk reaction to almost everything he says in a public forum is to write him off as just that. But in stepping into the Staples Center to see his show, I was giving him a chance to prove me wrong. One thing that he’s been rightfully outspoken about, however, is the media and our entire culture’s twisted idea of “Celebrity.” So, this was a chance to see Kanye in his element. No talk shows, tweets, or tabloids. Just one man and a microphone. Right?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Of course, Kendrick’s 45-minute set was nothing less than perfect by all the standards of a Hip-Hop purist. After the first two electrifying songs, Kendrick paused to declare, “Damn, it’s good to be home!” and of course, the place exploded. It was his homecoming, and we were all invited to the celebration. He rapped every word with the vehemence and passion of a man who had finally arrived. That’s what I’ll remember most about Kendrick’s performance: it was an entirely mutual experience. He straddled perfectly that middle ground you hope for in a traditional hip-hop performance. It was equal parts entertainment and art; both an endorphin-thumping crowd pleaser and a rapper’s carefully articulated personal expression.
And then there was Kanye. Well, first there were the 12 androgenous, faceless, robe-clad figures that walked slowly onto the giant stage like the apparitional spirits of back up dancers. And then there was the Scriptural excerpt that appeared on the 60-foot LED screen above the stage; something about Rising.
And then there was Kanye. In a bedazzled, featureless mask. I knew that his performance of Yeezus would be weird, but I really had no idea just how weird it would be. And so, for the first half of the Rock Opera-esque performance, as Kanye exceeded his outlandishness one song after another, I almost gave up. He charged around the stage, writhed on the ground, stood on top of a 40-foot prop mountain, and screamed “WE RUN THIS SHIT” literally 20 times, always clad in his faceless mask, and I almost decided, once and for all, that this crazy man was just too high on himself, too deluded by fame and the sense of power that comes with selling out the Staples Center, to create anything worth listening to anymore. Almost.
Finally, during a slower segment, where Kanye lay on the mountain singing in that melodramatic auto-tune voice that he seems to love so much, my mind caught up with all the stimuli I was taking in. I reminded myself who I was watching: Kanye West, the King of Contradiction and Obliterated Expectations. All this absurdity and melodrama, I realized, was part of the larger story that Kanye was trying to tell. The narrative arc of the Yeezus Opera (about 90 minutes long, and over half the duration of his entire performance) was simple, universal. It was the hero’s journey from Pride, to Fall, to Redemption. It’s a tried and true formula for effective emotional stories, and in my opinion, one that artists often half-heartedly exploit because of its universality. I acknowledge the strong possibility that as Kanye lay there on that prop-mountain, auto-tune-wailing “If you love me so much, why’d you let me go?” with a text pulled directly from one of David’s Psalms projected above him, he could have been doing this. He could have been exploiting a universal paradigm of Spiritual growth and devotion to God to make a cool show, to be controversial, and in the end, to finally inflate his own ego beyond hot-air balloon proportions. But I don’t think that’s true, and here’s why.
As Kanye moved into the Redemption movement of the performance, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was witnessing something incredible, something deeply intimate despite all its (occasional) tackiness and grandiosity. All that pride in the first Rising movement, all that writhing on the ground and screaming from behind a mask in front of women in nude-suits, was not just Kanye being crazy for the sake of pleasing the crowd. It was Kanye expressing the full extent of his true ego, his true pride, in order for the ensuing Fall and Redemption movements to be true as well.
If Kanye’s earnest (albeit terrifying) embodiment of his own massive pride in the first movement weren’t authentic, then the Fall movement would have fallen flat. And if the Fall segment hadn’t been so startlingly intimate, so legitimately sad, then I might have laughed out loud when, at the height of the Rising movement, a man fitting every physical characteristic of Jesus Christ appeared from between the parting prop-mountain, a single-spot light beaming on his white robe. I might have walked out and started writing something that declared Kanye West the most narcissistic, blaspheming loon on this side of the Milky Way galaxy.
But I was speechless. I couldn’t move. As the Jesus figure walked slowly towards Kanye at the end of the stage, still wearing a black, featureless mask, I couldn’t look away. And then, when they met face to face and Kanye took off his mask and kneeled before him—well—all I can say is that whatever I was feeling, it was real. And whatever was happening up there on that stage, even if you call it absurd, narcissistic, confusing, or contradictory, you have to say that was real, too. And in the end, isn’t this what we want from our artists; that they give us their true selves? I think one of the biggest lies that we believe is that only good people are capable of creating beautiful, honest things: things that inspire us and point to something greater than ourselves. Kanye reminded me that even the most seemingly corrupted, fame-deluded entertainer is capable creating a pure piece of reverent art.
After Kanye’s encounter with the Jesus character, which completed the Yeezus, Rock Opera segment of the show, Kanye broke into, what else, Jesus Walks. Goosebumps ensued. Considering all that had just occurred on stage, with all its stunning intimacy and honesty, the song took on a new weight. The place was bursting, and I like to think it wasn’t just because of the song’s popularity. It was because Kanye had given everyone in that room, if they had chosen to actually listen and watch with half as much attention as he perpetually demands, reason to believe that he meant these words. When he reached the lines “To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers: Jesus walks with them,” I screamed them aloud with a vigor that I haven’t felt in far too long.
And for that reason, I’m writing this to say that I think it’s time that we start listening closer. Whether we’re talking about Kanye West or the obnoxious guy in your Political Science class, dig deeper. Writing people off is the easiest thing in the world to do. Giving them a chance to be truly heard—that’s tough.