Kanye West. Oracle Arena. 10.22.16
The sounds of hydraulic machinery filled Oracle Arena, as the stench of dirt weed mingled with the faux fog that had been pumping into the air over the past two hours. The opening samples of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” were slowed down and turned elastic, thus leaving alien chemtrails of sound in the wake of the shadowy figure tethered to the hovering spacecraft. With heads upturned in anticipation of first contact, the crowd was lost in darkness. Chants of “Kan-ye! Kan-ye!” filled every empty space, until the object of their affection shone his light down on the chosen few.
The party-sized hoverboard had traversed the entire length of the arena (from a height of about 10 feet above the tallest head), before blasting spotlights on those below; instantly creating the largest circle pit a hip-hop tour has ever seen.
“Just wanna feel liberated, I, I, I…”
Kanye West had arrived in Oakland, and while many outside the venue failed to understand the appeal, those who had been waiting patiently (well past start time) were losing their collective mind.
Kanye West is not for everyone. The man literally goes out of his way to turn people against him. I find myself in heated discussions with friends and family every time I listen to his music or go to one of his shows. I totally understand where those people are coming from. Some of the shit that comes out of his mouth literally makes me cringe. There is just something about his music though. And there is something about his performances.
Every time someone I care about has me questioning how I feel about Mr. West, I have to remind myself I am not alone. That was never more evident than it was on Saturday night in Oakland. Depending on the position of the stage from moment to moment, there were at least a few hundred people who were blind to the person they paid to see perform. Nine times out of ten, those were the people who seemed to be having the most fun. It was almost unsettling to witness how much influence he had over his fans, even when he was completely out of sight.
The Glow in the Dark Tour included an incredible light production, College-era hits, and Rihanna. The Yeezus Tour was a straight-up musical; with a gigantic mountain, jeweled masks, nude models, a Jesus Christ cameo, and Kendrick Lamar. Saint Pablo did away with all those distractions. There were no openers. No massive LED screens. No guests or stage props. It was a dark show. I don’t think a true spotlight hit Kanye once during the entire performance. Besides the floating stage, and various other spacey platforms moving around like ships in orbit, the main prop of the night was the audience itself.
Everyone on the floor got their five minutes of fame as they swirled around in the orange glow while Yeezy redefined what it meant to crowd surf. The theme was very modern, maybe even futuristic, but it was also very simple and understated. It was unlike any show I’ve ever seen. Rihanna had a floating catwalk during her Anti World Tour, but it was just a vehicle to get her from one side of the arena to the other; it wasn’t the actual stage.
As “Pt. 1” gave way to “Pt. 2”, I felt my back tighten in anticipation of disaster. From our seats along the edge of the floor, an optical illusion caused me to see the stage meet the masses below. That Desiigner verse (“I got broads in Atlanta”) caused the crowd to bounce (with arms outstretched) at the same time Kanye’s sneakers took flight. When gravity pulled those Yeezy boots back down, the stage showed flex. It literally looked like the whole thing was going to come crashing down on the unsuspecting skulls beneath it, but then it bounced back into position, creating a trampoline effect.
Rihanna’s disembodied vocals filled the arena before I could dwell on the insurance premiums that must be associated with such a show. Never one to shy away from controversy, “Famous” was restarted three times; each rendition augmented with words about political correctness. As great as that song sounds, I think the lyrics are lazy at best, but that didn’t stop me from singing along when told to do so — “I made that bitch famous!” — such is the power of Kanye West.
The set continued with selections and snippets of tracks from across his entire career, but focused predominately on post-College material.
“Facts” contained a rant about being an artist and how hard it is to be “the most influential.” The stage went full tilt during “Power”. Giant platforms came down to give a Close Encounters of the Third Kind effect before “Blood on the Leaves”. He called everyone to the stage during “Jesus Walks”, and he sat down and gazed out over his fans during “Lowlights”. He attacked the people who have been trying to finish him off for fifteen years and then “Wolves” had to be restarted after an impromptu rant against the Grammys for ignoring Frank Ocean.
“Heartless” might have been the greatest sing-along of the night and it was followed by one of my favorite tracks, “Runaway”. Unfortunately, the outro included a twenty-minute diatribe: Lincoln turning the slaves into unpaid interns, confusing his genius as arrogance, dancing on a tight rope between the twin towers, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and how a crazy person couldn’t build a floating stage.
A Kanye show isn’t a Kanye show without a good rant, but sometimes less is more and this one was quite the buzzkill.
The show gradually got back on track post-rant. He introduced the backup singers on the sidelines during “Only One” before performing the meta “I Love Kanye”. Then “Waves”, “Touch the Sky”, “All of the Lights”, “Good Life”, and “Stronger” stacked up to be the best run of the entire night. The security guards started clearing the landing zone during “Fade”; essentially emptying the back third of the floor. “Ultralight Beam” acted as the soundtrack to Kanye’s descent. Touchdown was a success and, in the blink of an eye, Kanye West disappeared through the tunnel leading backstage. The lights came up and the show was over exactly two hours after it began.
Every album Kanye West has released since Graduation has taken time to settle in. The Life of Pablo took the most time. There was a part of me that just couldn’t get past the lyrics on most of the tracks. It was the production that finally brought me around. The album just sounds too good to let the lackluster rapping get in the way of enjoyment. His concerts have always been effortless though.
Seeing him in Sacramento with Rihanna and N*E*R*D was nothing less than spectacular. When he cancelled The Yeezus date in Denver, it was totally worth driving to Kansas City (and back) for. This Saint Pablo Tour was something different though. The unique stage setup and pure animalistic energy of the crowd had me riding a high well into the next day, but I couldn’t stop the nagging voice in my head that kept trying to convince me I had been duped.
First, if he was going to be an hour and a half late to the show, why not have an opener? Any number of artists would have been happy to fill the spot. Second, many of the tracks were left unfinished. I understand the need to hit all the highlights, but it would have been nice to let more songs run their full course. He could have cut the rant down to five minutes and performed full versions of a few more songs. Third, the sound didn’t always work. The movement of the stage shouldn’t have had any impact on the acoustics, but it did. When he was facing our side of the arena, it was crystal clear, but everything got muffled when his back was to us. And last, more visuals would have added to the show. Once the novelty of the moving stage wore off, it would have been nice to have something to look at other than the shadow levitating above us.
“This isn’t music; this is what it means to be black!”
I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean, especially considering it led directly into a line about having sex with Taylor Swift, but understanding isn’t a prerequisite for enjoyment when it comes to Kanye West. Overall, I had more fun at this flawed show than I have at any other arena show in a long time. The music wasn’t as good as it was the first time I saw him and the production value wasn’t as good as the second time I saw him, but it was truly unique and 100% Kanye West. It wasn’t a show to convert the non-believers, but for those already in the Kanye camp, it was something special.
Like a hype man promoting his own DJ set, Kanye stripped away anything that would distract his audience from his music and his personality. Maybe that makes him crazy. Maybe it makes him a genius. I don’t know if we’ll ever know which one he truly is (my guess is both), but in the meantime, you can say what you want about Kanye West, just don’t call him predictable or boring. It’s been four days since the show and I am still replaying the whole thing in my head over and over again.
Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1
Can’t Tell Me Nothing
Blood on the Leaves
I Love Kanye
Touch the Sky
All of the Lights