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October 20, 2013 at 3:31 PM

Kanye West rocks the Key with a deific spectacle of a set

Last night Kanye West kicked off his Yeezus tour with a two-hour rap-opera of a performance that was grandiose yet minimal, unsettling yet inspirational — and often tiptoed the line between theatrical corniness and artistic genius.

After considerable delays, the house lights dimmed and dramatic intro music played over the speakers. Twelve women clad in white robes and sheer facemasks processed in down a catwalk to the pyramid (of course)-shaped stage area in the middle of the arena, then knelt as clips from a prophetic, biblical-sounding speech played over the intro chord of Yeezus’ “Hold My Liquor” — which would be used intermittently as an interlude throughout the performance.

Finally the opening distorted synthesizer noise of Yeezus’ opener “On Sight” buzzed, and Mr. West, clad in an American flag/bald eagle-emblazoned tank top, high-fashion patterned drop-crotch pants, and a bejeweled, tasseled facemask, finally took the stage, illuminated by a single beam of light from the rafters as he started, “Yeezy season approaching.”

West followed with “Yeezus” tracks “New Slaves” (which seemed especially thought-provoking being performed for a crowd decked in designer fashions) and “Send It Up,” then threw in radio smash “Mercy” before the first of many interludes/set and costume changes.

Reappearing atop a huge glacier-like structure as an LED sky opened up above him, West went into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy single “Power” — asserting from his mountaintop “no one man should have all that power.” Once he descended from the pinnacle and went into “Black Skinhead,” Kanye seemed in full rock star mode, darting and jump-kicking around the stage, throwing himself onto the ground, omitting nearly half of his lyrics in the process.

The marathon of a set included hits and fan favorites mixed in with the Yeezus material — Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” remix, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin,” “Heartless,” “Runaway” – as well as some slower, more personal moments – sitting on the edge of the stage and performing 808s + Heartbreaks’ “Coldest Winter,” written right after his mother’s death, as fake snow fell from above. There were no punches pulled in terms of theatrics — bodysuit-clad female dancers hoisted Kanye skyward as he shrieked the screams from “I Am a God,” and writhed all over each other before pulling him into their orgiastic dance during the carnal “I’m In It.”

Throughout the set, West seemed to sneak in a few messages to the audience in the form of autotune adlibs. At the end of the poignant, Nina Simone-sampling “Blood On the Leaves,” he sat on the edge of the stage, looked right at the crowd, and crooned “We live and learn… We can’t let the past stop us from the future… and right now, you are the future. Don’t let them enslave you, live your life to the fullest cuz that’s the gift that God gave you.”

At one point, the glacier-mountain split in half and opened up while the cast of dancers marched out in a full church procession, carrying candles, thuribles of incense, and a statue of the Virgin Mary before west started into his Graduation album’s “I Wonder.” A bit later, in what was undoubtedly the most wtf-inducing moment of the night, an actual “Jesus” walked out to greet Kanye onstage, and shared an odd, rehearsed exchange that involved West removing his facemask for the first time all night, and the Jesus character saying “I’ve been with you this whole time, Kanye.” Yes, “Jesus Walks” was the next song performed.

The awkwardness from this exchange was immediately forgotten after “Flashing Lights” and “All Of the Lights,” proving once again that memorable hit songs carry more weight than any amount of production or showmanship. Closing song “Bound 2” was especially gorgeous, its Charlie Wilson-sung chorus resonating from floor to rafter, but “Jesus” reappearing atop the glacier-mountain, turbulent LED sky swirling above him as “On Sight” sample “Sermon (He’ll Give Us What We Really Need)” played and faded out, ended things with a slightly ominous, judgment-day tinge.

LA’s Kendrick Lamar warmed up the crowd with an energetic set of material from his breakout Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, backed by a 5-piece band to suit the arena setting. Though the quality of his live performances has often been questioned, Lamar was able to build enough momentum on the strength of his setlist of rap-along hits — “Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “m.A.A.d. City,” A$AP Rocky’s “F-in Problem,” an especially rousing “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” — to coast through his 45 minute performance.

It being the first night of the tour, a lot of West’s scripted performance came off as awkward and clumsy — more of a dress rehearsal than finished production. Yet everything seemed to be exactly what it was intended it to be. There are very few modern artists with the kind of vision, ambition, and means to execute it as Kanye West right now, and regardless of how well it was performed, his operatic Yeezus tour set was a distinct statement of his combined artistic ambition, penchant for excess, and desire to simply outdo every other rapper or entertainer out right now.

Mike Ramos: RAM0S206

Comments | More in R & B/Hip-hop | Topics: Concert Review, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar

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