Kanye West put on a meticulous performance of his Saint Pablo tour at KeyArena on Wednesday night, one that showed total mastery of his art—and of his audience.
As fans filed in, taking photos and buying merch, a deep, metered bass tone rumbled through the arena, interspersed with wolf-like howls. There was no opener, no DJ hyping up the audience with “If you’re ready for Kanye West make some noise!” nonsense. And then, suddenly, the arena dimmed to black and a floating platform began to rise. West appeared, barely lit, and the show began.
Opening with “Father Stretch My Hands,” Kanye performed most of the songs from his latest album, The Life of Pablo—though he skipped “Saint Pablo” and “FML.” West threaded popular singles into the setlist as well, including a standout performance of “Heartless” and a crowd-engaging round of “All of the Lights.” If you’re like me, you wish he had also performed track X and track Y. Then, if you’re like me, you remind yourself:
Shut the fuck up and enjoy the greatness.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Kanye’s repertoire is much too extensive to cover fully in a mere 90 minutes.
In a moment that is currently making headlines, Kanye performed his verse from Drake’s “Pop Style", which included features from himself and Jay-Z before they were both cut. Then he took a moment from his moment to criticize the rivalry between Apple Music (sponsor of Drake) and Tidal (a venture of Jay Z's), which he called the “bullshit” reason that there will not be another collaboration among the three rappers. Here’s what sets Kanye apart from other performers: For him, there’s no value in making the audience feel inflated. He doesn’t say things like “Seattle, you're my favorite tour stop.” But he does take time to explain his vision for making music, and what he considers to be creatively stifling. In last night’s case: corporate rivalries.
Aside from West himself, the Instagram-famous floating stage was the highlight of the night. It gave Kanye the freedom to perform, close up, to every section of the audience. His use of lighting was so careful, so different from anything I’ve seen. He was rarely illuminated himself. In fact, much of the show was a matter of watching Kanye’s dimly-lit form move to his music, as the lights shining out from under his floating platform shone on the audience dancing below him.
At one point, the only light in the room was a row of lasers shining horizontally past him, and he used his arms and his body to part the light, or to let it pass. At another, there is no stage light at all, and the audience instinctively turned on their camera flashlights to wave as he performed “Flashing Lights.”
For the crowd on the floor, the stage determined much of their experience. Fans weren’t just watching the show from a static perspective. They would flock toward Kanye as the stage moved from one end of the arena to the other, only to be herded into a corner in the next moment. It must have felt like chaos in the moment, but with Kanye, what seems like chaos is always in his control.
Another way he exerted this control was by stopping the music, and himself, and allowing fans to fill in the blanks. So really, it’s the audience that gets bleach on their T-shirts and it’s the audience that “made that bitch famous” and it’s the audience that feels like an asshole. We think we know what he means when we denounce on his behalf “a woman so heartless.”
Despite the dance party on the floor, the concert wasn’t meant to be a complete celebration. Yesterday in Seattle, 2,000 teachers wore T-shirts that declared “Black Lives Matter,” delivering a show of solidarity against racism. In light of that, the social and political commentary on race that is featured in many of Kanye’s songs sounded particularly timely last night, especially the explicit reference to police brutality in “Feedback”: “Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us/Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us.”
Though Kanye’s music isn’t categorized as “Christian,” it is. Kanye’s faith, in prayers and in laments, are main characters in each album he releases—and they were placed front and center at last night’s show: From the Pastor T.L. Barrett sample at the beginning of “Father Stretch My Hands” to “Jesus Walks”—from his debut album The College Dropout—which was a centerpiece of the show. During “Wolves,” Kanye makes biblical allusions as his stage tilts downwards toward the flock and the audience on the floor floods towards him and raises their anemone arms in his direction. And then there’s the way he closed the night:
Kanye stands on his floating stage on one end of the arena as “Ultra Light Beam” begins to play. The platform transports him across the room, as he solemnly sings about God dreams and everythings. The room is dark except for a single beam of light shining down the center of the floor. Kanye passes under this light for a brief moment, before the platform brings him to the opposite end of the arena, lowers him to the floor—where people had been dancing just five minutes ago—and he walks off, leaving us with just light.
Kanye West made us all disciples.