Two Dudes at the Kanye West Yeezus Tour

On Nov. 17, 2013, Thought Pollution staff members Liam Green and Pete Rizzo attended the Boston stop of Kanye West’s Yeezus Tour. Pete was sober and quite excited. Liam was decidedly not sober and equally excited. If curious about the setlist, enjoy the following Spotify playlist. 

Liam:
Having been a ride-or-die Kanye West fan since The College Dropout, I can safely say I anticipated few things more than seeing him live on the Yeezus Tour. I was both fairly sure what to expect and entirely unaware of what I was getting myself into – in the best possible way. He’d never disappointed me (and still hasn’t, the ridiculous “Bound 2” video notwithstanding), so as I waited in the nosebleeds with Pete Rizzo after Kendrick Lamar’s blistering opening set – which I’ll get to in a moment – I ignored Pete’s assurances that we’d be waiting like an hour or more for the setup of the giant Yeezus mountain, feeling pretty all right after four beers, alternating between sitting, standing and partially hyperventilating.

Pete:
To be fair I was at his 2:45 a.m. Bonnaroo ’08 performance, for which he was two hours late. So, I felt one hour was reasonable.

Liam:
Before that, there was the Kendrick performance, which I unfortunately missed part of due to merch lines. (Message to TD Garden: Not having the merch table open after shows end is really, really fucking annoying, and made me miss out on buying a NIN 2013 shirt a month earlier. Not cool.) I didn’t catch any of “Money Trees” and only heard snippets of “Backseat Freestyle,” one of my favorite K.Dot tracks.

Pete:
I, on the other hand, got to see more of Kendrick, which I honestly feel sort of mixed about. I was really into good kid, m.A.A.d city, but I was in it more for “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” than “Swimming Pools (Drank)” or “Compton.” Kendrick definitely swayed way more to this side of the line, thought he played both the former songs, doing all of 30 seconds of “The Art of Peer Pressure,” before he lost faith in the audience’s attention span and played his verse of “Fuckin’ Problems.”

Maybe it wasn’t in that order, but that was the general vibe – play a few seconds of something for the album fans only to blueball them. I thought the move to try to ape Kanye at a Kanye show was a bit off, and I think that he could’ve stuck to his rhymes-first style and complemented Kanye’s show, but I guess that was a preference. This gets more interesting if you think that it might be indicative of what’s to come. While good kid, m.A.A.d city seemed the work of a confident artist, he might go full-on Lupe Fiasco and bow to the worst of Kanye’s influence. Let’s hope with the next album he sticks to his guns and leaves the hit-chasing for the A$AP Rockys of the world.

Liam:
Lupe Fiasco, even on his excellent debut, didn’t have a quarter of Kendrick’s confidence and artistry. He also had immense pretensions that Kendrick clearly doesn’t have, which in their current iterations have driven Lupe borderline insane. I don’t see that happening with K.Dot, at all, but I guess you never know.

Backed by an amazingly tight funk-rock band, Kendrick tore through hits like “Swimming Pools” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” with the same furious energy he applied to album cuts like “m.A.A.d city” and the first verse of “The Art of Peer Pressure.” As Pete said to me, “He’s playing like a headliner, not an opener.” The crowd responded in kind, singing along to most of the words. Although Lamar did playfully call out the fair-weather, radio song friends in the audience (“Now I don’t know quite how deeply y’all listened to the album,” he said with a chuckle), the majority of the crowd that I could see was loving every moment of his 40-minute set. He used a vocal backing track to cover moments where he had to breathe between bars, but didn’t rely on a hype man and used every last bit of his lungs. The first long verse of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Compton” brought his show to an empowering close.

Then, after about 30 minutes, it was Yeezus season.

A coterie of white-robed, masked dancers took the stage in two single-file lines to start shit off, as the opening notes of “Hold My Liquor” played and a Siri-esque female voice provided ominous narration (a motif that recurred throughout the set). Then a screeching synth note. Then Kanye, still offstage, repeating the phrase “I am not here, I am not here right now.” Then the brutal, assaulting industrial drones of ” On Sight.” I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t notice Kanye take the stage and rip through the song’s first verse.

Pete:
He really let the sampled harmony part in the middle of “On Sight” ride. It was a gesture that said we, the audience, were a basketball in the hands of an insanely talented dribbler. And to be honest, it set the tone for what was a Michael Jordan/LeBron James-level expose of (mostly) hitting just the right notes at the right time in a way that puts this tour high up on my list of the best shows ever.

Liam:
Before going into highlights of his (approximately) 140-minute set, I feel like it’s important to mention the masks. Not without reason, I’m sure that some find them ridiculous. But for me, they served to make the overall experience less about Kanye West the man and more about the music he’s created. As much as his art is contingent upon his ego and outsized personality, the music and what it means to us as listeners always feels like the most important thing about Kanye – and to Kanye – for me at least. In that sense, the masks allow him to assume a character role similar to the monster creature that lurked around the mountain for a few songs, or White Jesus (more on him later).

Pete:
Or it gives him an excuse to buy masks, who knows. Maybe he got in with the wrong guys. Showbiz has been rough since the Rat Pack days, lest we forget.

Liam:
In terms of the overall experience, it walked a fine line between completely rehearsed – which it had to be given all the stage effects – and entirely off-the-cuff. The setlist and effects and choreography were all predetermined; Kanye’s performance itself was earnest and commanding and a bit rough in spots (he fucked up lyrics during “Blood on the Leaves” and “Good Life,” if I remember correctly). It was both entirely outsized and incredibly, almost invasively personal for performer and audience alike.

Pete:
As Liam hinted at, this show is the creation of megalomaniac, one who deserves entrance into the conversation about the most warped minds of the classical orchestral model – Wagner and the like. This was a five-act play. There were no variations. Like all of Kanye’s work, it was a vaporizer filling a plastic bag, equal parts careful science and the madcap effects that ensue.

Liam:
Considering that the setlist was such a beginning-to-end marathon of straight bangers, it’s really hard for me to nail down specific highlights. The opening barrage of nine songs and two snippets (his “Mercy” and “Clique” verses) was a nonstop assault, reaching its pinnacle with “Black Skinhead,” “I Am a God” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’ before taking a jarring breather for “Coldest Winter.” The energy alone of this section would be the high point of most artists’ best live shows ever, and Yeezy is doing this EVERY OTHER NIGHT.

The “Hold My Liquor” motif allowed for come-down moments amid all the chaos, and the song itself led into the bleak songs portion of the program, including “Guilt Trip” and “Blood on the Leaves.” During this part of the show, a strange, yeti-esque monster with red eyes followed Kanye around – one assumes as some representation of darkness or the id.

Pete:
Yeah, he had a yeti. {Note: The writers of this post cannot make it clear enough that THERE WAS A FUCKING YETI-MONSTER ON STAGE.}

Liam:
“Blood on the Leaves” is definitively the best song on Yeezus and it may be his best ever (so far). Fittingly, it kicked TD Garden’s goddamned teeth in, and boasted the most insane visual effects, as the mountain “erupted” in (digitally projected) lava and (real) flames shot up from the stage. The track clearly means a great deal to West, and he put everything he had, physically and vocally, into performing it. As with every other song, myself and most of the crowd sang and screamed along for “Leaves,” but the song gets me in a way few others ever have, and my eyes kinda started leaking.

Beyond that, there were two other distinct highlights for me. The first was “Runaway,” which was bisected by an auto-tuned speech where Kanye did that thing where he’s clearly on his egotistical tip but somehow manages to make you feel like you’re ten feet tall and strong as an ox, to quote Stevie Janowski from Eastbound and Down. One thing from the speech that resonated with me was, “See I don’t think about what’s the worst that can happen, I think about, what’s the first that can happen.” Corny? A bit. Cliched? Kinda. Legitimately inspiring as fuck, though. Before that line, his primary question during the talk – “What do you have to do to prove that you’re creative? Do you have to shout it at the top of your motherfuckin’ lungs?” – was also poignant to me, as someone trying to find success as a creative person and frequently becoming frustrated with all creativity’s attendant bullshit, not to mention my own. This is one of the reasons why I defend Kanye when ignorant people mock his grandiose persona, because as arrogant as he is about his talents, he’s never once seemed to actually take them for granted. He gets it, and wants us to get it and be inspired. Sometimes his attitude gets in the way, but fuck it. I don’t care, I love it.

Pete:
I loved the rant. It’s what makes Kanye human and why the people who love him love him. I do think it’s interesting how they aren’t entirely personal though – just another artistic form that Kanye’s creative impulses have drawn him toward. I would easily believe that they’re just as tightly constructed as his songs. On another note, there should be a whole concert sometime of Kanye West and Eddie Vedder just ranting.

Liam:
I understand why you’d say that, but having compared footage of this speech to ones from other stops on the tour, they are all definitively different. The general ideas are similar, but the way he expresses them and the parts of the show where they emerge both vary from night to night.

Anyway, the last highlight of the set, for me, came toward the end. After running through a series of hits and deep tracks that culminated in “Through The Wire,” there was a pause akin to a breath being taken and then White Jesus was onstage. The whitest possible version of the Christian messiah – long hair, beard, white robe, etc. Kanye made a point of addressing him in kind – “Oh shit, White Jesus!” This seemed appropriate, in keeping with this tour’s gleeful blasphemy (which, Confederate flag shirts aside, I’m entirely down with). Unlike on other tour stops, White Jesus didn’t say anything – just removed Kanye’s mask and walked offstage. West remained unmasked to do “Jesus Walks,” “All of the Lights” and a few other hits, before finally signing us off with “Bound 2.”

I didn’t mind the masks and honestly found them kind of cool, but it was fitting that he showed his face for the show’s final lap. To me, it indicated that the pageantry of it all wasn’t what was most important to Kanye. It was an entertaining means to an end, but when push came to shove he wanted to share his music and himself in their respective purest forms.

Pete:
“Bound 2” was amazing, and while at points I was frustrated with how long the show was, this ending of freewheeling celebratory backtracks was one of the warmest concert experiences ever. It felt snug, like a blanket, like a feeling of sitting by a fire. It’s a testament to the power of an artist this big – that he can make you feel like that, like you’re in a room of like minds. I feel bad for the kids, the younger ones for whom this is one of their first shows. It was titanic, and I don’t think they’ll ever see anything like it again. I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it ever.

Liam:
I agree. I’ll be talking about this shit years from now, when my kids hate me for blathering about Kanye West the way our fuckin’ baby boomer parents carry on about The Beatles and Rod Stewart and the Grateful fucking Dead.

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