Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour, which rolled through Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden last night, boasts a visionary light show and one of the most unique stage setups of all time. Rather than performing from a fixed location at the front of the audience, as one often does, Kanye hovers over his crowd on a stage suspended by a network of cables. The rig crept from one end of the general-admission pit to the other as the night went on, and the vertical array of lights and smoke overhead blinked, shifted, and pivoted.
It’s more ambitious than it sounds. The arrangement necessitates a one-man show, since guests can’t just be dangled down onto the stage and plucked out when they’re done. (The only live voice heard beside Kanye’s was Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, who delivered his “Wolves” bridge from the pit below at one point.) But Kanye proved himself up to the task as he tore through a set list that zoomed from his latest album, The Life of Pablo, through memorable guest appearances and favorites from earlier albums. Positioning West’s guest verses from songs like Drake’s “Pop Style” and Schoolboy Q’s “THat Part” up top gave the night a jerky energy more suited to big rap radio festivals, where artists cram as many hits as possible into the time allotted, hopping in and out of song fragments on jarring bits of airhorn.
Past the early bits, which energized the crowd but sometimes snatched the songs out from under them, the set list opened up to incorporate nods to every corner of Kanye’s ever-expanding discography, mixing moods from different eras into new and exciting combinations. Zipping from Graduation’s “Flashing Lights” to Pablo’s “Highlights” and later returning for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “All of the Lights” explored Kanye’s fixation on the stage as a place where careers break but lives often break apart. A genius stretch late in the show took us through Pablo’s “Wolves,” 808s & Heartbreak’s “Heartless,” Fantasy’s “Runaway,” and the non-album single “Only One,” in the process illuminating the rapper/singer/producer’s enduring willingness to turn personal adversity into honest, self-deprecating art.
Churning underfoot throughout the night were the general-admission attendees, who followed alongside and underneath Kanye’s platform. Perhaps the most fascinating side effect of the Saint Pablo tour’s stage — which was inspired by director Scott and incorporated the same mess of pipes and wires as the Alien movie’s spaceship Nostromo — was that it decentralized and destabilized this audience. They’d spend the night jostling for a view of Kanye overhead, moshing below him in the lights and smoke, and, bafflingly, jumping up to try and tap the moving rig. The stage’s moves ended up doubling as a democratic method of ensuring that every corner of the stadium got a good view. Where landing in a bad spot at other live events ensures you spend the evening angling to see the stage between the heads, shoulders, and cell phones of taller people, Saint Pablo brings Kanye straight to you (and sometimes over you).
As intriguing and futuristically staged as it is, the Saint Pablo tour is still just days old and figuring out what it’s capable of. The overhead lights are able to pivot along two axes, and would do so throughout the night during instrumental passages where West stood still, his stage fixed at the end of the shifting light rig. It’s a holdover from later legs of the Yeezus tour, where the artist figured out he didn’t need to keep the lights stationed in the same place the whole night. You got the sense there are tricks Saint Pablo hasn’t quite pulled together yet, especially during the Pablo single “Fade,” where West shouted “Hit ‘em with the lasers,” and a horizontal beam of red lasers resembling the ones from Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” video cut across the Garden for a few seconds. In that respect, Saint Pablo takes after the album it celebrates: It’s guttingly personal, sharp beyond its years, and maybe, slowly changing shape in plan sight.