The Internet went into snicker-mode a couple of weeks ago, when Kanye West was forced to cancel several shows on his Yeezus Tour after trusses used to support a crucial part of the stage set, a 60-foot circular LED screen, were damaged in a road accident on the way to Vancouver. No one was snickering at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last night, though. No offense to West, who put on an excellent, gripping show — or, for that matter, to Jesus, who wafted out of dry ice billows midway through — but that LED screen just about stole the show. It was suspended from the rafters, facing downward, looming over the stage like a flying saucer, or a gigantic Necco Wafer. It served, variously, as a spotlight, as an intertitle placard, as a humungoid, hi-def flatscreen. It was a vault of the heavens, filled with video images of roiling storm clouds, swirling snowfall, and occasionally, a pink-blue sunset sky. During “Jesus Walks,” West’s face appeared on the screen, in a super-close-up; you could pick out the individual sweat beads on his brow. In another number, the camera caught West, from overhead, in slow-motion; he was wearing one of his creepy spangled face masks, ringed by writhing dancers. It was goth Busby Berkeley.
The LED screen was only the most spectacular part of the spectacle. There were two stages, both of which were designed to look like striated rock formations, one of which took the form of a kind of ziggurat-mountain. There was laser-lighting, and gusts of fire that shot out from the stage, and a snowstorm, unleashed from the rafters, during “Coldest Winter.” The dancers were, as best I could tell, female; they wore fleshed-colored full-body suits and masks, and they didn’t do much dancing — they mostly walked around in a stately zombie-like daze, arraying themselves about the stage in varied standing and crouching configurations. There was a mock High Church procession, with dancers bearing candles and incensors and a Virgin Mary statue. Jesus — “White Jesus,” Kanye called him — made a total of two cameos, including one in the concert’s final moments, when he appeared on a hydraulic lift, at the summit of the stage-mountain.
The cumulative effect was overwhelming: a dazzling, befuddling mix of beauty, silliness, and kitsch. I don’t know enough about contemporary art and haute couture runway shows to name the sources — but I know enough about Kanye West to grasp that he tossed it all together with the flair of a wacked-out autodidact genius. Flipping through my notebook, I see a page where I scrawled the words “Mummenschanz,” “Leni Riefenstahl,” and “Rick Ross.” I’m not sure I can come any closer than that to summing up the aesthetic. A semiotician could spend a lot of time working through the staging of “I Am a God,” in which West rapped while being held aloft by his female dancers. Or you could simply say: cool tableau, and note how great the song’s growling bass line sounded in that cavernous room, and chuckle at West’s ceding the big punchline — “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” — to the audience.
The setlist leaned heavily toward material from West’s post-2008 albums, 808s & Heartbreak through Yeezus. It’s rhythmic music, of course, but it’s harsh, and not easy to dance to; it’s not party music. We know that West is, as he might put it, cut from a different textile, but when you see him in concert, his break with rap’s traditional “wave-’em-like-you-just-don’t-care” ethos is especially striking. Hits like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” were stripped of their hooks; he delivered an ascetic version of that song, with the beat and the bass pulled out for long stretches. The closest the concert came to festive was the closing one-two punch of “Good Life” and “Bound 2,” which West performed with his mask off, while slapping fans’ hands. But it felt gratuitous: The heart of a Kanye show, the heart of Kanye’s art, is in songs like “I’m in It” and “Blood on the Leaves,” two of last night’s highlights, which stir together provocation, sex, misogyny, and confession, and sets them to music that is dark, abrasive, and grand. They’re beautiful nightmares.
West didn’t just rap, of course. He ranted. The rants are set pieces of the Yeezus shows; they arrive like clockwork, every night, just like Bruce Springsteen’s folksy yarns, and invariably take on topics like the media, “my interviews,” and the phoniness of other celebrities — or the phoniness of everyone else, period. They’re an art form in and of themselves, a mesmerizing combination of unfiltered bile, post-Oprah self-help hokum, art-snob name-dropping. At Barclays, Kanye raged at a mansplaining billionaire who’d offered him unsolicited career advice and shouted-out Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Some of the most enthralling music of the night came during the first of the evening’s disquisitions, when West barked and crooned over tolling gospel piano chords in a voice altered by Auto-Tune. It was a pretty, ghostly sound. It was strange, but also familiar, calling back to the homilies of the black church; this was Kanye as a deranged cyborg-preacher. In a later speech, West counseled the audience to trust their own instincts and to ignore the advice of self-appointed seers. “Don’t even listen to me!” he cried. In 2013, though, that’s impossible. You can’t help but hear Kanye West: His loud, livid voice cuts through the cultural din. Like him or loathe him, it makes compelling listening.