It’s impossible to talk about Kanye West and the Yeezus Tour without talking about the phenomenon of Kanye West and the Yeezus Tour. It’s a meta layer to the persona that the rapper-producer-designer-conceptualist has spent the past decade crafting and finally reached its apotheosis on the highly self-reflexive Yeezus. West is the subject and the object of his art, its protagonist and villain, its creator and its critic. Detractors have mistaken this quality as narcissism, since modesty hardly comes easy to Yeezy. “This is top-five, dead-or-alive, rap-god shit right now,” he proclaimed during the last act of his avant-pop masterwork last Wednesday, when the last piece of the fourth wall yielded to numerous extemporaneous rants. It’s not narcissism so much as solipsism, though, since West has almost singlehandedly constructed an entire contextual edifice around his art and proclaimed himself god from within. If he has any right to his declaration of genius, it’s that his audience is the walls of the kingdom. Love him or hate him, he is empowered the more we discuss him. And we have no option to abstain.
The morning after West’s half-sold performance at the Times Union Center, there was a fiery conversation on social media regarding West’s decision to exclude professional photographers from the show. Writers, however, were permitted. What to make of this? The kingdom has executed the court photographer because the king’s likeness is already available to the people. Whereas the performers of prior eras have requested the audience raise a lighter, West had everyone raise their phones amid a late-set cavalcade of hits including “All of the Lights,” demonstrating how many court photographers there have become. I Instagrammed a photo tagged #yeezus, like so many in attendance, and received likes from two of West’s dancers within an hour of the show. This inclusion of the fan photo vis a vis the exclusion of the press photo is critical to West’s vision. In an inversion of the predominant current model, which favors clickable multimedia (photo/video) over long-form text, the writer as mythologist is, however, still necessary to West’s project. Who else is going to proliferate the thematic content of his monologuing? If West is the critic, the critic is the flack. Guilty as charged.
So, if there’s a shortcoming to Yeezus—an album that alienated his fanbase with its bold forays into industrial electronic styles and legitimately forced them to grow as listeners when they inevitably came back around, and a stage show that ranks as one of the most fully-realized avant-garde spectacles the pop world has seen since the height of prog-rock excess—it’s that the conversation has been stuck in the phenomenon without actually probing the content.
Divided into four movements or chapters, titled Violence, Rising, Searching and Finding, Yeezus serves as a parable that follows the Judeo-Christian fall from light into darkness, the search for God and the final submission to divine grace. As you’ve no doubt seen on Instagram, Jesus H. Christ is in the house. “Pride always preludes the crash,” a voiceover states. “The bigger the ego, the harder the fall.” The message isn’t clear unless we have a model, and so West delivers “I Am a God,” “Power” and “Runaway” under the protection of a series of bejeweled masks and hoods, revealing his face only after being stalked down a mountain by a demon, held aloft by a band of angels, making it snow inside an arena and forcing the mountain to split and erupt like a volcano with the sheer dopeness of a live MPC jam. It’s only after a Catholic processional emerges from the mountain that West removes the mask, kneeling before Jesus and playing the show out with a decade worth of pre-Yeezus hits.
“I just want to make more dopeness,” West ranted toward the end. If West’s work is audacious it’s insofar as he has the audacity to serve as critical demolitionist and whipping boy, with a simple request that we “have a toast for the assholes.” Because, in its essence, Yeezus is an open-source solipsism, spinning an elaborate dream to empower all the dreamers. “Ten years from now, things are going to be different. People are going to respect creatives and teachers,” he projected. Modeling both the power and pitfalls of ego, he affirmed, “It’s OK to believe in yourself” but “you’re only as dope as the people you’re surrounded by.” From a triangular stage in the middle of an arena, he meant us.