Friday night at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, Kanye West let his music speak loudest, leading a rare performance of his 2008 opus 808s & Heartbreak, an eccentric, minimal album now considered among his greatest achievements.
For an album built on little more than drum machines and Auto-Tune, West brought what seemed to be a cast of hundreds, including a full orchestral string section, background singers, an electronic band and 14 women dressed in solemn chador-style garments. All were dressed in white beneath the Bowl’s massive clamshell. The first of two sold-out nights, it was a high-profile event, with a gaggle of Kardashians seated by the soundboard, including wife Kim, cell phone in hand.
Performing the album in order, Friday night began with “Say You Will,” as West sang to a woman painted gold at center stage, with fireworks to underscore the heat within these sometimes agonized tunes, created before marriage and fatherhood. Amid the blazing electro-beat of “Welcome to Heartbreak,” he questioned the value of material things: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs.”
Kanye was onstage for just an hour and stayed true to the concept, performing 808s & Heartbreak in full and nothing else. There was no encore of hits, no “Gold Digger” or “Jesus Walks.” The night was dedicated entirely to a particular piece of music and a particular point in time, and fans arrived to find printed programs with a “libretto” of lyrics waiting in their seats. There was purity in that, even if that was cold comfort to someone who just spent $30 on Bowl parking. You could have left your car running.
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It was also an entirely triumphant night for West, and a reminder why we keep paying attention. It’s not because of endless TMZ footage of him passing though airports or award show melodrama. The Kanye West who appeared at the Bowl was a man in command of the art and message of his most personal work.
Released in 2008, 808s & Heartbreak was only his fourth album but was seen as a huge departure, named in part for the iconic drum machine (the Roland TR-808) and inspired by Eighties synth pop. Instead of rapping, West mostly sang with the help of Auto-Tune, a technological trick some feel is an irritant, but bent to his own needs. Most meaningful was the brooding tone of the music, created in the aftermath of his mother’s death and following the unhappy end of a serious romance. Bravado was replaced by self-doubt and dissatisfaction. Songs were ruminations on life and death, love and resurrection. Some fans were initially confounded, but it turned out 808s & Heartbreak was a beautiful piece of music, went platinum and became hugely influential to a generation of wounded seekers like The Weeknd and Drake; and robo-pop crooners like Future. Rolling Stone named it one of the 40 Most Groundbreaking Albums of All Time
At the Bowl, there was little doubt of the album’s significance to Kanye West, who created a carefully choreographed evening around the songs. During “Amazing,” onstage bleachers emerged filled with men in white jeans and no shirts, their chests and faces covered in powder. More fireworks erupted above the stage as Kanye paced and brought out Young Jeezy to recreate his rap on the original to an understated piano melody.
During the confident, romantic “Paranoid,” he was joined by two singing partners, Mr Hudson and Kid Cudi, who climbed the staircase with West. “Having a good time tonight?” West asked, then said, happily, “It’s my first time getting to play here!”
“Robocop” began with lush, uplifting strings before shifting into electronic beats. Kanye led the crowd to sing along to the line: “Spoiled little L.A. girl!” And a thundering, deep bass note launched “Bad News,” before the sound of gunfire sent him crashing to the stage floor over and again.
Late in “See You in My Nightmares,” Kanye walked over to the band for a comment, then over to his string section to flip a page on his conductor’s sheet music. “This is one of the best dress rehearsals,” he said in the night’s only moment of frustration.
The end came with “Pinocchio Story,” with Kanye beginning the song from offstage until he slowly entered wearing a heavy burlap outfit that also had his head entirely covered. “It’s so crazy/I got everything figured out/But for some reason I can never find what real love is about.” Finally, he shouted, “I feel so much love tonight!” to cheers as the song reached a climax, ending the night on a hopeful note before he stumbled away. He returned only for curtain call, standing with his vast cast of players, music and message delivered.