Reading some of the reviews of Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, you start to sense that the monster wave of critical acclaim the superstar producer-MC has been riding since his Polo-and-backpack days is finally breaking. It turns out (shocker!) that near-constant, Tourettes-like declarations that you’re a “creative genius” might turn people off. But judging from his shows at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena this week, we don’t quite get the hate. The show is crazily entertaining, hugely ambitious, emotionally affecting (really!) and, most importantly, totally bonkers. As for Ye being at least some kind of genius? To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, he might be an asshole, but he’s not wrong. Here are 11 things about the tour that prove it:
1. There is a mountain in the arena! And there’s a second stage that looks like an iceberg, bringing to mind a trapped polar bear floating out to sea. (Which seems like an okay metaphor for what it must sometimes feel like to be Kanye West.) Halfway through the show, that, too, turns into a mountain. To recap, there are two mountains in the arena.
2. The whole show sounds like luxury. The Yeezus tracks, plus recent-vintage hits like “Clique” and “Mercy,” are tough, streamlined monsters that knock like Dre, roar like Nine Inch Nails or, most awesomely, do both. Unsurprisingly for the control-obsessed producer, Kanye gets the little things right. Sonic flourishes, like guitar solos courtesy of his supremely musical partner Mike Dean (who alternated between a large bank of synths, bass and guitar) were tasty in a way that other rappers don’t quite get. (See the corny Sunset Strip-style metal noodling that opener Kendrick Lamar’s guitarist occasionally unleashed on Tuesday night.)
3. Kanye’s team of female backup dancers, clad in nude bodysuits or weird fur bibs, don’t dance as much as creep in discomfiting, slow processions around the stage, like priestesses in a bizarro mass. Whatever they were doing, it was totally riveting. No one has gotten this avant-garde in an arena since Sonic Youth’s opening set terrified Neil Young fans in 1991. Not only does Kanye’s aesthetic exist in the nexus of art, money and fashion embodied by events like Art Basel, the rapper is clearly one of the architects of that aesthetic.
4. OK, so yeah, he does wear bejeweled, full-face Martin Margiela masks for most of the show. And while on one level they suggest a supreme “look not upon the face of Yeezus, mere mortals” arrogance (which is so off the rails it’s kind of awesome), the masks also have real theatrical usefulness. Given that most of the audience is way too far away to see his face, they provide a vivid, readable visual.
5. It’s not like he isn’t aware that he’s being provocative. Witness the call-and-response section of “New Slaves.” Kanye kicks it off with, “there are leaders,” and has the audience take the “and there are followers” part. And they (we!) were more than psyched to play the role.
6. Regular holiday pageants aren’t twisted enough for your family? Bring them to the Yeezus tour, which in parts has a weird, supersized school-play vibe, featuring cameos from a red-eyed, spider-limbed devil-creature, who creeps down the mountain and White Jesus, who appears during “Jesus Walks” and gets Kanye to finally remove the mask. The moral of the story? Who knows! But we would love to see Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze turn it into a movie.
7. Near the end of the show, Kanye breaks into “All of the Lights” and “Flashing Lights” back-to-back. Which is fitting, because the Yeezus tour totally does have all of the lights, and they are all flashing pretty much all of the time. It also has pyro, lasers, fog machines and, best of all, the Greatest Video Screen of All Time – a huge circular hi-def number canted over the stage and mostly devoted to really ominous storm clouds. If you want to see every state-of-the-art arena concert technology in one show, this is the show.
8. One technology we forgot to mention in that list: the snow. Dude makes it snow! During the raw 808s & Heartbreaks track “Coldest Winter,” dedicated to Kanye’s late mother, Donda, a flurry falls softly from the arena ceiling. (Just keeping track, so far we have two mountains, one devil, one White Jesus, and control of the weather.)
9. Late in the show, the mountain splits in half and becomes a volcano. No big deal.
10. Over the last few years, Kanye has pioneered a new form of superstar entertainment: the Auto-Tune rant. Which occurs like clockwork during every show, making it kind of like a crazily amped, talky Drums/Space. At Barclays, he laid into a former head of a multibillion-dollar company who has been giving him dubious advice about how he presents himself publicly. (These rants are almost psychedelically self-referential.) Kanye also compared himself to inventor Nikola Tesla and Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose way-out-there 1973 movie The Holy Mountain is a key influence on the show. It was not boring.
11. But the main thing that makes the Yeezus show totally riveting? Kanye himself. He sings and raps and stalks the stage with so much intensity it’s slightly unnerving. He digs into emotional places that are dark and weird and sad maybe explain why he prefers to wear a mask. If you were inclined not to like him, you’d find tons of reasons to confirm your dislike in this sprawling, indulgent, emotionally messy performance. But you also probably wouldn’t have dropped a bunch of cash on Kanye tickets. As for the people who actually wanted to be there? They clearly loved every minute.