A good half-hour into Kanye West’s climactic headlining set last night at Governors Ball – the three-day New York festival already plagued by numerous acts of God without help from Yeezus – the stage went black for an uncomfortably long time, and the crowd began to stir. He had just throttled through two of his arguably most arrogant tracks, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (from 2007’s Graduation) and “Power” (from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), so a few theories were conceivable: he had been smote at last by a vengeful deity. He had speed-dialed his shrink. Or his leather jacket had gotten a streak of mud on it, and he was procuring a new one from Alexander Wang.
Suddenly, a jet-engine roar broke the inertia. The blank mainstage video screens blinked blindingly into oversaturated graphics of an airplane runway, and the previously dark tiers of steps that had crowded the stage lit up fantastically in a 3D furtherance of the airport tarmac. Then, bass levels tripled from before into heart-rattling resonance, West traipsed back to center stage and barreled martially through “I Am a God” (from his soon-to-be-released sixth studio album, Yeezus), howling “Hurry up with my damn croissants” and “I just talked to Jesus / He said ‘What up, Yeezus?'” with equally manic vehemence. It was all just swollen enough to be ridiculous, and delivered intensely enough to be transfixing.
Just crazy enough to be Kanye West.
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Before this weekend, the endlessly quotable rapper had not commanded a New York show as sole headliner since 2008, and he honed the setlist accordingly. Sprinkled with five new songs from Yeezus, his performance served largely and good-naturedly as a roster of his biggest radio hits from throughout his career, from his 2004 debut The College Dropout through the 2012 Cruel Summer compilation from his GOOD Music label. With his modest DJ setup, he dropped largely record-faithful takes on “All of the Lights,” “Flashing Lights” and “Clique,” all before his ritual mid-show rant (more on that in a moment). He added feral growls and punishing remixes to “Jesus Walks” and “Heartless,” and closed his 90-minute set with even more oft-spun anthems: “Good Life,” “All Falls Down” and “Stronger” (the latter without that much-rumored Daft Punk cameo; West didn’t invite a single guest to share his spotlight). He was content to tear through his hits with general lack of improvisation, under unyielding images of heat-ray fighter jets: on”Cold” (originally “Theraflu”), his second single from Cruel Summer, he spat out the aggressive hook, “Shut the fuck up when you talk to me / Before I embarrass you” with no shortage of vitriol. (Currently pregnant girlfriend Kim Kardashian, name-dropped with a less-than-tidy conclusion in the original track, escaped utterance.)
The Governors Ball set was touted as the first significant glimpse into Yeezus, and West obligingly opened the show (a scant 20 minutes late!) with “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” It was a spectacle familiar to Saturday Night Live viewers; he reprised the graphics and delivery of that May 18th musical guest performance, projecting graphics of rabid dogs and yelping with distorted, stuck-pig ferocity on the former. Videos of piercing eyes behind inky Klansman hoods and monochrome “not for sale” signs added to the assaultive air (a dramatic juxtaposition in the moment name-checked Inglorious Basterds and LeBron James).
“New Slaves” is the more lyrically confrontational of the pair, a brutal decrying of aspirational consumerism and segregation, and the most musically brave – it’s remarkably comfortable with silence. Live, West paused and breathed audibly between scant verses, allowing interludes of emptiness to add to the corrosive aura – though he still clearly took relish in shouting “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” and mentioning Bobby Boucher, idiot-savant hero of The Waterboy. Two more tracks, which were not introduced but were acknowledged by him as “new shit,” were the usual face-first, defiant dives with sharper, less sampled backbeats and overstuffed allusions best summarized by West’s repeated screaming in one, “You can send this bitch up / It can’t go down!”
“I Am a God,” in all its pastry-related moments and otherwise, would have been the clear credo of a sociopath had West not amended his inevitable mid-set with a moment of self-effacement. He brought the buzzing field’s energy down with a newly plodding beat, then thanked the audience for coming to the gig. “This is the part of the show where I start complaining about shit, justifying shit,” he cracked. “You know how it is.” The audience laughed, fueling the fire, and that winking humor ebbed swiftly enough for him to spiel on about how he doesn’t want to sell a million records anymore, that he didn’t put out a major Yeezus single because “When I listen to radio, that ain’t what I want to be anymore.” Half the crowd cheered, half almost audibly rolled their eyes. “I don’t really give a fuck about outside opinions!” he contended, now considerably far from where he’d begun but still without malice.
After a medley-like mash of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (disappointingly cut after the Shirley Bassey sample) and his verse from Rihanna’s “Diamonds” remix, with the strict Governors Ball 11 p.m. curfew already in the rearview, West launched into the evening’s genuinely stunning climax: a languorous stroll through “Runaway” (from Fantasy), the minimal piano beat stretched to full friction as he cycled openly through all stages of narcissism. In between the familiar crooning about his addiction to “hood rats” and his regret at messing over his faithful girl, he began singing, “If you love somebody tonight, hold on so tight” with real wistfulness. Then, best yet, he began riffing on all his potential scenarios of asshole-dom in lightning, stream-of-consciousness rants. “If I told you I didn’t like the way your hair looked tonight, don’t listen to me, baby, because I’m an asshole!” he barked out in the time it takes a normal human to cough. (A few more scenarios ensued but this was by far the funniest delivered with the most inverse severity.) This seemed to spark a brand-new synapse, as he spent a good 30 seconds after it wailing passionately, “Assholes deserve to be lonely! Assholes deserve to be lonely!” The audience blinked up at him, noncombative to the concept but clearly taken aback. It was a vulnerable, strange, oddly nourishing moment.
Then he did “Black Skinhead” yet again to close. Because that’s our Kanye: he just doesn’t know when to stop, and that’s part of the deal.