One of the facets of Kanye West which most defines him as an artist and drives his popularity is his readiness to accept and juxtapose apparently dichotomous emotions and contradictory points of view. We expect and allow different things from different groups of people. Where a philosopher may endeavour to systematise his thoughts into a single comprehensive and coherent body of thought, against which all deviations, transgressions or disavowals must be logically explained, popular musicians are perhaps singularly suited to investigate the inconsistencies in the logics and patterns by which we lead our lives: afforded the space for both personal and philosophical expression within an art form that is still ultimately respected as an art, or as at least possessing the potential for art; whilst at the same time being entangled within marketing and consumerism, and attempting to reach a mass rather than a purely individual consciousness.
So Kanye West can arrange a series of ‘surprise’ concerts in Europe, performances in London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam announced at short notice and apparently planned to coincide with London Fashion Week (which took place from 15-19 February) and Paris Fashion Week (whose ready-to-wear version is currently in progress, running from 26 February until 6 March), the coincidence emphasised by Kanye’s appearance at Anthony Vaccarello’s show on Paris’ opening day; and a few days later, this same man – who has himself showed his own fashion line over the previous two years – can perform his music live and conclude a song with a lengthy incantation on how we shouldn’t be in thrall to labels, because they and the advertising of them are damaging and wrong not only in their practical manifestations, but in their very concepts, and therefore we ought to shun them for something ‘fresher’ which can only be found through confidence in ourselves.
It is the same sort of thought encapsulated in the opening line of ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, when Kanye sings, ‘I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I woke, I spent that on a necklace’.
Kanye West was performing last night in Amsterdam, at the Heineken Music Hall, an arena with a capacity of 5,500 that nevertheless feels quite intimate. He announced the performance only one week ago; and perhaps owing to this, and to the relative cost of tickets, the arena was not quite full, but maybe eighty-to-eighty-five percent so. His extended rumination on brands, labels, freshness and personal creativity came at the end of his song ‘Good Life’. If the concert itself was not enough, Kanye revealed at this point and began his monologue with another surprise: he had covered up the Heineken boards at the sides of the concert hall because he didn’t want any advertising, but especially not the advertising of alcohol, during his show. A chain of websites, following and taking from one another, have already characterised Kanye’s monologue as a ‘rant’. Perhaps in isolation it may be viewed as such, but it should really be read in the context of his overriding personality; and what is more, in Amsterdam it was one part, one piece, of a show that felt lively, accomplished, and generous.
Kanye opened the show with ‘Cold’, the second single from last year’s GOOD music compilation album, Cruel Summer. The big screen behind the stage displayed polar ice mountains gradually drifting apart; the stage itself, a rectangle made white and slanting down towards the audience, suggested a block of floating ice; and Kanye appeared, stranded and energetic, wearing an all-white costume, with belts and low crotch, something resembling a straitjacket. There followed strong renditions of ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, ‘Power’, and then a sequence beginning with ‘Jesus Walks’ and concluding with ‘Homecoming’, Kanye’s ode to Chicago. The setting, those looped videos on the screen, moved through these songs from the north and south poles to the forests and the clouds. Kanye briefly disappeared behind his block of ice, and as a simulated snow fell upon those at the front of the audience, he reemerged as the abominable snowman, with a furry white mask covering his face.
Singing through the mask before removing it, Kanye progressed to ‘Good Life’, ‘Stronger’, and a powerful performance of ‘All of the Lights’. Birds flocked across the screen and across Kanye’s white suit, moving in a reddening sky; ‘All of the Light’s was replete with jumping neon beams; and during the song he required the audience to respond twice, the second time more loudly, in the shocked and upset realisation which follows the line ‘M.J.’s gone’. When he came to perform a version of the ‘Diamonds’ remix in which he features with Rihanna, Kanye again departed and reappeared, this time adorned by an entirely topical diamond-encrusted face covering.
The snow mask and the diamond mask were first unveiled at a show in Atlantic City in late December. They too suggest the sort of dichotomies Kanye freely and facilely embodies. Is Kanye an abominable snowman outside the strictures of society, a sort of beast of nature simultaneously intriguing and concerning the civilised; or do the mask, the straitjacket and the expanse of nature showing behind indicate a human impotence, and incapacity to commune with the natural world? Do the diamonds stretched across his face contort and confine, or do they grace him, symbols of flair and success?
Alongside these aspects of Kanye West’s character, he is fundamentally a talented musician – one adept and capable at directing his music from the stage and getting it profoundly right. At points during the show, Kanye would ask the three musicians accompanying him (positioned to the side of the stage, wearing similar though less elaborate white-suits and masks) to repeat sections of music, or for the volume of a certain instrument to be raised. The highlight of the evening was with ‘Runaway’, which served as the climax before the closing song. Repeating sections of the verses, with his Akai MPC at the front of the stage, Kanye embarked upon an extended improvisation utilising the song’s predominant cacophonous sample, with the piano filling in then gradually emerging and becoming prominent to conclude the piece.