At the SAP Center, San Jose, California: Kanye West played one of what may be the final shows of his current Saint Pablo tour on November 17 in San Jose. From media of all kinds, by now you think you know what happened there. You probably do not.
First off, let me say that since my childhood I’ve been drawn to men with big egos, men with big plans, high ambitions and the certainty of their opinions. From Presidents (JFK), to fighters (Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee), to musicians (John Lennon, Robert Fripp) and actors (Marlon Brando, Robert Conrad and Jane Fonda), these men and women inspired me, they thrilled me with the sheer power of their persuasive force, the brilliance of their art and their belief in themselves. To a person, these heroes of mine were at times shocking in their strident manner, often offensive in their rhetoric, nearly always unapologetic.
Kanye West is to me one such man in today’s world. He is an absolute genius. Like him or not, love his music or not, he also lives passionately and he has strong opinions, unapologetically. Like other inspirational figures of the past Kanye has offended: He has made statements and taken actions that have shocked. From overly boastful claims, to taking the spotlight at award shows, to sometimes cutting a concert short, or filling it with speeches, to saying he would run for President in 2020, Kanye has to some – certainly, to the media at large – crossed the line. Why?
First of all, let me clarify I am not a big fan of rap music, mainly as it is not particularly the sound of my now-older generation. But I have some of it in my collection. I caught on to Kanye West when he released the track “Power,” as he sampled therein the chorus of King Crimson’s breakthrough song “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Next, I saw him a couple of times on Saturday Night Live, rapping in front of large LED screens – once in front of a raging lighting storm and another time in a room completely covered in LED screens. More recently, he appeared in a heavenly shoot for “Ultralight Beam,” a stunning meditative track that begins his latest work of genius, The Life of Pablo, an album I would place next to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
Recently, my son screened a video of Kanye in 2015 at the BRIT awards, where he staged an absolutely spectacular performance of “All Day” complete with flamethrowers, and moves anyone who has danced would envy. Guess what: Taylor Swift was in the front row absolutely loving it, so we can all relax about award shows.
Kanye West is known to sometimes inject into his shows long speeches, sharing whatever is on his mind, extolling the crowd to see his viewpoint or just hear him out on a few complaints. Knowing this, I still booked a ticket to see the man. Being a “school night” I was hoping for a tight two-hour show, with about 33 tracks, as had been seen as the set list before that night. I was wrong, yet not dissatisfied and am happy to have gone.
The staging was innovative. As most of the music was pre-recorded, with a couple guys in the mixing booth adding guitar, keys and other live instrumentation, the stage existed to support Kanye alone. This allowed for a platform both literally and figuratively that was maybe 30’x30’ square, suspended above the crowd, with lights below and above, able to move back and forth across the arena floor, hanging from on a large suspension rig above. The rig was also able to articulate, turning slowly to one side or the other across the length of the arena – very impressive. A few pictures say it all.
The songs and the performance were decent: I know Kanye is capable of more spirited showmanship, but he was in a way a bit subdued. As we would see, he had a lot of things weighing heavy on his mind. The audience enthusiastically joined in, a chorus of young voices filling in background vocals and singing along with their liege. Due to the breaks in the show, we had to leave early near midnight, though I did get to see him perform my original favorite “Power.” He made it through 29 of the typical 33 tracks, mostly because it seems Kanye had clearly hit a breakpoint of some kind. (Queue media speculation here.)
What happened that night? Nothing that was surprising to me based on what I know of the man and his concerts. Every fan who attends should, it seems by now, understand that if Kanye has something particularly urgent to say, he’s going to say it: This is his stage, and passionate speeches or “discussions” (not rants, damn it!) are a part of his performance. Why did the media, both formal and social, make such a fuss about this? Kanye West had politics on his mind 10 days after the election, and all he did is talk to us about the following –which perfectly led into “Power,” the next song on the set list:
• How many people at the San Jose show voted for Donald Trump?
• Do you think anyone here voted for Trump?
• Republicans and Democrats both came to a Kanye West show, so doesn’t that mean we are closer than we think? Music lovers are not all liberal
• He did not vote; if he voted he would have voted for Trump
• The dumbest thing about politics is this idea of creating a separation; no one side is all good or all bad
• The echo chamber of online commerce is comparable to the same echo that drove us to think Hillary Clinton would win the election
• Don’t believe everything you hear on the internet
• If Trump does not find a new way to govern, if that is not successful, then we should think about Kanye in 2020
• We are one world, one race
• Jay Z should call him
So … really? What is all the righteous indignation about? To my ears, nothing here seemed so outrageous. In fact a lot of what he said was important, particularly for his younger audience members – most of who cheered.
Prolonging a show for a point of view is no big deal, unless you really can’t miss seeing late night television? The man has his views, any fan knows, and he is apt to share them. In order to deliver this stream of conscience in his way, several songs were interrupted midway through, later restarted. For us, it meant we could not stay for the whole concert. Though I would have loved to see him do the opener for the new album, which was performed as the last track, I’m good.
After our show, Kanye West cut his Sacramento set short after just three songs, clearly disturbed by the media reaction to San Jose – saying, before dropping the mic: “Get ready to have a field day, press.” For the next show in Los Angeles, he cancelled three hours before it was planned to start. Now, the rest of the tour is scuttled – and, worst of all, Kanye West ended up in the hospital to recover from some sort of breakdown, stirring the media frenzy. These things are regrettable.
But I would respectfully say, please, REALLY? Why must we eat our own? Why pile on via every possible media outlet to attack our artists, many of whom are, in fact, brilliant in their own way, sometimes to the level of being a true tortured genius. Art and seeing can do this, we all know this, we ALL know this.
Lay off Kanye West. He is one of those few people in our times who reaches for the brass ring, a pursuit that means winning but sometimes falling off the horse – inspiring and sometimes offending.
Spin Life of Pablo, listening as openly as you can. Listen to the core of his actual speech, and then tell me I’m wrong. And, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.
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