Beyond irony, beyond sincerity, in the ’00s we’ve entered the Age of Ambivalence.
The common definition of the word misplaces it alongside apathy — a lack of care or concern. Its true meaning is more complicated and more relevant: To be ambivalent is to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas about a thing. The Internet, smart phones, US politics, America’s culture of narcissism, the state of pop music — we generate contradictory emotions about everything all the time and it’s exhausting.
Fortunately we have Kanye West, our avatar of ambivalence. The guy we love to hate to love, cultivating a larger-than-life public image while demanding to be taken seriously as a sensitive soul. He’s self-protective but risk-prone, an occasional genius that we believe capable of anything at any moment, for better or worse. Kanye himself seems conflicted about the conflicting roles he plays, seething with a passion so consistent it borders on boredom. He raises ambivalence to an art form. It’s the only way he knows how to live.
Last night’s Yeezus Tour opener in Seattle was two hours of suitably convoluted Kanye-isms — a monumental, bass-booming religious allegory part Wagnerian opera, part inscrutable performance art, part ecstatic dance party. The show was simultaneously minimalist and grandiose. Every moment and every inch was impeccably choreographed, almost balletic. No off-script rants, but Kanye endearingly blew a couple of cues. He occupied the spotlight for the entire set but kept his face concealed under a sequined shroud, self-indulgent but self-effacing.
After a two-hour delay (Kanye was still sound checking a half-hour before the stated show time; also, there are reports of a missing equipment truck), the show began with a troupe of 12 female dancers in Caucasian flesh-toned body stockings, heads wrapped in tight, faceless masks, emerging onto a four-story, man-made, granite-white mountain at one end of Key Arena. The electro-scuzz opening of “On Sight” trickled from the speakers, the first song of the Yeezus album the first song of the Yeezus tour. Kanye, similarly masked in shimmering sequins, exploded onto a smaller promontory stage extended into the middle of the floor, delivering lyrics hunched over and screaming. He struck a Jesus Christ pose, arms splayed, head back, absorbing the pent-up energy that the crowd unleashed.
Kanye wore tight off-pink pants and a tall tank top, his upper half all shoulders and biceps. Going into “New Slaves” and “Mercy,” no backing band or DJ was visible. Music materialized from out of the ether at max volume. Kanye could’ve been lip-synching under the mask for all the audience could discern; he undoubtedly rapped over a backing track that provided hooks and vocal choruses. The sound quality inside Key Arena shifted from song to song, but all the Yeezus tracks were as overdriven and textured as the album.
Ascending to the top of the mountain, storm clouds swirling on a massive circular projection screen above him, Kanye tore off his shirt and rapped “Power” from the peak, then descended to the Foreigner-sampling, Mase-jocking strains of “Cold.” He spent most of “Black Skinhead” laying on his back on the smaller stage and howling. The crucial lyric of “I Am A God” had 15,000 people belting out “Hurry up with my damn croissant!” in unison for the first time ever.
At one point he made a writhing throne of the dancers; later they made a writing circle around him on the floor while overhead footage of the scene played on the circular screen, a Satanic orgy crossed with a Busby Berkeley sequence. The dancers left the stage as snow fell from the rafters for “Coldest Winter,” which he dedicated to his mom, and then followed with the ominous “Hold My Liquor.” He played the piano opening to “Runaway” on an keyboard set on a Lucite pedestal, extending the outro of the song into one of the most swelling, melodic moments of the night.
“Through The Wire” and “Jesus Walks” tripped back into Kanye’s catalog, the latter introducing the climax of the performance. After 90-some minutes of anonymity, Kanye stripped off the mask and came face-to-face with the object of his quest: “White Jesus!” he said to the robed, White Jesus-looking dude who strode beatifically onto the stage. “Holy shit! I’ve been looking for you my whole life! And fuck, I just said ’shit’ in front of Jesus!”
It was the single moment of levity in an otherwise grave performance; that it came at the crux made it all the more surreal. And it suggested that this was a qualified Jesus—White Jesus—not necessarily a straight-faced portrayal of the Son of Man. Still, he had something important to say.
“I’ve been looking for you, Kanye,” White J said. “Not to punish good people, but to show them the light.”
Kanye’s response: “Flashing Lights” into “All of the Lights,” an elevated, extended crescendo. A fair portion of the crowd had taken off at this point — it was after 1 AM — but those that remained were alternatingly stunned and going bonkers. As “Bound 2″ played, White Jesus ascended the mountain. Surrounded by his masked minions, Kanye knelt, then bowed to the man on high. The chorus of “On Sight” echoed — “You give us what we need/it may not be what we want.” Then, without a word, everyone filed offstage for the last time.
Not surprisingly, after-show online chatter has been wildly diverse. Hate and love are basic, knee-jerk; to maintain both at the same time is arresting and involving. And inherently good: The importance of ambivalence is that it leads to nuanced thinking, to context, to empathy. If that’s the lesson of Yeezus, then Kanye delivered a minor miracle.
01 “On Sight”
02 “New Slaves”
03 “Send It Up”
07 “Black Skinhead”
08 “I Don’t Like”
09 “I Am A God”
10 “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
11 “Coldest Winter”
12 “Hold My Liquor” (Live Debut)
13 “I’m In It” (Live Debut)
14 “Drunk And Hot Girls”
15 “Guilt Trip” (Live Debut)
17 “Blood On The Leaves”
18 “I Wonder”
20 “Hey Mama” (Instrumental)
21 “Street Lights” (Live Debut)
22 “Lost In The World”
23 “Heard ’Em Say”
25 “Through The Wire”
26 “Jesus Walks”
27 “Flashing Lights”
28 “All Of The Lights”
29 “Bound 2″