The Week In Pop

Kanye West, Musical Innovator, Attempts To Transform The Concert Experience

Not long into Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour stop Sunday night in Columbus, after his floating stage had made its first complete pass across the Value City Arena floor, he launched into “Famous” — the one with the video depicting naked celebrities in bed together, yes, but also the one with the Taylor Swift lyric. Upon rapping that line — “For all my South Side niggas that know me best/ I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous” — he abruptly paused the song and addressed his audience for the first time.

“I went through a lot to make this record,” he said, likely alluding to a lengthy backstory of friendly negotiations and threatened legal clashes with Swift. “You can say whatever you want. They can’t control the artists’ opinion no more!” He then urged everyone in the crowd to shout that notorious lyric with all their might if they agreed with him, a charge the room complied with heartily when the time came.

It was the closest West came to directly addressing Swift all night, yet in a larger sense his whole stage show felt like a rebuke in America’s sweetheart’s general direction courtesy of “the abomination of Obama’s nation.” In stark contrast to Swift’s 1989 Tour, there were no costume changes, no supporting cast, and no rehearsed stage banter. There wasn’t even a proper stage, just a platform suspended in midair, leaving extra room on the floor for a mass of hypebeasts constantly in flux between dance party, mosh pit, and reverent observation.

Like West’s music of late and especially the apparel he insists on designing, the setup was lavishly expensive yet spartan, both rendering Saint Pablo a one-man show and showing how much that man can do with a lot of money and skilled craftsmen at his bidding. It also ensured there would be none of the “please welcome to the stage” guest-star antics that became Swift’s calling card last summer — because even if Chance The Rapper had wanted to return the favor of West guesting at his Magical Coloring Day extravaganza by trekking to Columbus for an “Ultralight Beam” nightcap, there was no practical way to get the guy on stage.

Kanye West
CREDIT: Chris DeVille/Stereogum

Oh God, more Kanye vs. Taylor, I know, but it’s a narrative West is apparently happy to be included in and one that leapt out at me during Sunday’s show. As author Steven Hyden put it in his music rivalries book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, “Taylor is the center of pop, and Kanye is the pop outlaw — that’s the dynamic that was established for the first time at the 2009 VMAs… this symbolic connection will probably never be broken as long as either one of them still matters.”

The “Famous” fiasco obviously reignited this comparison, but the Saint Pablo Tour may be its apotheosis, the truest crystallization of West’s rule-breaking ethos. It’s not quite right to say Swift represents commerce and West represents art because anybody selling self-branded merch at these prices knows a thing or two about capitalism. But we’ve come to know Swift as an avatar for playing by the rules: of the major-label songwriting machine, of corporate America, of polite society. She’s a master of working within the system. Whereas West is willing to transgress just about any standard in service of authentic expression, and in the process he has altered the course of creative history several times over.

His dedication to creating transcendent capital-A Art has given us lots of beautiful music and ugly clothing, and maybe someday it will lead to otherworldly water bottle design. But his most ambitious creative visions have manifested in his events — particularly his concert tours, but also his TV performances and fashion shows. His tours in support of Graduation, Watch The Throne, and Yeezus grew progressively more ostentatious and awe-inspiring, successfully delivering some of the most iconic images in recent music history. What pop culture observer doesn’t remember West and Jay Z perched atop giant glowing cubes, or eerie druids and a blinged-out Margiela mask marching around a mountain? Now add to that list this levitated pulpit and a spaceship-like lighting rig worthy of the Ridley Scott movies that inspired it.

What West has accomplished with this Saint Pablo set design belongs in another echelon entirely, though. It’s the rare concert production that feels like an actual work of art, a creative statement as intuitive as it is awe-inspiring — and one that, once the rush of feelings finally fades away, really makes you think. Many major tours in recent years have included segments that bring the performer to the back of the arena for a few songs, and some, including Swift’s, have sent their stars soaring around the room for a song or two. Saint Pablo is democratized to a different level. With West raised high above the ground and continually circulating the arena, the experiential gap between the cheap and expensive seats narrowed significantly.

It was a show for the people, then, but certainly not about the people. One thing West and Swift do have in common is the gargantuan cult of personality surrounding them; this was a physical manifestation of that phenomenon. Middle America packed in to see West, but not the gawkers and haters he alludes to on “Black Skinhead.” These were partisans all, citizens of the personal kingdom he presides over. As such, Saint Pablo’s magic carpet ride felt like a powerful metaphor for his Twitter account: There he was drifting above the masses, doling out jams and occasional pearls of wisdom as the devoted throng below angled for Snapchat video. The kids on the floor followed him back and forth en masse, a literal wave of humanity to match the symbolic ripples West has long been sending through culture. It was Yeezus as Moses, or this tweet multiplied by 6,000.

The simple act of untethering the stage from a fixed point altered the concert experience more profoundly than you might expect, even beyond the aforementioned implications. New possibilities opened up, particularly with regard to lighting. At times his platform bounced with the joyous violence of a car on shocks. But there were also new limitations: Without the chance to disappear backstage and freshen up, West sometimes looked and sounded winded. His actual performance was dwarfed by visual beauty and monstrous reverberations like the “Feedback” bass bombs that shook every body in the room to its core. And although West was fastened to the platform with a safety harness, watching him jump and flail up there put a different spin on the lyric, “The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now.”

Ultimately his messy performance played more like punk rock thanks to his seemingly bottomless well of hits. It doesn’t much matter if you nail every lyric or are even fully tuned-in for every song when you can blow through “Mercy,” “Don’t Like,” “All Day,” “Black Skinhead,” “Niggas In Paris,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Power,” and “Blood On The Leaves” all in a row and it’s not even your grand finale. (That was an absolutely thunderous “Waves” into “Touch The Sky,” “All Of The Lights,” “Good Life,” “Stronger,” “Fade,” and “Ultralight Beam” in case you were wondering.) The hit-heavy setlist was a reminder of how many times West has changed the shape of recorded music in just over a decade. The delivery system for those hits suggests that he may end up changing the shape of live music, too.

CHART WATCH

We are officially living in the future because Lil Yachty now has a top-10 single. D.R.A.M. and Yachty’s masterful summer jam “Broccoli” has risen to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100, becoming the highest-charting track for either artist. That’s the most exciting news on the singles front, but in other Hot 100 milestones, the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” holds on to #1 for a sixth straight week, DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” rises to #4 (giving Bieber two songs in the top 4 alongside Major Lazer’s #3 “Cold Water”), Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better” hits a new peak of #6, and Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore” returns to the top 10 at a new #9 high point.

Over on the albums chart, Drake’s Views is back on top for a 13th nonconsecutive week, and he only needed a measly 53,000 equivalent units to do it. Per Billboard, that matches the most weeks at #1 since the Frozen soundtrack.

The highest debut of the week goes to Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine, which tallied 48,000 units and 32,000 in albums sales to enter at #2. Miller’s catalog now boasts LP debuts at #1, #2, #3, and #4. Former Staind frontman Aaron Lewis begins at #4 with 42,000 units and 39,000 sales for his latest country offering, Sinner. Usher’s Hard II Love debuts way down at #5 with only 38,000 units and 28,000 sales, which is just a damn shame. And Christian rockers Casting Crowns moved 28,000 units of The Very Next Thing to enter at #9.

POP FIVE

Mariah Carey, Jussie Smollett, & The Cast Of Empire – “Infamous”
Didn’t expect Empire to provide us with a high quality retro Mariah Carey ballad, but here we are!

Niall Horan – “This Town”
There’s a good melody here, but as a solo acoustic track it’s missing something — and I’m pretty sure that “something” is the other members of One Direction.

Zedd – “Ignite”
Zedd made this song for the upcoming League Of Legends World Championship. So video game tournaments have big-budget official theme songs now? Song is trash, by the way — and this is coming from someone who likes a handful of Zedd tracks. Like, say, that Hailee Steinfeld and Grey single that got a new video this week. That’s a good Zedd song.

Skylar Grey – “Kill For You” (Feat. Eminem)
Between her work with Eminem and Sean Combs, Skylar Grey is making a whole career out of collaborating with rappers who were huge when I was a high school freshman. “Kill For You” is OK, but it’s no “Coming Home,” that’s for sure. Side note: Back when I was a high school freshman, who could have predicted Eminem’s latter-day career as the male lead in romantic pop ballads?

Bridget Mendler – “Atlantis” (Feat. Kaiydo)
I try not to repeat tracks I’ve already covered here when the video drops, but “Atlantis” is a total jam — even despite Kaiydo’s bland rap verse — so please check it out if you missed it the first time.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • A ceramic pig painted to look like Ed Sheeran (“Ed Sheer-ham”) raised £6,200 in a charity auction. [Mashable]
  • Jared Leto lost his lawsuit against TMZ for publishing a video of him talking shit about Taylor Swift in his studio. [THR]
  • In other Swift news, she won a Clio Award for her “Taylor Vs. The Treadmill” Apple Music commercial. [Clios]
  • Puff Daddy donated $1 million to his alma mater Howard University for the creation of a Sean Combs Scholarship Fund. [Instagram]
  • Backstreet Boys announced an 18-date Las Vegas residency in March 2017. [EW]
  • Kid Cudi’s baby mama was granted an order of protection because the rapper/singer was sending her threatening text messages (among 168 sent in one weekend!). [The Jasmine Brand]
  • Drake’s Views became the first album to hit a billion streams on Apple Music. [Instagram]
  • Beyoncé paid tribute to the late Shawty Lo by dancing to “Dey Know” at her concert in Atlanta. [Twitter]
  • Beyoncé and Justin Bieber lead the nominations for this year’s MTV Europe Music Awards. [Reuters]
  • Not everyone in Europe is a Bieber fan, though: He was attacked at a club in Munich before being whisked to safety by his business partner and a waitress in a German beer wench outfit. [TMZ]
  • Madonna defended Rosie O’Donnell after Donald Trump insulted her during the first Presidential debate. [Twitter]
  • Lifetime has announced the cast of its Britney Spears TV movie. [Buzzfeed]
  • In an interview in advance of her Apple Music Festival performance, Spears revealed that she’d like to collaborate with Steven Tyler (“He’s great, he’s like rock’n’roll man”) or Lenny Kravitz (“I think he’s great, he’s a legend”). [Reuters]
  • Sia turned her “The Greatest” line about “stamina” into a post-debate endorsement video for Hillary Clinton. [Twitter]
  • The Rock shared a photo of Nick Jonas on the set of Jumanji. [Instagram]
  • A Danish producer is suing Fetty Wap for allegedly stealing the beat to “Trap Queen.” [TMZ]
  • Rihanna presented her Fenty Puma show for Spring/Summer 2017 at Paris Fashion Week on Wednesday. “Let’s do this thing,” she said before the show. “Let’s make some money.” [NY Times]
  • Dozens of artists (including Diplo, Mac Miller, Fall Out Boy, Walk The Moon, OneRepublic, and Fergie) have partnered with the NFL on limited edition co-branded team shirts. [Teespring]
  • Fifth Harmony, Diplo, Daya, and Charlie Puth are among the artists on this year’s iHeartRadio Jingle Ball Tour. [Business Wire]
  • Shawn Mendes told James Corden he’s “definitely” prepping a collab with One Direction’s Niall Horan. Then they had an acapella battle or something. [Billboard]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME