Kanye West At Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, September 6th, 2016, Reviewed
Pop art, as invented by Andy Warhol, is not pop music, and the proof is Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground, where the nominal manager Andy didn’t interfere with the real time leader, Lou Reed. Who considers VU pop art in 2016? The problem with Kanye West at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday was the pop music, not the pop art. The natural conclusion of a musical concept that Kanye has played with since his Hurricane Sandy benefit performance, December 2012, a twenty minute solo seamless one man act, reached fruition and missed a step: the set became the stage design and the concert became a pop up store. At 90 minutes (why the hell 90 minutes: he has a huge catalog, why cheap out?) it requested and required top dollar to get in but it didn’t provide top dollar value. Kanye West’s art is his pop music, everything should always be at service to it, and this set wasn’t. I appreciate that if West had gone on a half hour tirade, it could have stretched it to two hours, and I appreciate that the music was relentless, and live, but it wasn’t relentless and live in ways great concerts are.
It was too of a piece, it lacked tension, it was all structure and knowingness and yet it coalesced less than it should have, maybe even less than the listening party for The Life Of Pablo, earlier this year. A central Kanye tract “Runaway” was a tremendous disappointment, one of the best songs of the 2010s, on the Yeezus tour “Runaway” was a central conceit: West at the center of the stage, back from another tirade, riles the entire audience into a frenzy with a plonk of a note on a keyboard. Then does it again and again. There will always be a problem with performing “Runaway” live if Kanye doesn’t have Pusha T with him, and it was a problem Tuesday night: it felt truncated and stretching the hook didn’t help. It wasn’t thrown away really, but we kept listening for stuff that wasn’t there. Later, on “Power”, he dumps the “I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go…”. Compare to Drake earlier this year, on a set essentially the same length, and chattier than Yee, where Drake took all his verses off other people’s hits and performed em one after another: it gave the people what they wanted while Yee ‘s set had pieces missing (most of 808s for one) , Drake was complete. This isn’t to claim that Drake is Kanye’s superior, I have seen the best popular musician of the 2010s often enough to be able to assert, Drake certainly isn’t. It is to claim Drake was better than Kanye ON STAGE ONLY in 2016.
So really, how much of this is performance and how much is it performance art? Ticketmaster sent an email changing the door time and advising that the concert starts promptly at 8pm. Well, kudos for the easy access to the arena for one thing. After the nightmare entrance to Radio City Music Hall last week for Mel Brooks, also owned by the Dolan family, I haven’t had a problem getting into MSG in a year and this was easy. With airplane like metal detectors, and six entrances, security has it down to a fine art (LaGuardia should hire em), and when they feel uncomfortable, they add a side entrance to move it along. This was especially impressive since, as Kanye mentioned during the concert, this was the most tickets ever sold for a single event. The reason is, the movable stage dangling ten feet off the ground where Kanye performed for the entire evening, meant that the stage area in front was removed and more General Admission tickets were sold. It could very well have been pandemonium and wasn’t.
Once inside “Chase Square” , the first thing I saw was the longest cue ever, a twisting, multi-ethnic, gender neutral, winding, winding, winding line, of consumers. It was like merch sales on steroids. At the The Life Of Pablo listening party a coupla months ago, the lines were so bad, I couldn’t get anything. And Tuesday, without even getting inside the Arena proper, the line was eye popping. I had no intention, and I went straight in and the first two merch tables , I just didn’t even bother, but the third line had something like twenty people ahead of me so I stepped up. It was 710pm, and I was still in fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all where when Kanye says the show starts promptly at 8pm, and means it. So I took some snapshots of the tee shirts –everything $40 bucks and up, took orders from my Great-Niece, and like everybody else, waited my turn. And nobody was buying a tee shirt, everyone was on their cells, buying five tee shirts, two hoodies, and basically breaking the bank or planning to buy their own bank as they resell it on ebay. The one thing that wasn’t selling very well were the Robert Kardashian and Donda West tees –these two late pate and mate riarch’s weren’t particularly ugly folks so nothing can explain the garish shadings and death mask coloring of these tee shirts. They were terrifying. I am hardly a fashionista but I didn’t think any of it was particularly special.
So I got to my seat and I waited and I waited and I waited. Perhaps part of the Kanye West experience was the decision to piss me off as much as humanly possible. While nothing much ambient played, there was zero to do except wait in line or wait in your seat. We waited for one hour and forty five minutes past the official, be prompt, start time. We waited longer than every scrap of damn music combined. I knew we were near when Kim and her sister (I don’t know her name –the hot one), walked to their seats with as much arrogance as two such minimally talented people can possibly have.
Look: get rid of the stage and what you might have had was A Boogie opening, Chance The Rapper following and around 9pm Kanye headlining. The hip hop concert of the year, period. That isn’t close to what we got. Despite Kanye’s assertion that 2016 was a great year to be a West fan, it actually wasn’t. First, Pablo is a great album (my second fave of the year) but it isn’t Yeezus. Next, the Governors Ball gig in 2013 was the best I’ve ever seen Kanye, in 2016 he was rained out. A terrible state of affairs because if he had performed it would have given us the opportunity to see Kanye without that damn floating stage, he didn’t and we didn’t, so we have nothing to compare it too. I have nothing against the stage visually, it is a terrific idea in its own way, but it seems to affect the music in strange not really good ways. I wrote about “Runaway” earlier, and “Black Skinhead” seemed to miss the chewed up gear grinding power it had on the Yeesuz tour, we didn’t ever get “On Sight” at all. With a four piece band (keyboards, guitar, drums, back up singer), and I guess banks of Mac PCs, the sound of Kanye was if not ugly, very very rhythm heavy. It is a little like when Prince gave up glam rock for funk in the early 00s, it lacked shading. I say that as a blanket complaint, but when he performed a quiet song, the so melodic Paul McCartney co-wrote it “Only One”, he autotuned the beeyeesus out of it.
And speaking of blanket condemnation, talk about more songs about Kanye and chicks. Over and over again, that is his subject matter. Nothing wrong with that, of course, even on the spectacular “Famous”, which covered both, but its interest is language and even so, usually I couldn’t care less because it sounds so good, and when it doesn’t sound so much… wel, than your mind wanders and you wonder if he isn’t some form of idiot savant. Did you see that picture of Kanye with Jay Z and Bey and Alicia, and more, at the VMA afterparty? Talk about unbearable smugness, when Kanye claimed during his four minute speech at the awards that Kanye and his friends ruled , the reply might have been yes, it is true and the picture was a power surge and I don’t mind but when the smugness must be based around the music always. It is not pushing your luck because if you can do it, than it isn’t bragging, and usually Kanye can do it, but here… The stage moved back and forth and the General admission audience rushed after it (read Helen Bach’s review of the Boston performance, she describes it better than I do here), and the lights were dark enough where Kanye should have put on a mask again for the difference it would have made. His performance was very seriously intent upon musical excellence, and he had every reason to do it this way, but he couldn’t pull it off. It was like being in a dream state, it sounded like it was really happening but the sounds weren’t sticking: “Mercy”, “All Lights”, “Power”, “Stronger” –these are A List, VIP Lounge at the “40/40 Club” songs, but they seemed intense but not quite there, an element was missing. Maybe it was a visual element, the ligts shone down on the audience following the stage, Kanye stalked back and forth in the shadows, singing, swinging, holding on at the side of the stage like Leo in “Titanic”, lying down and dangling his arms as people jumped up to touch his hands: it was all distracting and the sound itself, mostly didn’t come close to a tune, and when they did, they ran afraid and used technology to hide from themselves. The only entirely successful moment was the very last , a well lit and beautiful, life affirming, enter heaven “Ultra Bright”. But, how could he do that all night? Perhaps he couldn’t, though why he didn’t bother placing many more than the two closed circuit TVs, I can’t even begin to fathom.
Kanye West is a strange, eccentric, insecure, braggart, and till now everything he has done has paid off in my books, but this set is asking too much and giving too little in return. I am seeing him at the Meadows, October 2nd, and I wonder how he will sell the album without the stagecraft –it is sure worth selling? Pop art is fine… pop music is better, ask Andy Warhol.