For Kanye West, running through a decade’s worth of hits and deep album cuts isn’t enough. He also brought a few dozen props with him Tuesday to the United Center.
There were bejeweled masks, dancers in skin suits, a tip of the iceberg, and a mountain that turned into a volcano. There was a red-eyed ghoul/yeti (Beelzebub in disguise?) and a meeting between “Yeezus” (West) and “Jesus” (a bearded fellow in a robe who looked like he just strolled in from Bethlehem).
“I’m not crazy,” West said while wearing an oversized trench coat and a mesh mask that made him look like an android terrorist.
Crazy? The man protests too much. But West is indisputably ambitious, in what was essentially a one-man show spread over two stages – the towering mountain and the smaller iceberg. The latter morphed into an icy ledge where West sprawled while mourning his late mother in “Coldest Winter.” Did I mention that snow fell? Yes, West brought his own weather too, as an oval video screen showing ever-shifting cloud patterns hovered over the mountain and brought enough turbulence to make meteorologist extraordinaire Tom Skilling giddy.
Much of the set was performed in near darkness, with sometimes little more than a single spotlight honing in on West in his masks. Black, white and gray color patterns matched the ominous tone set by the tracks from his latest album, “Yeezus,” with its clanging percussion and corrosive keyboard textures.
The concert was split over more than two hours into four segments (Fighting, Rising, Searching and Finding, for those keeping score). It opened with the rapper in combat mode, striking muscular gladiator poses while spitting out the venomous “On Sight” and “New Slaves.” It ended with West celebrating, stripping off his mask, smiling and handing the microphone to his fans during “Bound 2.”
The overall tone was decidedly dark, with the self-delusional narrator in “I Am a God” falling into despair on “Hold My Liquor” and “Heartless.” He plucked out the wan electronic keyboard riff at the heart of “Runaway,” and proposed a “toast to the scumbags.” In the past, West had always tempered his flights of ego with self-deprecating, self-doubting awareness. He strutted and shouted out demands, but he could also be vulnerable, conflicted, a “scumbag” -- and that honesty made his music all the more resonant.
With increased stature and celebrity, West’s art has grown angrier. On “Yeezus,” he targets the corporate power structure that he insists excludes him. He appears less concerned about the 99 percent than his struggle to win a seat at the table with the 1 percenters. In a lengthy rant near the end of the show (a nightly ritual on this tour), he did not focus on the world’s problems, but the world’s problem with him. “I know I have something more inside to give,” he said, “but I was being held back from giving it to ya’ll.”
In Kanye world, the media is the villain and West the misunderstood genius. It was an odd complaint coming from an artist whose music has been mostly celebrated, his artistic credibility matching his commercial sales. But West always wants more, and this concert was packed with ideas to the point where the concepts sometimes weighed down the music. The slow-moving, writhing dancers looked like extras from Stanley Kubrick’s creepy “Eyes Wide Shut.” The mountain was epic, the storms poetic.
In the midst of it all, West buried himself in his costumes, his facial expressions hidden, his voice frequently distorted so that it was almost as if he wasn’t there. The jacked-up audience sang or rapped large portions of his songs louder than he did. “There are leaders,” West barked, “and there are followers,” the fans shouted in response. But on this night, the lines between the two were sometimes blurred.
Kanye West set list at the United Center:
1 On Sight
2 New Slaves
3 Send It Up
7 I Don't Like (Chief Keef cover)