Live: Kanye West At Bowery Ballroom, Ranting, Seething, And Enthralling
This is the rant, but don't skip ahead.
Kanye West Bowery Ballroom Tuesday, November 23
Late Monday night word trickled out, via Teyana Taylor's Twitter feed, that a Kanye West performance was in the offing, to celebrate the release of his acclaimed new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The next day. At 550-capacity Bowery Ballroom. By the time everyone woke up yesterday morning, a sort of mad dash ensued, first to email publicists and venue operators and significant others to inform them tonight's plans might be changing. Then, when news arrived that some tickets would be offered at noon via Ticketmaster, workplace efficiency across New York dipped between 12:00 and 12:04, until most were thwarted by recaptchas and hacked mainframes and goddamn interns. Most failed to score tickets. Much hand-wringing ensued. Kanye West saved, then ruined Thanksgiving, in the same week.
At the zero hour, some press was granted access to the show. A gift and a curse. Doors at 10 p.m., with hopes of a midnight start time, was the word. The scene outside Bowery Ballroom was beautiful and dark and twisted. Rarely a fantasy, though. Dozens of fans with tickets waited for hours, initially with patience, in a line that curled down Delancey Street and around the Bowery. The guestlisted were asked to wait with ticketholders. Famous folks like ?uestlove and Donald Glover seemed to be having trouble getting in. Then that changed. As Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya, were escorted inside, few flinched. Then more celebrities were ushered in. Then former Def Jam and Warner Bros. executive Kevin Liles. Then Def Jam Chairman and C.E.O. L.A. Reid. Then MTV's Sway. The natives began to get restless. Insults were flung. Bouncers were accosted. The mood shifted from excited, to nervous, to unruly. "Hey Sway, can I interview you?" one hooligan barked. "How'd you get in?" More of the privileged were hustled in, and then . . . well, I got in. So I don't know what happened.
And then a Kanye West concert -- led by a track-by-track recreation of Fantasy -- began shortly after 12:30 in the morning. Here is the math.
1. "Dark Fantasy" GUESTS PRESENT: Bon Iver, Teyana Taylor FAITHFULNESS: 9 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Enthralled. With the loose-lipped Teyana Taylor standing in a slinky black dress on a raised platform stage left, and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon beside her looking rumpled and dressed modestly in a black T-shirt, a recording of Nicki Minaj's lamentable British accent bellowed, "Twisted fiction, sick addiction/Now gather round children, zip it, listen." Kanye emerged during this intro, and when the beat dropped, the Bowery shook a bit. The bass was turned deep and down, into intestine-rattling territory. Kanye, decked out in a black, gold button-accented blazer; a heather-grey tee; denim; and a gold-link belt, rapped with vigor and fiddled with his MPC, which he would return to throughout the night. Vernon, a neophyte to big-top rap performances, seemed visibly nervous, half-bobbing in place, trying to fit in. Taylor, a real natural, swung her hair like a pinwheel and just generally vamped. After the song was over, Kanye said, "Tonight, I'm gonna do My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." True story.
2. "Gorgeous" feat. KiD CuDi & Raekwon GUESTS PRESENT: None FAITHFULNESS: 7 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Bemused. Though Cudi and Rae were absent, Kanye highlighted his performance of this MBDTF sleeper with an angry a cappella repetition of the crucial couplet, "And what's a black Beatle anyway?/A fucking roach /I guess that's why they got me sitting in fucking coach." He seemed genuinely incensed.
3. "Power" feat. Dwele GUESTS PRESENT: None FAITHFULNESS: 8 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Empowered power-clapping. By this point, six months since its release, Kanye is good at performing this song. But he surprised the audience by modulating the phrasing ("No one man should have all that power!") and flawlessly rapping the alternate verse from his Saturday Night Live appearance last month, including some wounded bars about his strained relationship with his father. He returned to his MPC to insert flourishes here, as well. Someone please transcribe those bars.
4. "All Of the Lights (Interlude)" 5. "All Of the Lights" feat. Alicia Keys, Charlie Wilson, Elly Jackson, Elton John, Fergie, John Legend, KiD CuDi, Rihanna, Ryan Leslie, The-Dream & Tony Williams GUESTS PRESENT: Bon Iver, Teyana Taylor FAITHFULNESS: 5, but whatever. AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Agape. Easily the highlight of the night (save a certain show-closing rant, which we'll get to). When the song's ecstatic drums thundered in, and the wall of lights behind Kanye burned bright and flashed dramatically, the show went to another place. "All of the Lights" is a massive thing on record, but in stadiums it's going to burn holes into the earth. Nearly all of the 11 guest stars in the song were absent, but that didn't stop Kanye from grabbing his chest throughout. But when Fergie's verse began, it was abruptly cut. "That was a mistake," he said, chuckling. "Will.i.am didn't clear that." When the song ended, Diddy, leaning over the railing in the rafters, began audibly screaming with joy at Kanye. Kanye, rarely one for reticence, seemed gobsmacked by Diddy's insane glee.
6. "Monster" feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver GUESTS PRESENT: Bon Iver, Nicki Minaj FAITHFULNESS: 6, but again, this means nothing. AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Overjoyed. Hearing Vernon doing his drunken-goblin thing through a severely manipulated vocal processor was terrific all night, but this was, as it should be, all about Nicki. When she emerged for her verse -- blonde wig, black boots and white fur in full effect -- she was undeniably channeling Lil' Kim in the "All About The Benjamins" video. That may seem a reductive comparison, but the excitement and shrieking abandon Kim gave that song is exactly what Nicki is doing on "Monster." She rapped well and with precision, and by the time she arrived at the "I'm a motherfucking monster!" closer, she turned around and bent over, her posterior in the frame, before she walked off. A gallant entrance, a satisfying exit.
7. "So Appalled" feat. Jay-Z, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prynce, Swizz Beatz & RZA GUESTS PRESENT: Swizz Beatz, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prynce FAITHFULNESS: 7 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Extra-medium. This may be the least-loved song on MBDTF, with the clearest proof: The gap between songs found audience members asking, "Wait, what's the next song?" Still, seeing Swizz (in a black leather hat and matching jacket) and a black-trenchcoated Pusha T (truly one of the most intense and exacting live rappers I have ever seen) yelping and growling during this song was special. CyHi Da Prynce is the runt of this litter, but it's not hard to see how much Kanye loves him. Ye rapped along to every word of CyHi's verse, beaming throughout. Kanye performed another extended outro on his MPC, which sat on a white column; at song's end, he shouted out Mike Dean, the wizard-like multi-instrumentalist who has long been a respected and little-recognized producer of brilliant Southern-rap albums. His name is all over MBDTF's credits, and his throbbing keyboard playing buoyed the entire night. Respect Mike Dean.
8. "Devil In A New Dress" feat. Rick Ross GUESTS PRESENT: Rick Ross FAITHFULNESS: 10 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Awestruck, or confused by Ricky's red velvet jacket. This one simmers more than anything, and the exuberant mood calmed a bit with this performance. But Ross, whose transformation to brilliantly vivid lyricist probably culminated in the incredible last-minute verse of this song, was in fine, full form. No bells or whistles, just a great performance.
9. "Runaway" feat. Pusha T GUESTS PRESENT: Pusha T FAITHFULNESS: 8 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Douchebaggy. An energetic version of the song most people know. This was sing-along all the way -- even when Pusha T's mic malfunctioned, many rapped his words aloud until the mic came back to life. More than likely, "Runaway" will be the lasting impression of MBDTF for most people.
10. "Hell Of A Life" GUESTS PRESENT: Mike Dean FAITHFULNESS: 9 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Mildly disturbed. After a buzzing sample of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," the musical inspiration for this song, Kanye delivered an angry, guttural rendition. Then, when it was over, he performed the entire vocal again, barking in places, sounding woozy in others, wrenching the demons out one syllable at a time. "Hell of a Life" is a dark song, maybe the album's darkest, and its wounds still seemed raw, to hear it last night.
11. "Blame Game" feat. John Legend GUESTS PRESENT: John Legend FAITHFULNESS: 5, major points docked for the lack of Chris Rock and the "Yeezy upholstered my pussy" girl. AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Sleepy. (It was getting late.) This is my favorite song on the album, but it's delicate and shaded and even a little subtle. Not perfect for a live setting, and certainly not one this overwhelming and event-like. Still, Legend, looking completely wiped out, delivered a soft, crushing vocal. This will be a difficult song to perform live over and over again.
12. "Lost In The World" GUESTS PRESENT: Bon Iver, Teyana Taylor FAITHFULNNESS: 10 AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Whoa. Can't really say enough about Justin Vernon, who appeared to shake off early jitters to become the second most important person of the night, and the second most important voice on MBDTF. "Lost in The World" would not exist without his "Woods," and the song became a forum for him to quake and moan into his processed mic in ways he probably never expected. Lights behind him -- oranges, teals, cherry reds, violets -- flashed like mad. At times, the whole arrangement, lights and all, was disorienting, in the right way. But "Lost In The World," riveting as it is, doesn't actually feature much Kanye West rapping, so this was no way to end things. Kanye thanked his friends for helping him and walked off the stage.
ENCORE: "Christian Dior Denim Flow," "Can't Tell Me Nothin'," "Paranoid," "Good Life." After a brief break, Kanye returned to perform the standout G.O.O.D. Friday track (that could have made the album, in some form) while reading the model-repping lyrics from a piece of paper. He got a boost from guest Ryan Leslie, but Pusha T looked hilariously sheepish as he admitted he didn't know his verse. Then came two aborted bits from fan favorite "Can't Tell Me Nothin'" and 808s and Heartbreak highlight "Paranoid," before a spirited version of "Good Life," Kanye's most joyful song, which elegantly slowed its "P.Y.T." sample. Then things got ugly and honest.
THE REAL ENCORE: As is his wont, Kanye West found an opportunity to set the record straight after the music. He did it, sort of, with a dizzying speech, standing alone as Dean played soft chords, that referenced almost all of his bizarre moments in the recent and not so recent past. George Bush and Matt Lauer ("Not a bad guy, I'm sure") received mea culpas. Kanye conflated abused children with his public predicament. He bragged about the week's record sales, and then quickly blurted, "But I don't talk about the numbers." He openly fired at Taylor Swift, whom he claimed "rode the wave" of controversy and never once came to his defense in any interview. Though he acknowledged there was no way to justify his most recent VMA outburst, he added that "If I wasn't drunk, I woulda been onstage longer." He also said of Bush, "There's no leader who has been villainized in that way that hasn't been killed in war or committed suicide." And then, later, "Everybody needs a villain." There was more, too.
It was a bizarre way to end such a glorious event, but also, obviously, it was perfectly Kanye. No point is too belabored. All lack of awareness is its own awareness. Uncouth is for suckers. He just unloaded on the crowd, who wanted so badly to love him and hold him close -- after all, this was essentially a last-minute concert performance of the best album of the year, one day after it was released. This never happens. People seemed confused and happy and also unsurprised. A bit of Same Ol Kanye to go with Wow! Kanye. "I like clothes and I still like girls. I don't give a fuck what you think" was one of the very last things he said onstage. Yeezy taught you well.
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