Transformed from the so-called “Louis Vuitton don” to the purported “abomination of Obama’s nation” and back to being the kingpin of his very own G.O.O.D. Music label, there’s never a dull moment in the erratic, if excessively well documented and tabloid-infecting life of a certain Kanye West. And over a night on which he nonchalantly rattles off the second of three sold out London shows in the space of a week in the crimson round of the Hammersmith Apollo, the same can certainly be said of his live portrayal.
It is something of a portrayal after all; an act, if you will. And a studied one, at that. Though long since has this been the case, and witnessing a younger Yeezy engross this very venue as he did back in 2006 (he was then backed by a lavish string section to fully complement his luscious Late Registration LP of the preceding year) remains to this day one of the most striking performances I’ve yet seen. Replete with the usual array of sky-caressing ups and breakdowns, I found myself mystifyingly impressed as never before thus it feels rather G.O.O.D. to have Kanye back out in west London tonight for nostalgia’s sake, if nothing else.
Yet we’re treated to something far more rich, expansive and indeed, as Will Ferrell might so impudently intone, provocative than a kind of perfunctory jogging of the old grey matter. Needless to say Kanye’s been rather busy in the intervening seven years, releasing a slew of photographical ‘essays’, repeatedly failing to gain admission to Central Saint Martins’ esteemed fashion course, reeling off conceptual shorts and last but by no means least, recording three solo efforts, alongside an aural résumé of sorts for his label and a full-blown collaboration with another top dawg of Obama’s nation. Watch The Throne was then toured the living heck out of alongside Jay-Z, culminating in five giddy nights at that abomination of our nation otherwise known as The O2 Arena thus there could never be any question as to the welfare of West’s coffers. Though I’d always assumed it rather odd for a man so allured by money, and fame, and more often than not flabbergasting onstage antics not to have toured what to my mind remains his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, anywhere near its time of release. Stranger still is that what was once something of a one-off to loosely coincide with both the #BRITS2013 and #LFW has hastily mutated into an impromptu residency at one of the capital’s more salubrious establishments. He’s a man who knows what he likes, and he likes what he knows so the choice of setting ought to be of little surprise. Though it’s the nature of this swiftly assembled Monster of a series which makes it feel that little bit bizarre.
But whatever West may do with himself, this self-acclaimed “God of everything else” will, rest assured, continue to string along the acolytes that so staunchly follow in his hallowed footsteps. To gain entry to the ‘Apollo, it’s necessary to quite literally wade through swathes of towels and strewn tiaras abandoned and dejected where a queue once stood, sat, and indeed seemingly slept. Inside, the stage has been slobbered with a bright white so that it should resemble newly laundered bedsheets stretched wall-to-wall. An immersive and involving white, it looks expensive. Real expensive. Though so too was admission I suppose, and at £70-odd a ticket there’s a definite exclusivity factor to the evening. (Or perhaps rather there would have been, had he not tacked on another two nights.) Though it’s all been scrupulously calculated I should think, and he and his people have done an efficient job in whipping up sufficient frenzy, the front row reduced to a blur of iPhone paps.
Nonetheless the impatient wait is all that ensues for quite some while. Doors were stampeded down at seven, only to be segued by that grim void endemic of modern-day rap shows: there’s no support; no nothing. Not that he ever could be, but there is therefore literally zero probability of West being upstaged by absolutely anybody, as the effect is instead of self-aggrandisement achieved via this stark nothingness. It’s tedious, though it’ll soon pass. We’ve waited well over two years to hear My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy live, so what’s another few hours, anyway? Though the impatience prompts further contemplation over how much West’s stock has risen since he was last seen bathed in an unwavering adulation about these parts. These shows have indeed been long since overdue, if they’ve now been put together seemingly posthaste though as is so melodramatically posed on the post-operatic opener of said record, Dark Fantasy, “can we get much higher?” With a capacity of 5,039 and tickets £67.50 at face value, on the face of it West’s onto his umpteenth winner. That equates to £340,132.50 ahead of costs, and fees, and so forth. Though once multiplied by three to coincide with the number of nights chalked up, another number slips in. We’re talking £102,0397.50 now. Even in these times of financial austerity, this one’s such a nice little earner it’s a wonder in itself as to why West doesn’t become a permanent fixture à la that “fat booty Celine Dion” over in Las Vegas. Vim-sapping series notwithstanding, as is his wont I’d reckon this to be West helplessly buying helplessly into his own exorbitant hype and, as ever, cajoling all in with him.
Though it then finally happens: around nine though that bit beyond, the lights dim and hysteria duly ensues. A lo-res tundra appears on the sprawled sheets beyond a glacier of bluish smartphone screen, as M.O.P.’s Cold as Ice begins. I can’t quite remember how it all came to be seven years ago, though I highly doubt it was anything this luridly impactive. It’s all going on so fast, and going off as a silhouette stalks the ceiling when, onstage and from out of nowhere, West emerges in a blinding white straitjacket, tassels aflutter. In keeping with the purposefully hypothermic theme Cold, his DJ Khaled collab from Cruel Summer, kicks us off. It’s a lukewarm reintroduction, if I’m honest – the track unremarkable as anything contained within an itself unlikeable recording. Though the megalomaniacal nature of the staging is utterly fascinating: his nomadic backing band dolled up akin to Tinariwen set beneath a vertiginous slant which only West is allowed to roam, he’s got half the stalls to slide across, such is the size of the steep incline he so laboriously scales throughout. And with no strings attached, the lucrative thought process recycles itself: despite the immediately imposing essence of the spectacle, it’s a little bit budget. The visuals are clunky and rudimentary at best, whilst his backing band comprises three veiled bods on a variety of synths.
Then in keeping with the quasi-religious allegory to course throughout his entire body of work thus far, he’s down on his haunches for a lone take on the crunky Mercy. Yet more mediocrity. And so it takes for Can’t Tell Me Nothing to get something going: naturally adorned in white, he adopts the usual assemblage of saintly stances to the Stylophone-like tones of its recommissioned synths, as he slurs almost slouchily, “I know Jesus died for us/ But I couldn’t tell ya who the side was.” He may feign ignorance whilst again referencing his perennial icon of sorts, though the Graduation track carries with it that quietly endearing element intrinsic to much of his ’07 record, in that it was the first time across his discography that he began to acknowledge the error of his ways. He continues, that little bit crestfallen and with it human: “Bought more jewellery, more Louis V/ My momma couldn’t get through to me/ The drama, people suin’ me/ I’m on TV talkin’ like it’s just you and me.” That mother Donda happened to pass away but two months after its release – thus inevitably between tonight and 2006 – imbues it with a poignancy lacking from his every other performance I’ve previously had the twisted pleasure of witnessing firsthand.
Though whose side is West himself on? Given the ticket extortion of tonight (and it is an extortion, for the staging is nowhere near spectacular enough to warrant such a price tag), he succeeds only in alienating a more traditional hip hop fan base. Which is something of a shame, as it flattens the ambience somewhat: all excruciating gesturing and its best (read: worst) Harlem impressions, the audience is largely white, and almost exclusively middle-class. Which in turn renders the cathartic emancipation of a tonight supremely tribal Power that bit awkward, not least when he comes to spit vitriol and sing: “Mu’fucker we rollin’/ With some light skinned girls and some Kelly Rowland’s/ In this white man’s world we the ones chosen/ So goodnight cruel world, I’ll see you in the mornin’.” Though the most pertinent question to arise is thus: should any one man in this reckoned white man’s world have “all that power”? I mean within a hip hop context Kanye is almost omnipotent. And perhaps that’s not such an almighty thing, for it has indubitably incurred a drastic loss of perspective, even on his part: his ego and his overstatements are far bigger than the physical sum of the parts from which they’re spawned, though so too it must be said is his music. And so blistering is the next segment of his set that it almost feels as though a self-referential karaoke night.
Granted, most contain samples from already widely revered tracks, though it’s the way in which West has masterfully made each his own that sets him apart – both above, and indeed beyond. And as the ice onstage turns to ocean, it all warms up with any lingering scepticisms over the staging and the extortionate ticket pricing starting to thaw. Now sweating heavily, he’s growing into the irrefutable “God flow” of his show – naff arpeggiated interludes, ‘n’ all.
Projections of an infernal sky then flare up, along with thick billows of ganja down below as the College Dropout dips into the belligerent march of Jesus Walks. As he affronts racism and terrorism – two afflictions of our existence that are as persistently pertinent and problematic today as they were when the track was first written back in 2004 – it prompts further quasi-messianic posturing, as Omar Souleyman synths pervade its closing moments, snaking about a fallen West.
He then sweeps himself away, as snow machines whirr into action. It lends an all-encompassing, and involving feel even if the more coagulated clumps of the stuff that fall resemble plastic bags blustered about Kanye’s windiest of native cities. I think of 808s & Heartbreak track Coldest Winter, and wish he’d play it. Instead, he shelters himself from the storm. I anticipate a costume change, though he doesn’t do that either. Regardless, the over reliance on the meteorological imagery again ties in with his warped perception of himself as some semi-deified figure, as he manipulates the weather in line with his setlist. Not only that, but in playing off the elements, he plays into the longstanding concept of West being an artist to have purportedly triumphed in adversity and it’s then another track from this 2008 LP, Say You Will, which elucidates this as he laments an unrequited love, crooning in that thick Auto-Tune: “I wish this song would really come true/ I admit I still fantasise about you.” You know, I never thought I’d say this of any which headline-monopolising celebrity, but I’m pleased for him to have found Kim Kardashian. At least from the outside of the blizzard looking in, she seems to not only tolerate, but with that appreciate West for who he is. Whether she’d love the content of this particular number, or indeed the grotesque, expressionless Venetian mask he dons for it is questionable though there’s a moment at which he removes it with an almost poignant, George Lucas-esque sense of both bated expectation and revelation. It really is remarkable, and it’s just about the paradigm of the best BRITs performance that never was. Best let him finish then, even if he more closely resembles an abominable snowman than the abomination of any which nation right around now. Though prior to exposing the man behind the faceful of feathers, he folds his arms that bit defeatedly – a faceless shadow of the usually unabashedly self-assured caricature he has now become.
Maintaining a lovelorn, and densely Auto-Tuned tone, it’s on to Heartless. Transmogrified into a slushy ballad protracted as most vintage skiing seasons, this is where further credit is due for this repositioning not only tugs at a more subversive and avant-garde approach, but is also overtly artistic in its rendering. “Somewhere far along this road, he lost his soul to a woman so heartless” he may soothe, though this coldest of stories – the chill of which is enhanced by the windswept alpine visuals – conjures a warm feeling of cohesion inside, as he hangs his mask on his mic stand like a head primordially skewered on a spit. It borders on po-mo theatre, and makes for a striking recital, as well as a verisimilitudinous (if inverted) reconstruction of the artwork adorning his 2010 latest.
Though 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, truth be known, will never be remembered as West’s most potent oeuvre, purely as it most indubitably never was having succeeded the bang-on Late Registration. And, centred around his (mercifully, tonight only spasmodic) predilection for vocal processing, it will perhaps always be best recalled as his wildcard endeavour. Though the one premier element to have linked this, and with it his every other is his penchant for allegiance. Whether that be Jay-Z, or Kid Cudi; Brandy, or RiRi he’ll always find room both in his heart and on his albums for a collaboration. Though tonight he is, for the most part, the only visible artist onstage and, without a foil of which to speak, he can cut a lonesome figure. Though a qualm I had back in 2006 concerned the dearth of guest appearances over the duration, and it is a similarly prevalent point of consternation even today: Homecoming, at first thought, would maybe feature Chris Martin on its skyscraper of a chorus though on reflection, given the short notice of these shows perhaps any hopes of him performing in cahoots were always futile. And although West may have reportedly relocated to London, the Coldplay sap has been seen spending increasing amounts of time stateside, anyway.
The visuals once more reflect this sense of celebrity migration, as gaggles of frenzied geese whiz in the opposite direction to West’s slow trudge though it’s a line from its ebony and ivory plodding which has me hooked: “I guess you never know what you got ’til its gone.” And pop culture needs this frequently vilified, if genuine eccentric more than it could ever know. Flashing Lights clearly indicates this, as he is silhouetted by two glaring red spotlights as though a pursued hoodlum. The show hits its heady peak here, and it’s absolutely blinding as the stalls bounce and the circle overhead begins to spin in the periphery of sight, the euphoria bleeding seamlessly into All of the Lights. Or it would, were Mr. West not distinctly unsatisfied with our recital of the single’s most reprehensible line. You know, the MJ one. It’s redone ad infinitum when it was in fact quite resonant enough a first time and again, a roomful of white, middle class ladies and gents dropping that most ruinous of n-bombs probably isn’t quite what the world needs right now. I remember last year witnessing footage of a 12-year-old Yeezy reciting a poem dedicated to “a man who fought for freedom; a man who fought for equality”, Martin Luther King Jr., entitled His Name Means Love. “We’re too blind to see/ What this man was fighting for/ So Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Asians could put their foot in the door/ Yes, we know that this man is great/ That’s why today we celebrate/ And everyone lifts their voice and sings/ For a man who wanted freedom to ring.” And no matter how powerfully West proclaimed this even then, this doesn’t sound like freedom ringing around to me…
Otherwise, All of the Lights is likely his most incendiary hit – a luminescent blare of synthetic fanfare, tub-thumping rhythms, and witty rhymes of rendezvous at Borders. Though as it stops and starts according to his whim, grim recollections of Niggas In Paris played for an umpteenth time last summer prevail. And with the room drenched in a startling dark, it’s the first time that the otherwise immaculate lighting appears to be slightly awry, with polychromatic floodlights so too flickering only in fits and starts.
Though it’s now that the set truly slumps and for all the intricate intelligence to Kanye’s musical lifework, his cross-referencing has gradually become as obvious as that of his every contemporary. And although there’s something admirable in hip hop artists’ willingness to by and large advance the careers of their nearest and dearest, there’s a distinct lack of leg-ups offered to the underdogs of the up-and-coming. So a humdrum run-through of 2 Chainz’ Birthday Song, followed on by a similarly vapid Clique (the title of which, when bellowed back en masse, begins to sound like a certain part of the female anatomy to only exacerbate the patent displeasure it provokes) and a cruddy I Don’t Like, none of this is what differentiates West from those more monotonous rap artists with whom he collaborates on this triumvirate of tedium. For irrespective of the enduringly alluring arrogance of the enigma that is, it’s his songs that make him, and not this MOR urban impersonation at which West can be found at his least left field.
And Good Life – with arms thrown skywards as standard – brings it right back, Kanye now sweating profusely in his unorthodox judo kit. The ethos of the song at odds with the idiotic soliloquy to prelude it (“Yesterday I wasn’t feelin’ so good, but now I got some shit off my chest and I’m feeling extra good tonight”, or something along such lines), he rides high before rolling back into All Falls Down. Bathed in thalassic lighting, the aquatic visuals return as Kanye submerges both he and we in its relentlessly fresh zip. It’s then time to “Bow in the presence of greatness”; of Stronger – a refreshingly uplifting, and unremittingly defiant slab of avant-electropop during which he reaffirms his reluctance to “give a fuck what they all say.” Duly, we “go nuts; go apeshit” and granted there may be 5,039 we’s and only one of he, but he’s the one making a greater impact than every last other combined.
There’s then an outré interlude more or less dedicated to the inevitably absent Rihanna, as her sonorous booms thunder over the PA. Run This Town builds into Diamonds Are Forever, which is in turn cut into Diamonds. Is this West attempting to fabricate an impression of RiRi being the closest we’ve come to a contemporary Bassey? Most probably, but it’s all a bit nebulous at this point as he raps along unintelligibly to its gleaming retro feel, his face bundled up in what looks a decomposed chandelier. It’s all too polished; too refined as he shines less like a diamond, and more like a luminary to have lost it atop a tinny backing track. Though it’s when he again and for a final time falls deep back into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that we’re back on track, and careening head-on towards one of the most dramatic of denouements I can recall. And this begins with an adorably elementary rendition of Runaway which proves as ingenuous as much as it is ingenious. It’s the descent from ecstatic party to crestfallen misery, as he laments: “I always find something wrong”, unmistakably turning introspective and self-loathing. “You’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long” and following on from that testing middle fragment, he’s not entirely wrong even within the context of this particular evening. His lyrics of girl troubles seem unbelievable, however, when there are so many to so piercingly screech even here in this one room and although it could do with some live strings and without the self-deprecating, ten-minute “Baby, I’m an asshole” Auto-Tune bit, when it drops it flumps like an absolutely glorious avalanche of overwhelming melodrama. The Robocop vocal does make for an odd fit given the song’s concertedly human content, though that’s not to say it’s the wrong one. And as he prods away at a sampler like a vexed kid with a recalcitrant PlayStation controller, he gives a pretty convincing illustration of what a breakdown both looks and sounds like. “I wanna show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight. I wanna show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight. I wanna show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight” his intractable machine avows and reaffirms as though possessed and stadium-slaying rhetoric traditionally fired off toward the faraway rows though it may be, in such an intimate setting it’s difficult not to go with it. Maybe he means it? Or maybe he can not only see the whites of our eyes, but the pound signs gleaming in them as well.
Yet there’s little time for contemplation, before Kanye’s “up in the woods/ I’m down on my mind” as slowly; surely Lost in the World comes to be. It’s become something of a hymnal; his rallying cry and, “lost in this plastic life”, it sounds like a pretty faithful representation of redemption. Though it’s the voice of Gil Scott-Heron resonating back from beyond the grave and enquiring as to “who will survive in America?” which sticks most glutinously. For West surely will – he would anywhere, even in the rudimentary portrayal of the Arctic blurred beyond him. He’s been met with many a hostile response before, some of which have been that bit more bitter even than those most northernmost of reaches. And after eighty minutes he seems weary as he slumps off and away, as though a J. M. Barrie protagonist to have found an end to Neverland.
Futile chants of “Yeezy! Yeezy!” reverberate around and, after much ruffling of curtains, he flashes back to Touch The Sky – deplorably the only time he even so much as touches Late Registration. And suddenly he seems liberated as fervid shrieks greet his return. It’s short, and sweet as his paycheck will surely be this month – more the post-catastrophe afterlife the song intimates toward than an encore per se, though set against an again celestial background, it’s positively heavenly if in no way eternal as he turns volatile, hurling his microphone lightning-quick and storming off again.
It makes for an abrupt, though ostentatious ending just as we assume he’d have wanted it to seem. It’d possibly pick up a couple more headlines too, were his acerbic tirades not becoming all the more caustic all the time. Though this is, after all, the epoch of the show-off. The frenzied tweeting, and Facebook updates fired off among the audience throughout attest quite clearly to this. And Kanye is the epitome of it all – he won’t stop short of seeking attention until he has that of the world undivided. But as long as every night proves this unrelentingly mesmeric and they keep coming, he can showboat, shout and scream all he fancies. “A hip hop legend, I think I died in an accident ’cause this must be heaven.”