By Jason Williams, Contributor, DC Music Live
On June 8 in several locations throughout Washington, D.C. Kanye West projected his “New Slaves” video on buildings. The video had been released almost a month prior and there were still large crowds gathered in Georgetown, U Street and everywhere the showings occurred. At 10th and U Street on the side of the CVS, a sizable group came at the scheduled time, watched and recorded the video they had already seen, and walked away completely content with the experience. As the group dispersed, you over heard in tongue in cheek tones, “Thank you Yeezus!”
As the Yeezus tour rolls into Verizon Center it is the ninth stop of 25 scheduled dates. Anyone who has been paying attention knows exactly what the capacity crowd was in store for, but just like those that gathered around the city on June 8 it did not matter. The spectacle of Kanye West is too much to not anticipate. And by spectacle I mean not just unbelievable happenings but also undeniable events that show depth of thought and planning. However, before the Kanye entrée performance Kendrick Lamar served up a more than worthy starter.
Kendrick, who has been at the forefront of hip-hop and popular music for the last year, came in to this show tingled by a minor controversy stemming from the article attached to his GQ Man of the Year cover, but in a stadium full with fans patiently waiting any and all non-music issues seem light years away.
Starting the show promptly at 7:35 p.m. Lamar burst onstage starting the show with “Money Trees.” Following the
record-breaking success of Lamar debut album good kid, m.A.A.d. city there was a thought that Kendrick would perform his interwoven work as is. An intriguing idea, but it would have robbed this moment of it free flowing vibe. The stage that featured several pyrotechnic cannons was centered by a trifold of video screens that show a storyline of images that connected with each song. There was also a long catwalk like platform that had just as much give as swimming pool springboard. Kendrick who is on the verge of becoming a superstar signaled instructions to the four-piece band that added a rock edge to his rap hits.
If the first question surrounding the Yeezus tour was how would Kanye contextualize one of his most abstract albums, the second question was could Kendrick sustain his signature ferocity night after night on a tour this hyped. On this night, the answer to the second question was “yes,” as Lamar shifted between high-energy hits like “Don’t Kill My Vibe” to more mellow cuts like “Poetic Justice” smoothly. He even managed to side step an L.A. Dodger’s hat that an overzealous fan threw onstage without missing a beat. Before Lamar wrapped up his 11-song set, he brought out hometown artist Wale to perform the lead single from his latest project Clappers.
Then it was time for the finale, “Compton.” The final song of Lamar’s platinum selling album features mentor and West Coast music icon Dr. Dre and pays homage to the place where both call home. The song first acknowledges the scars and then celebrates the past, present and future of the California city. A fitting sendoff for Lamar, who in the past year has traveled all over, but has not gone far enough to forget where it all started.
Once Lamar has exited the stage the house lights were brought up and the process of exchanging sets begun. Within a matter of minutes a mountain and a larger circular screen was center stage. Another 20 or so minutes passed and the house lights were brought down. On the circular screen a definition of fighting appeared and then a biblical inspired-but-not-quote text about the virtue of fighting flashed on the screen. All the while a formation of 11 women in lockstep walked on to the catwalk, dressed in all white with their faces covered with matching head wraps. There is only a moment between their last step where the screen goes blank and Kanye West runs up from the floor on to the walk weaving in between the ladies lunching in to “On Sight.”
West, dressed in all back from head to toe is wearing a black mask with embellishments. The sparse techno break beats have filled Verizon Center and virtually everyone is on their feet. When Yeezus was released there were questions about how an album with some authentic angrier would translate in arenas, as “On Sight” gave way to “New Slaves” those doubts couldn’t seem more irrelevant. The crowd was raging right along with Kanye and thought it was earlier there were not signs of slowing down.
The next music set had two drastically different highpoints. First, it is debatable that Chief Keef has ever received the reception from his song “Don’t Like” that Kanye garnered on this night. As Pusha T’s intro verse popped, the floor shook and the audience roared to a deafening pitch. Only for Kanye to stop mid-verse and throttle the mob back up to the pervious plateau. Toward the end of the set West headed to the edge of the catwalk as it rose skyward and somberly performed “Coldest Winter,” which is a tribute song to his mother Donna West, who passed unexpectedly after a medical procedure in the fall of 2007. As snowflakes fell from the rafters West was on his back on the edge belting out notes to the sky. It seemed like an unofficial breaking point not just in the show but also in West’s artistic arch.
After a wardrobe change that includes a new mask and a baggy brown overcoat the pace of the show has come down considerably. The main culprits are Kanye’s telegraphed “rants.” Instead of trying to dictate them let’s take a moment to try to discern the sound from the fury. Most artists have their particular aesthetic ax they grind. For instance, Bruce Springsteen grinds away for everything small town Americana, Taylor Swift grinds at the intersection of falling in and out of love. R. Kelly grinds for a type of sexual experience where safe words are normal and necessary. Kanye’s ax is creative freedom. That is not an attempt to rationalize all things West but rather a filter to view it through. Was it odd to hear West voice his displeasure about the lack of a creative space in the middle of concert that he formed and fashioned? Yes. That alone does not draw all merit from his commentary.
As the show resumes Kanye is dressed in all white and the actor portraying Jesus Christ is perched high atop the mountain as West and the ladies in white are kneeing below. Kanye finally removes his mask and naturally launches in to Jesus Walks. The mood is downright festival and everyone is aware that this is the homestretch. “Flashing Lights,” “All of the Lights,” “Good Life” all in rapid succession and in those moments the fresh-faced Chicago kid that took music industry by storm had reappeared. No mask, no indignation just free flowing musical expression. The final song of the night is “Bound 2,” it is not your typical love song, but it does close out the night on a hopeful note. Over the course of his two-hour performance Kanye showed his defiant, vulnerable and unencumbered selves. Thank you Yeezus.
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