Icy, with a strong chance of Kanye.
As forecast, the impulsive provocateur and self-confident Kanye West arrived at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on Sunday for the first concert of his two-night stand. Originally the shows were to take place in November, but were rescheduled due to what promoter AEG described as “routing logistics.” Was it worth the wait, on an evening dominated by a catastrophic ice storm? Only if one is impressed by mountain-and-iceberg stages, a dozen solemn, nude-suited dancers, an actor in the guise of Jesus, a Tron-like sci-fi lightshow, a faux snowstorm, a casually boastful rant, a red-eyed yak, a Jesus one more time and a series of full-faced, high-fashion masks enigmatically worn by a superstar rapper who heaved himself into a bravura, near-creepy, aesthetically crazed two-hour performance.
So, if you’re into that.
Musically, West presented all 10 tracks of his latest album, Yeezus, an insistent conception of harsh, confrontational electro hip hop, warmly received by critics. Early, on the menacing New Slaves, a brutish, muscle-shirted West shouted, “There are leaders,” to which a sold-out audience heartily responded “and there are followers,” thus establishing the evening’s pecking order.
The crowd had their man’s back, as did a small band tucked off to the side, on the floor.
The group (including singer Tony Williams, who is West’s cousin and colleague) worked with backing tracks and at one point offered a bit of guitar snarl and a clip of M.O.P.’s Cold as Ice, itself a sample from the Thatcher-era rockers Foreigner.
One of the stars of the high-tech spectacle was the giant circular screen which hovered above the action. It hung like a jumbo scrapyard magnet, tilted up to reveal the evening’s four themes (fighting, rising, searching and finding) and display images of storm clouds and snow flurries.
On Coldest Winter, with West on his back at the tip of the V-shaped front stage, snowflakes dusted him as he Auto-Tuned his despair over the death of his mother. On other occasions, West rode this unsteady ice-floe platform, crouched down as if it were a glacial surfboard.
West was at his most indulgent during his regularly scheduled show-halting harangue. For this edition, he went the fear-itselfing FDR route – “the only risk in life is not taking risks” and “the only time you fail is when you fail to try” – and then made a nervy resolution.
“I wanna apologize for absolutely nothing because at least I tried to do something,” said the masked emcee in the trench coat, his voice distorted. “I’m just going to get crazier. I’m just going to get scarier.”
Ramp it, by all means. Later, emerging through the mountain came Jesus. He blessed West, who finally took off his mask for Jesus Walks, which was the least he could do. The preaching Galilean hippie returned for the finale, Bound 2, the closing track off Yeezus and a throwback to West’s backpack-wearing days.
In the book Signifying Rappers, late eighties hip-hop shows in Boston were described as rebellious and assaultive entertainment. The book’s two authors, who were then Harvard students, would deliberate on the performances afterward, with co-author David Foster Wallace usually asking the essential questions: Was it crazy? Was it great? Was it free?
West believes himself to be each of those three things. “I feel free,” he pronounced during his hubristic monologue, “No one is in control of me.” He later posited (self-referentially of course) that “crazy is the first step to genius.”
As for his concert, it was indeed crazy and great and free – a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy come to life.
Kanye West (with Kendrick Lamar) plays the Air Canada Centre again on Dec. 23 (ticketmaster.ca).