X Games: Kanye West Touches the Sky

Godlike MC ushers in his 37th birthday with a commanding set

Rare is the Austin concert where you turn around in an amphitheater of more than 10,000 capacity and find a standing-room-only sea of people clapping to a beat with corporal precision. Yet there he stood onstage, Kanye West, 30 minutes before his 37th birthday, imploring everyone to clap along to “Power.”

Photo by Gary Miller

Not a moment passes in a Kanye West performance that could be confused for anything but preeminence. He’s head, shoulders, and a gold-sequined mask above the rest of the rap world when it comes to this. An artist so wealthy, calculated, and particular that every piece of his 75-minute performance at the Circuit of the Americas locked tight and kicked into overdrive.

Saturday night at the X Games, his first time on a public stage since his SXSW set with Jay Z at Austin Music Hall, that overdrive opened with “Black Skinhead,” a thunderous and unavoidable torrent of drums, jungle howls, and bass-heavy strikes off 2013’s Yeezus. It set a violent, aggressive tone for the show’s first half. Dressed in a jacket, mask, and blue and white tie-dyed casual wear, West jumped around his stage set of mountains with a boxer’s precision, bouncing, snapping his arms forward, and falling to his knees and backside regularly.

He continued in that spirit throughout “Don’t Like” and “Mercy,” two tracks from 2012 posse LP Cruel Summer. In a similarly hostile vein, West drafted in album mates “Cold” and “Clique” – or at least his verses on all four collaborations. Without their accompanying artists, they all blended together. One track later, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” from 2007’s Graduation, the hit-maker hit the blastoff button.

A string of highlights spanning his entire catalog ensued, each one giving another corner of the audience reason to celebrate his arrival. Mask off by “New Slaves,” West reached his apex on “Power” and “Stronger” before stretching the Nina Simone-sampling “Blood on the Leaves” and nine-minute “Runaway” into the second half of the set.

It’s remarkable to consider how West crafts a set list in 2014. How he finds space for the throwbacks, feature spots, shows segments, and new shit. A year and one grand tour removed from the chart-topping release of Yeezus, West doesn’t have to purport to be Godlike, or from another galaxy, or arrogant beyond his standard operating arrogance.

Thus, we get his verse from Rihanna’s “Run This Town” alongside his spot from the Jay Z-assisted “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and Curtis Mayfield-sampled “Touch the Sky.” It’s a “Homecoming,” you see. “All of the [High] Lights” can come play.

West rarely deviated from the material, stopping only briefly to introduce his band – a DJ, singer, and keyboardist/guitarist who all stood in the shadows. There was no acknowledgement of his birthday, or his recent marriage, though he did wear a ring. Just Kanye West, a microphone, and 21 songs you know by heart.

Circuit of the Americas, June 7, Set List

“Black Skinhead”
“Don’t Like”
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
“Jesus Walks”
“New Slaves”
“Blood on the Leaves”
“Run This Town”
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
“All Falls Down”
“Touch the Sky”
“All of the Lights”
“Good Life”
“Bound 2”

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Kanye West, X Games, Nina Simone, Rihanna, Jay Z, Curtis Mayfield, Yeezus

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