The Gospel According to Kanye

Rapper levitates the Frank Erwin Center

Kanye West telegraphs when he’s about to send an arena into unadulterated mayhem. He lifts one leg, hops across the stage, and slams his elbow through the air just as the beat drops. The audience responds by becoming a whirlwind of limbs and loose clothing, West continuing with a perverse duck walk and a smug look at the pandemonium he’s orchestrated.

West unleashed this move several times throughout Wednesday’s 90-minute set at the Frank Erwin Center, leading a hysterical full house through a career-spanning montage of hits that reinforced his title as rap’s most eccentric innovator. Live, he proved such hyperbole by strapping into a harness attached to a small stage that floated above the audience all night. Whereas the 2013/14 Yeezus tour brought conceptual performance art to its maximal conclusion, the Saint Pablo tour strips the 39-year-old MC’s music to its bare essentials: devastatingly gorgeous instrumentals topped by his cathartic voice.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

This setup requires a lot of heavy lifting from the audience, a burden they shouldered with joy. Fans moshed, danced, and sprinted across the floor to secure a coveted spot under the stage, perhaps in the hopes that a tractor beam would zip them up onto the stage next to West. It also creates vulnerability, as a microphone delay upset West’s entire rhythm on set opener “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.”

The sound crew quickly fixed it, but there remained a palpable danger that the whole production could derail at any moment. Of course, few people seemed interested in such nuances by the time West hit his stride on “Famous,” which reignited his long-running feud with pop megastar Taylor Swift.

“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” he baited the crowd. “Why? I made that bitch famous!”

For all of the eardrum-rattling hype tracks and audience participation, the most poignant moments of the performance were subdued ones. The floating stage angled downward during “Wolves,” rumbling bass and a nightmarish falsetto punctured by West’s plaintive, paranoid rhymes.

“We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves,” he rapped in near darkness, his towering, quivering silhouette only visible on a video screen high above the stage.

He waxed more poetic during a mercifully truncated speech in the middle of “Runaway,” known to trigger mid-set rants upwards of 20 minutes.

“It’s an amazing time to be alive, and I hope you have a wonderful night,” he told the audience in an Auto-Tuned warble. “When you go to sleep tonight, dream of new ideas. Don’t let no one control you.”

This was hardly the same West from three years ago, he who split mountains and sent a Catholic procession through them – kicking out fans who dared question why he was rapping through a Martin Margiela mask. There’s still no doubt in his mind that he’s a “creative genius” and the “No. 1 rock star on the planet,” but this time, he’s showing, not telling.

The Georgia-born Chicagoan also turned heads earlier this year when he announced the name of his new album, The Life of Pablo, at least partially inspired by the apostle Paul, the greatest example of divine grace and redemption in human history. Paul imprisoned and murdered anyone who believed in Jesus Christ before eventually being blinded by God, baptized, and instructed to call upon His name and spread His word across the earth.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

West was struck with his own “Ultralight Beam” at the end of last night’s show, consummating his own shift from one of hip-hop’s most antagonistic and boastful figures to a man whose sole focus was to bring joy to his audience – at least for 90 minutes. He drifted across the arena on his suspended stage, settling under a single spotlight that illuminated his still figure as he delivered the clearest statement from a personal gospel fraught with contradictions:

“This is a God dream. This is everything.”

The stage descended to the floor as Kirk Franklin’s closing prayer echoed through the Red River drum. West didn’t vanish in an explosion of lights or fanfare, nor did the song end with a thunderclap. Instead, a crew member released him from his harness and he walked through the nearest exit as the music faded – closer than ever, yet still out of reach.

Frank Erwin Center set list, Sept. 21, 2016

1) “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
2) “Pt. 2”
3) “Famous”
4) “Pop Style” (Drake song)
5) “That Part” (Schoolboy Q song)
6) “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”
7) “Mercy”
8) “I Don’t Like” (Chief Keef song)
9) “All Day”
10) “Black Skinhead”
11) “Niggas in Paris”
12) “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
13) “Power”
14) “Blood on the Leaves”
15) “Freestyle 4”
16) “Jesus Walks”
17) “Flashing Lights”
18) “Highlights”
19) “Feedback”
20) “Wolves”
21) “Heartless”
22) “Runaway”
23) “Only One”
24) “I Love Kanye”
25) “Waves”
26) “Touch the Sky”
27) “All of the Lights”
28) “Good Life”
29) “Stronger”
30) “Fade”
31) “Ultralight Beam”

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