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Review: Kanye West at American Airlines Center

Posted 1:18pm on Saturday, Dec. 07, 2013

For once, all of the drama surrounding a Kanye West show didn’t happen exclusively on stage.

The ice storm that struck North Texas made Friday’s stop on the six-week “Yeezus” tour a bit more complicated (and inflamed a few fans on social media who were unable to travel due to impassable roads), but promoters and venue staff never wavered, soldiering on with the concert at American Airlines Center when nearly every other major event in the Metroplex was postponed or canceled.

For those able to make their way to downtown Dallas, the polarizing pop culture figure of our time made the treacherous journey worth it.

The abrasive, minimalist Yeezus is unlike much else in Kanye West’s catalog, and it’s evident, not only in listening to the album, but watching the 36-year-old rapper/producer over the course of an intense and idiosyncratic two-hour set, he’s working through some knotty issues, not least of which is his relation to the celebrity-industrial complex.

He performed the whole of Yeezus, and worked in tracks from other projects (like his Cruel Summer compilation) and previous records.

Loosely arranged into chapters (shades of Lars Von Trier) titled “Fighting,” “Rising,” “Falling,” “Searching” and “Finding,” West kept his face hidden beneath elaborate Maison Martin Margiela masks for nearly the entire show — the embrace of self-concealment suggests his very visage is troubling; hubris and timidity all bound up together — and alternately rapped from atop a miniature mountain and a hydraulic peak lifting him dozens of feet above an adoring audience.

The finale, of course, featured an actor playing, as West addressed him, “white Jesus,” who helped West remove his cowl and face the screaming masses.

(The room was far from packed — it’s hard to know how much weather played a factor in this, considering reports of other tour stops being woefully under-attended.)

Surrounded by a dozen female figures (dancers doesn’t seem accurate, since their movements were deliberate and out of sync with the music), West delivered a physically imposing performance — before launching into Cold, he stood at the edge of the hydraulic platform, psyching himself up like he was about to drop into a half pipe — and held the peculiar, arresting imagery together through sheer force of personality.

Mixing religious visuals with elemental (ice, snow and fire) and those torn from the depths of his psyche (at one point, a rat-like creature with glowing red eyes skulked about the stage), West ripped through On Sight, I Am a God, Heartless, Blood on the Leaves and Lost in the World, leaving the audience ecstatic and often, taking over entire verses while West observed.

He paused after performing Runaway, delivering a 12-minute discursive monologue about, well, many things, which was as fascinating as it was momentum-stifling.

“They ain’t never did what I’m trying to do and now they trying to tell me how to do it,” he spat at one point. “It’s a tightrope I’m walking now. ... The media will make it seem like I’m a monster. For what? For telling the truth?”

It was riveting to watch someone sift through feelings and emotions in such a way, if only because musicians at his level internalize, obscure and demur. However off-base or distasteful one may or may not find him, there’s something to be said for West’s willingness to simply say what he’s thinking.

The level of persecution he feels is somewhat self-inflicted — anyone who repeatedly shouts “I ain’t humble at all; I’m 1,000 feet tall!,” as West did Friday night, is just begging to be taken down a peg — but there’s a kernel of truth to the idea that creatives (as West described himself) aren’t allowed to be complicated individuals. The mainstream, broadly speaking, wants easily digestible and understandable figures: think Britney, Miley, Katy.

The simple and uncluttered pop stars make it easier to turn on the music and effectively tune out; no thinking or feeling necessarily required.

West, on the other hand, aims to shock and disturb, push people out of their comfort zones and think about the cliches being repeatedly reinforced. A track like New Slaves, which excoriates racial double standards, or Black Skinhead, which rages against racism, even as it uses grotesque racial imagery to provoke listeners, stands in stark contrast to the majority of hip-hop and pop music, which is often content to drift along and sand down any sharp corners.

The monologue, which, despite the bravura performances up to that point, felt like the emotional core of the night, even diminished the avant-garde minstrelsy of someone like Lady Gaga, who makes similar arguments, but sometimes lacks the courage of her convictions.

Watching West rap and speak to an admittedly biased audience, it was evident you can’t tell him nothing, in the words of one of his hits. He has decided to act out, good and bad, and while such a choice has made him a popular target for derision, it’s not a decision those who prize genuine, surprising art should denigrate.

Not all of the “Yeezus” tour hangs together, if only because there are so many ideas and concepts fighting for air.

It’s an overwhelming burst of id from one of pop music’s most unfiltered talents, and one which stays with you long after the fog has dissipated and the lasers have dimmed. In a year dominated by spendy spectacle and over-the-top arena extravaganzas, perhaps the most special effect on display was one no other artist can lay claim to: Kanye West.

Had this been any other show, opener Kendrick Lamar would have thoroughly upstaged the headliner two songs in. As it was, Lamar was merely magnificent, with his nearly hour-long set pulling heavily from his superb debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Lamar has only gotten more confident and brash, leading the audience through exuberant renditions of Swimming Pools (Drank) and B---- Don’t Kill My Vibe. The fatalistic bonhomie of Lamar’s West Coast 2.0 rap was surprisingly well-suited to an arena setting, suggesting it won’t be long before he’s topping bills in rooms this size.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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