Optimism for the show came to an abrupt halt at the train station, when a wasp flew on my shirt and wouldn't fly off. The people around me backed away slowly. There was nothing anyone could do to help me. I couldn't kill it; Wasps can smell the blood of their brethren from miles away. They know you killed their friend, any they will have their revenge.
I slid up and down slowly against the railing, trying to get it to gently step off me and on to the rail, but it was dead-set on me, clinging to my t-shirt and crawling slowly towards my neck. There were only two options at this point: Ignore it, or sprint like a madman for at least 30 feet and hope it flew off and didn’t follow. Or I could jump in front of the train and take the bastard down with me. Before I made my decision the train was there and I spedwalk to the train car my friend was on, hoping the wasp had gone, without daring to check.
I found David and sat down, and he eased my paranoia with pleasant, confessional conversation about diarrhea and speeding tickets. David is the only person I like who was willing to spend almost $300 to see Kanye West, the greatest artist of our time, at Madison Square Garden, the greatest venue of our time, in General Admission, the greatest section of our time. I have no idea what my other friends do with their money and I hope I never find out.
We pulled our smuggled water bottles out of our pants and entered the floor of the arena. No one knew where to stand. Some people thought dead center is the best bet, some people just stayed by the entrance, some people were off to the side to have a consistent view without getting trampled. We ran into someone David knew from high school, who David tells me was the first person to get Kanye’s Yeezy Red October sneakers signed by Kanye. This person received offers of BMWs, Bentleys, and almost $100,000 cash for the shoe. We located the stage floating on the opposite side of the entrance, and we stood to the side of it. We tried to figure out how Kanye would possibly get on the floating stage. Would he descend from the ceiling? Was he on the stage as we spoke, lying facedown until showtime? Would he be hoisted up? And if so, from where?
I figured it out. The stage would be lowered to the part of the floor that security is blocking off, and Kanye would step on the stage. Probably he would walk out through the door that is enshrouded in artificial fog. This realization, now obvious in retrospect, took the magic and mystery out of the pre-show anticipation anxiety, which was intensified by strange, spooky pre-show music, and now we were just waiting.
Concerts always start whenever the performer feels like showing up. It is not abnormal for a show to actually begin an hour and a half after the time printed on a ticket, and most people actually anticipate this and show up late. The only exception to this rule is if the performer has his people send a pre-show email to all ticket buyers specifying the audience be there on time because the show starts “promptly” at 8pm, as Kanye did. The word ‘prompt’ put a formal and exact expectation on Kanye, and Kanye did not live up to it. The employee that Madison Square Garden stationed in the bathroom for whatever reason told us that 9PM is the real start time, but 9PM came and went too. The room was filling up and audience members started getting uneasy. The pre-show music sounded like Kanye sat in an empty, reverberant room for two hours making whale noises and dropping assorted bells on the floor. A man shoved me aside to put his two small daughters in my place. He then pulled up Kanye West’s Wikipedia page on his phone and scrolled down slowly to read the whole thing from top to bottom, not looking for anything in particular, trying to figure out just what he was doing there.
At 9:23 PM, the lights went off for the second or third time, and one side of the stage lowered. A door opened, letting in blinding light. The stage lifted up. Did it malfunction? Was he on the stage? Music started. The top of a bald head started to peak out, and Kanye was riding the slow moving stage like he was crouched on top of a blimp.
Someone I know, a passionate music lover, recently decided to never go to any concerts ever again. His general reasoning was that ‘you just get there and you hear the same songs you’ve heard a thousand times, worse than ever before.’ There, on the floor of Madison Square Garden, the music sounded worse than it had ever sounded before. Tinny and garbled and thin, and the bass was so absurdly loud that my t-shirt was vibrating. When Kanye finally started singing, he was barely audible, and remained that way for the entirety of the show. Kanye’s famous production, cutting up soul samples with buzzsaw synths, in all its jarring and astonishing musicality, was reduced to cacophony, to pudding.
It was not a concert, but a rave, guest-hosted by Kanye West. “Mercy” played over the speakers, but Kanye didn’t rap a word. There was a perpetual moshpit directly under the stage, and a perimeter around the moshpit followed the stage around to catch occasionally glimpses of Kanye when he happened to peer over one side. A lot of people were dancing in place and singing to a black rectangle.
Kanye took a quantity over quality approach to his setlist, blasting through 32 songs in an hour and a half. He didn’t perform the last verse to any of his songs. He just did one or two verses and a chorus, and then on to the next song. It was a dizzying medley, fun to dance to but lacking any real feeling. He skipped a lot of the best parts of his songs: The beautiful, increasingly unintelligible auto-tune solos at the end of “Runaway” and “Blood On The Leaves,” the genius double-standard smashing last verse of “Gold Digger,” the suicidal outro to “Power,” the “Come on homie, what happened? / You ni**as ain’t breathin’, you gaspin’” bridge of “Black Skinhead.” I went in expecting one of his famous mid-concert half-crazed inspirational rants, and the only thing he said between songs was “welcome to Saint Pablo,” five or six times.
In the middle of “Runaway,” Kanye’s best song, a live pianist stationed in a seated section took over from the recording, and everything got quiet. Kanye bent over the stage and reached down to touch us, singing very softly. People were reaching up, trying to touch him, when David’s friend from before popped up with a new sneaker, a sharpie, and his whole posse screaming “sign the shoe!” over and over. This was the most human, touching moment of the show, and these greedy, belligerent sneakerheads ruined it. I tried protesting, “Shut the fuck up, he’s singing to us,” but it was no use. They looked at me, looked away, and kept chanting their chant of dumb, selfish materialism. “Sign the shoe! Sign the shoe! Sign the shoe.” This was a live performance of one of the best songs of all time, maybe the third best song of the new millennium. It would be a special, touching moment even if Kanye wasn’t actively trying to literally humanize himself to us, and these horrible people rendered it meaningless. It was honestly one of the most disappointing moments of my life. But I guess Kanye does both sing and sell shoes, and one of the inherent tragedies of life is that you can’t escape Kanye West fans at a Kanye West show.
From “Runaway,” Kanye went right into “Only One,” which I spent wandering in a daze, looking for David, who I had lost in the madness of running towards Kanye’s outstretched hands. The song was gorgeous, though: Just Kanye and an electric piano, no screams of shoes. But the best performance of the show was probably “Blood On The Leaves.” Although Kanye skipped the outro, he performed every other part of the devastating Nina Simone-sampling song with passion and intensity. “There’s something strange happening…” Another highlight was Kanye leading the crowd in an a capella sing-along of the end of “Heartless.” These moments were haunting, they were touching, and they were all too brief.
The crowd on a whole was ecstatic throughout the show, a carefree night of good music. Instead of skipping to his verse, Kanye let “Ni**as In Paris” play from the beginning, and everyone manically rapped all of Jay-Z’s in unison: “Ball so hard motherfuckers wanna fine me.” There was no backstage area, so celebrities were in the pit with us. Jonah Hill danced under the stage to Kanye’s cover of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” wearing an undercover cop costume, with a huge beard and a blue baseball hat pulled over his eyes. David told me that Vic Mensa had just shoved him. The concert was entertaining as a crowded, strange, extended dance party, but it was ultimately unfulfilling from the point of view of someone trying to experience an artist in his purest form.
In contrast to meticulous design of Kanye’s studio albums, the show was a rough, sloppy, crass affair. He just let the music play, adding live vocals only when he felt like it. The focus was on us, like he was a guest to our show, and not the other way around. Kanye remained perpetually obscured. No matter how close I got, I couldn’t make out his facial expression. His stage was in constant, unpredictable motion. There was fog everywhere. Some songs had no lights at all, and other songs had lights that only seemed to light up the fog. The whole concert was fleeting, constantly vanishing into itself. His stage, which appeared to be about fifteen by twenty feet, floating twenty feet off the ground, was thick and black. He was at least partially blocked by his own stage for the entirety of the show. David and I tried to follow the stage as it moved, but I had this pervasive feeling I was chasing something I could never really get, and I began to envy people who had paid considerably less money for seats.
The stage floated to the opposite edge of the arena, dipped down, and Kanye was gone. No encore, no goodbye. He had warned us a few songs earlier that it would be the last bass drop of the night. Kanye had been terse all night. Other than mentioning “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was his favorite song and saying he wanted us to remember this moment for the rest of our lives at the start of “Runaway,” he hadn’t really said anything.
People lined up in mobs to buy what was left of Kanye’s merch. Kanye’s fanbase has wholeheartedly bought into his fashionista career. It’s reported that Kanye sold almost a million in merch in that one day, alone. All the merch was ugly, except for one shirt that sold out hours before the day 1 show. Clashing colors, dumb fonts, poor spacing, bizarre word choice.
It wasn't a bad show. It was evidently what people wanted. He didn’t play either of the two best songs on his new album, “Real Friends” or “FML,” seemingly due to their pensive and melancholy nature. But he also didn’t play “On Sight” or “Bound 2” or “New Slaves” or “Love Lockdown” or “No Church In The Wild,” his danceable songs with the most substance. My biggest reason for going to this show was that I missed the Yeezus tour, and it only made me wish I’d gone to the Yeezus tour even more. Gone were the elaborate stage props, gone were the mid-show rants, gone was most of the artistry. I sold my ticket for day 2 and watched a man play trumpet on the sidewalk.