It’s a good gag, the stage. Waiting for Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour to begin, it hovers above, almost taunting the crowd. Seeing it in person before the show, you kind of doubt it will work. By now you’ve probably seen or heard, but there is no static place for everyone to direct their attention throughout the concert. Instead, Kanye climbs atop a platform that floats above the standing general admission concertgoers, and rotates around the arena, giving almost everyone a great view during the show. Part performer, part preacher.
The punchline: Yeah, Kanye literally places himself on a pedestal above other people. But that’s a limited view because it also democratizes the experience. No one earns a better angle because they arrived early and it isn’t a severe penalty because you can’t afford great seats.
But all of this is an afterthought once the music began. Following that big-bang drop of “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”—hearing “If young Metro, don’t trust you…” then Kid Cudi crooning can only be described as spiritual—church was in session. Kanye claimed Life of Pablo was “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it,” but outside some obvious standouts like “Ultralight Beam,” “Pt. 1,” and “Waves,” it was initially difficult to agree. Where were the choirs and the organs? Where was the message?
Yet with more spins—and seeing these songs performed live—that proclamation crystallized. Darkness permeates the record because Kanye’s in a crisis of faith. As brash as his ego seems, these songs come from a man on the cusp of turning 40, staring into the void, and still not sure what he’s doing. He’s a bit confessional—“FML,” “Wolves”—but mostly reacts by turning up more. He refuses to break down. Damn what he’s supposed to do or be.
Though the schizophrenic nature of the record turns off some fans, the overwhelming pressure he endures, and the existential fear Kanye has is poorly hidden—but that’s why the kids love him. Of course they relate to that level of insecurity. When Ye played those new songs, the arena thumped. But when he ran back some earlier hits like “Touch the Sky” and “Jesus Walks,” the energy evaporated. My eyes popped out my face watching kids just a few years younger than me rap every word to Kanye’s “That Part” verse, then appear clueless when “Flashing Lights” played. Part of that’s the evolution of Kanye’s sound—your body literally vibrates from the bass of those new records—but it’s also what appeals to the newer generation.
During the show, Kanye would often lean over the platform edge and perform to a specific group in the mosh pit. Not that surprising. But once, as “Heartless” played, a majority of the pit was lit up, with a smaller bit cast in a reddish glow that Ye honed in on. The kids in the light didn’t care. They turned inward, facing one another, rapping the words, performing for the crowd. Call me corny, but it was kind of magical: Kanye shined his light on them, empowering them to be the stars they always wanted to be.
When describing Kanye’s previous Yeezus tour to friends, I inevitably landed on the word “theater.” Kanye underwent costume changes, a cast made on-stage appearances, the set-design included a damn mountain. The Saint Pablo concert wasn’t that; it was church. Kanye wasn’t the religion’s God, though. More like the church’s leading pastor, rapping its scriptures and singing its hymns.
Throughout the night, audience members raised one hand high, with their other over their heart. A response to the sermon. You couldn’t hear what was on their lips over the music, but their expressions delivered the message: their prayers were heard. Not answered but at least heard. For that, their joy rang unanimous. Their spirits were renewed. Praise Yeezus.