All of the lights
At his Washington, D.C., Saint Pablo Tour date, it’s clear that New Kanye misses Old Kanye just as much as we do
If you’re looking for the Old Kanye, I know where he is.
For the next several weeks, he’ll remain harnessed to a stage that’s suspended in the air in arenas all across North America, floating over mosh pits of fans wearing merchandise they can resell on eBay for three times what they paid for it. They’ll keep it, though — for the memories of the night they spent with every version of Kanye West imaginable.
Kanye the musical genius. Kanye the artist. Kanye the romantic. Kanye the father and family man. Dancing Kanye. And, most importantly, Old Kanye — the version of him we all place on a godlike pedestal only to tear him down because we’re certain he’ll never make his second coming.
Welcome to the Saint Pablo Tour. A day after his highly criticized Yeezy Season 4 fashion show in New York, West stopped in Washington, D.C., to bless the Verizon Center with a show. And when I found out I was going, I got the same reaction from essentially everybody I told: “Man, I love Kanye, but he’s not what he used to be.”
I didn’t care, I was still going. Because, for essentially half of my life, I’ve been waiting to see West perform for the first time. Since I sneaked and bought the “Gold Digger” single from iTunes on my mother’s credit card in middle school. Since I walked to Best Buy the first week of freshman year of high school, stood in line and bought a copy of 2007’s Graduation. Since I dragged 2013’s Yeezus to the trash can of my desktop.
My night with Kanye — an artist I love, and hate, with all my heart — was years in the making. Then came Saint Pablo.
There are a million ways to begin your first Kanye West concert, which just so happened to be the first concert I’ve been to alone, and only the second I’ve covered as a reporter. And hearing the words, “You’re not on the list,” from the voice in the will-call booth is not one of them. Here I was, stressing as the minutes continued to tick well past 8 p.m., which was listed on tickets and online as the show’s start time. But I should’ve known better. There was no way West was going on at 8 … or 8:30 … or 9 … or 9:15. The box office eventually found my ticket, and I made my way to my seat by 8:30.
I couldn’t help but grow anxious as I sat in section 100, row N, seat 9, and the people around me couldn’t help but show their nervousness, either.
“It’s just him performing, right? He’s an a–h—,” the guy next to me joked before doing his best Kanye impression: “Nobody,” he said, “is gonna make money but me.”
The waiting crowd on the floor, which was “standing” room only, had it the worst. There, people had an up close and personal view of the infamous floating stage, as West’s lieges tinkered with it for the greater part of an hour — but Yeezy was nowhere to be found. Some were so antsy that they couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. They stood and waited, as eerie music featuring the sounds of wolves howling became louder and louder.
When a fan held up a sign that read, “Kanye, these tickets cost us our college tuition,” an event staffer approached and told him he couldn’t hold it anymore. More time went by. And then the eerie music abruptly halted. A man emerged from backstage, the same complexion and build as Kanye. Everyone thought the show was about to begin, but we all thought wrong. Just another one of his minions, making some last-minute preparations. These two moments represent everything I hate about West. The selfish Kanye. The “Imma let you finish” Kanye, who goes on Twitter rants and arrogantly says he owns another rapper’s child. I could just imagine him in the shadows of the rafters, a careful eye going over everything that was happening leading up to the time he’d eventually go on. Big Brother Kanye was watching — he sent someone to tell the kid to take his sign down and laughed when the Fake Kanye emerged from backstage.
But, there’s often beauty behind madness. In his own words, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
At 9:30 p.m., the lights in the arena were cut and the screams ensued. A figure appeared. It crept onto the now tilted stage. Then, a large carabiner clip, attached to a long wire cable that was already bolted to the middle of the platform, was strapped to figure’s back.
The stage rose, and for several minutes the figure stood at the front of it as the serene melody of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” rang through the venue. You’re the only power (Powerrrrr) / You’reeeee the only power that can, the crowd sang in unison. It could’ve been anyone clipped to that stage — for the first several songs of the show, he never revealed his face, the hood of his jacket tightly secured around his head, and not a single spotlight graced him.
But we all knew Yeezus had returned.
“IF YOUNG METRO DON’T TRUST YOU, I’M GON’ SHOOT YOU!” — thousands joined together in screaming this heralded line at the top of their lungs, while someone behind me hastily lit a blunt, officially commencing our night’s fellowship with West.
To be honest, I didn’t expect him to stray too far from the tracks featured on his 2016 masterpiece The Life of Pablo. Maybe a throwback Kanye hit here and there, though we certainly wouldn’t get to see the Old Kanye. He’s long gone, remember? But as he floated through five or so The Life of Pablo tracks to open the show, the thought crossed my mind that West just might channel his older self. He began sprinkling a couple of recent tracks he’s featured on, such as “Pop Style,” and “THat Part,” while the stage slowly levitated up and down and back and forth.
Then West put us all in a time machine.
“N—– in Paris,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Power,” “Jesus Walks,” “Flashing Lights,” you name it, West did it. And not only did he rap, he sang. I’m talking harmonies we haven’t heard from him in a while, if ever. And if he didn’t like how he sounded, he signaled for the music to be cut off and yelled, “Start that s— back over! Start that s— back over! We gotta rock this s— the right way,” as he did during “Highlights.” For two hours, he remained harnessed to the stage. No special guests. Just Ye, a mic and his extensive catalog of hits. “Today, I needed to hear these songs,” said West between songs. “I needed to rehear the lyrics I was saying to overcome the controversies.”
See, there’s a common misconception that New Kanye doesn’t miss the Old Kanye — that he’s so caught up in this new, radical version of himself, the one who married Kim Kardashian and has never looked back. “He’s not a West anymore,” the guy next to me said before the show. “He’s a Kardashian.”
But New Kanye misses Old Kanye just as much as we do. But what’s easy to forget is how much pain the Kanye we once knew and loved experienced — the unexpected death of his mother, Donda West, followed by the split with his fiancee, Alexis Phifer, in a matter of five months. Now, he’s married and has two children. He’s at peace, which allows him to go back in time, though he’s still looking forward. After performing “Only One,” a song in which he talks to both God and his mother, West stopped and decompressed. For 20 minutes, he spoke of his mother, his faith, his admiration of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, his infatuation with colors and artists Pablo Picasso and Michelangelo, and how everything he’d envisioned throughout his career climaxed in this moment, on this tour. I honestly believe that if the cable clipped to his back would’ve snapped during this monologue, he could have risen and left this world having found everything he came for.
Yet as he spoke, people behind me heard him, but they weren’t listening. “Where’s Beyoncé?” one said.
“I’m over this,” said another.
“He’s talking too much.”
One girl yelled, “I miss the Old Kanye!”
And then, he transitioned from his soliloquy by reciting lines from “I Love Kanye.”
I miss the Old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye, set his goals Kanye.
“You know what y’all got over the last 10 to 15 minutes, right?” West then joked about the speech. “That’s actually the Old Kanye.” And on this night, I did find the Old Kanye. Or maybe I just realized something that over the years I’ve tried so hard to fight: The Old Kanye never left. It could have been just a mirage, veiled in the orange, yellow and magenta lights. It could have been the floating stage and mist—its all came together to make up a production unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t.