Published Aug 31, 2016Perhaps the most "real hip-hop" thing about Kanye West is how seriously he treats live performance, the origins of this art. Imagine being seven brazen albums deep into your career and still dreaming up fresh, bold ways to make your records breathe onstage.
In past incarnations, the Kanye West Show has gone full-blown orchestra and Glow-in-the-Dark; he sought out one of the world's greatest DJs (A-Trak), then formed an equal partnership with one of the all-time greatest (the Watch the Throne Tour with big brother Jay Z); last we saw, he executed a fashionista's biblical redemption play (2014's elaborate and expensive Yeezus Tour), complete with a 50-foot-high mountain, a Jesus cameo and a nightly angry rant.
The 39-date "Saint Pablo" Tour, which touched down at Toronto's Air Canada Centre for the first of two nights Tuesday (August 30), did away with the marquee opening act (Kendrick Lamar), the countless role players, the 60-foot-wide circular LED screen and apocalyptic overtones of its predecessor.
There were no costume changes and zero videos. The backup band, led by super-producer Mike Dean, remained unseen. And, unless you count smartphone-armed fans spotting Kanye's wife, Kim Kardashian, on the general-admission floor, there were no cameos whatsoever. Heck, Mr. West didn't even step on the stage — at least, not the traditional one ACC concertgoers have grown accustomed to for 17 years.
After 45 minutes of ambient rumbles and wolf howls playing over the house speakers — a soundtrack not unlike one you may encounter while lining up for Canada's Wonderland's Ghoster Coaster — a denim-clad Mr. West emerged on a hovering mini stage lined with 18 bright lights, to the thunder of Life of Pablo's "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1."
For 105 minutes, a platform no larger than eight giant steps long and four giant steps wide were his world. Affixed to the lighting frame overhead by eight cables, the "floating" stage tilted like a military aircraft's loading ramp. It glided the length of the floor. It raised and descended. Kanye himself was fastened to the thing by a tether from his back to the middle of the dais, lest he tumble into the moshing throng below, lit by some 200 lights beaming down from the craft.
Depending on the shadows and the soundtrack, the thick rope made the Chicago son appear like a skydiver ("Touch the Sky"), a slave ("Black Skinhead") or a piñata ("Gold Digger"). During "Jesus Walks" — an encore ender turned mid-set throwback treat — Kanye leaned over the edge of his contraption to touch his congregation and hungry hands grasped for his, The Creation of Adam-style. It was something out a God dream.
"I wanted to design something that allows me to be closer to y'all," Kanye explained to the partygoers who shelled out 200 bucks for general admission. It was one of the few things the MC said that wasn't a lyric all evening. That is a good thing. The extravagantly bare-bones concept placed the focus firmly on the music, which the self-proclaimed genius doled out at a breakneck pace, never cloying for applause or pandering to the city.
After opening with "Father Pt. 1" twice, the song's sequel bled into snippets of "Famous," then "Pop Style," THat Part," "Facts," "Mercy," "I Don't Like," "All Day," "Skinhead" and "N***as in Paris." Only after that blizzard of bangers did the MC remove his jean jacket. What a start.
All told, 37 songs, touching every album in his catalogue, were performed, breathlessly, leaving no time for industry or sneaker rants. He cranked out gem after gem: "Gold Digger," "Stronger," "Heartless," "Waves" and "Touch the Sky" all make their tour debuts, while "Runaway" and "All of the Lights" soared like anthems.
As 11:30 p.m. neared, "Father" was brought back for yet a third rendition — yep, we got the "bleached asshole" line thrice — before Kanye closed with how Pablo's beginning, "Ultralight Beam."
Finally unshackled from his personal platform, the artist touched down on the floor and shared handshakes with the commoners before exiting the building.