Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kanye West at Wireless Festival, 4th July 2014

Kanye West might be the weirdest performer I've ever seen - and I've seen some pretty weird shit.  I adore a bit of personality in music; I'm magnetically drawn to big personalities with a penchant for crazy shit, high fashion and, most of all, being totally unpredictable on stage. With all that in mind, Kanye West is an abundance of riches.  The man is straight up bonkers in the same vein as Michael Jackson or Prince; having gotten so big that any crazy idea they fart out is indulged by a smiling team of yes-men.

Having seen pictures of the man meeting Jesus on stage, or perched up a laser-lit stage mountain I was a touch disappointed that his only UK shows this year were as the headline act in the Wireless Festival.  But then Yeezus was the best album of 2013, so I dutifully bought my ticket and waited with baited breath.  To summarise the rest of the acts I saw; that day, Iggy Azalea was dead fun, Angel Haze (who I was seeing for second time within a week) was off the hook ace; Giorgio Moroder appeared to have hit 'play' on a prerecorded 80s playlist and Pharrell Williams was great to dance around as the sun set.  

Any other day they'd have been highlights ('cept Moroder), but not today.  Today was all about the egomaniacs, geniuses and nutjobs - a category within which Kanye West slides perfectly into.  Having wriggled my way to the front of the jampacked crowd, I was fully psyched.  As the corporate advertising wrapped up, the screens on stage went blank, the crowd whooped and.... The Beatles began playing?  After Come Together came Time by Pink Floyd - the very last band I'd have expected Kanye West to take the stage to.

Eventually the man of the hour arrived.  Bathed in eye-stingingly bright red light, wearing a tattered looking quasi-camouflage jacket and a full head mask he strode to the middle of the stage, grabbed the mic and launched straight into the rabid glam-rock stomp of Black Skinhead.  The crowd, quite understandably, went mental.  A mosh pit instantly formed nearby and right away I got a full faceful of someone's CKOne scented back as hundreds of people sway dangerously around in a sweaty soup of sweat, weed smoke and rolling eyeballs. It's all too much for one poor girl. She goes all Mia Wallace: collapsing, juddering and foaming before being dragged backwards by her freaked out friends.  I hope she's okay.

Through a tangle of pogostick bodies and arms waving like riverside reeds I occasionally get a glimpse of the man himself.  He looks amazing and absurd; his mask like chainmail armour, the fabric gently oscillating as he furiously rat-a-tats lyrics into the cool Finsbury night. It's a testament to Kanye's stage presence that even with his face completely obscured he's still an impossibly charismatic stage presence; entirely at ease being the dead centre of the world.

The mask is difficult thing to ignore; but in a perverse twist damn near everything on stage is set up to prevent us ever properly seeing Kanye's face.  Throughout the entire set he's constantly lit from behind, rendering him a bouncing silhouette in front of his gigantic video screen. Earlier in the day the video screens to stage left and right were crammed full of Wireless branding and closeups of the grinning crowd.  During Kanye they're mostly blank, occasionally lighting up to reveal his bemasked figure with the colours inverted - a black-clad, superhero/villain BDSM preacher with a neon electric blue sea behind him.  The cumulative effect is that he looks oddly computer generated: his outline jaggedly pixelated and his body language sharp and statue-like.

His control over what the audience sees of him is so complete that at one point he stops mid-song, (having angrily noticed that Wireless have switched to a non-inverted, stageside view) and gives precise directions to the cameramen on stage what he wants to see on the monitors. To go to these extremes means that Kanye must have a reason for all this obfuscation - but what the hell is it?  What kind of man stands in front of thousands and won't let them see his face?

We get a clue during a trademark rambling rant.  After 10 minutes or so of excoriating an apparently racist Nike for not allowing him to design shoes for them (I.. think?) he launches into a vocoded sing-songy caricature of a shoe executive advising him that he should stick to what he's supposed to do and save face.  Kanye responds (to himself); "That's why I got this fuckin' mask on, because I ain't worried about saving face. Fuck my face!  ... Fuck whatever my face is supposed to mean and fuck whatever the name Kanye is supposed to mean!  It's about my dreams!".

Well I'm glad he cleared that up. For me, the idea of the multimillionaire international superstar Kanye West whining that he's not allowed to do whatever he wants is so perverse it rockets right past offensive and lands comfortably a couple of miles into straight-up deluded territory.  To make things clear; this is a man who is currently standing in front an audience of thousands lecturing us about how no-one listens to him.   A man who is apparently soon to release a three hour spoken word album.  Damn Kanye, if you don't think you can do whatever you want now have a go living our lives.

Kanye West is, without doubt, a dickhead of the highest order.  So it's fortunate that he's an interesting, enormously entertaining dickhead.  His complete lack of modesty in proclaiming himself a genius at every opportunity ("At the end of the day I'm going down as a legend whether you like me or not.  I am the new Jim Morrison.  I am the new Kurt Cobain.") is both hilarious and accurate.  Given a choice between the fake modesty of your Chris Martins and your Ed Sheerans I'll take the frothing, theatrical self-involvement of Kanye West any day of the week.

It's this invincible ultraconfidence that made this show so  fascinating.  He's never bashful or polite, speaking everything on his mind secure in the knowledge that he's right about everything.  He closes with the epic Blood on the Leaves, an audacious mashup of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, a killer bombastic horn drop and Kanye equating him not being allowed to sit where he wants at a basketball game to apartheid.  I don't even know where to begin unpacking all that.  What I do know is that with the stage transforming into a stygian crimson nightmare, Kanye wildly yelling into the mic and the crowd going fucking bananas the place becomes a frantic psycho whirlpool of bass, sweat and happiness.  The very ground quakes as countless trainers tramp the grass down. 

When asked what his biggest regret was, Kanye once responded "That I will never be able to see myself perform live."  Having now seen him I've got to admit he has a point. 

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