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The stage was adorned in shiny silver plastic, which would have simply looked tacky had it not also featured two LED screens several storeys high and a catwalk extended far into the crowd. To the rear of the stage was one-man-band Mike Dean, who was playing The Imperial March on a guitar, swathing it in layers of distortion and overdrive so thick that the menacing notes had never sounded so evil.
As the last slab of distorted noise pushed out of the speakers, Kanye West rose up out of the stage clad in nondescript streetwear, save for an intricate sequinned mask that covered his face. Behind him, the LED screens slowly filled with red, like video game health bars.
The shuffle of Black Skinhead sounded and he came to life. As the crowd battled one another for a place in the front row, West turned manic. He pushed and pulled himself around the stage, spitting venom from every angle. The mighty LED monitors swirled with West’s visage embossed in gaudy colour, as the multiple cameramen about the pit area struggled to keep a convulsing, undulating West in-shot.
He powered through with an I Don’t Like-Mercy-Cold trifecta, cocooning the latter with a sample of Cold As Ice by Foreigner. As the insistent piano chords of the rock radio staple filled Rod Laver Arena, West took his place before a beaming shaft of white light that extended from the catwalk up into the ceiling.
Can’t Tell Me Nothing highlighted the formidable vocal abilities of West’s cousin, Tony Williams, who’d been placed at the back of the stage. The track served as a smooth transition into the jagged rhythms and big-room beats of New Slaves. Every voice in the room instantly came alive, though West remained silent. He stood perfectly still and let his fans turn the track into an anthem. After commanding a call-and-response on the famous line, “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower“, he tore the Martin Margiela mask from his face. The crowd reacted as though a heavyweight favourite just landed a knock-out blow.
Following a sparse, piano-heavy rendition of Heartless, darkness enclosed the arena and the rapper disappeared. As a spotlight opened on a mic stand arranged beside a keyboard and sampler, West emerged donning a floor-length trench coat and an elaborate new mask. After manipulating a rush of distorted samples, the eerie opening notes of Runaway gave way to its brooding breakbeat and ominous bass. Opening act Pusha T returned to spit the second verse, before leaving West with an arena of fans who were eagerly awaiting the rapper’s traditional Runaway rant.
After a short, rambling meditation on love and “being f**ked with”, West turned up the vitriol and addressed an anonymous member of his crew. “Tonight I ain’t gonna say your name and s**t, but you got them emails from both publicists, and you know exactly who I’m talking about,” he shouted into the mic. “And you retweeted that bulls**t and you know exactly who I’m talking about, so I’ma tell you tonight: We got two shows, so we better get on the phone tomorrow morning.”
Having introduced the lengthy, moody spectacle so early in the set, the ensuing cuts, which included the venomous Clique, the military march of Jesus Walks, and a sadly abridged rendition of All Falls Down, seemed more like an extended encore than a continued set. However, the atmosphere so palpable in the opening half of the evening was regained after the majesty of Touch The Sky, which West followed with All of the Lights, Good Life, and Gold Digger.
A short break followed, but West, the consummate showman, knew he had to capitalise on the regained momentum. Standing at the front of the stage, he demanded a circle pit for the next number. After a modest gap appeared amid the haunting opening of Blood on the Leaves, West cut the track. “Bigger circle, bigger circle!” he cried out. The crowd immediately parted in anticipation of the sky-is-falling bass drop that was about to occur and rushed at each other as soon as the jagged, trumpet-like synths burst out of the speakers.
Similar antics ensued for closing number Niggas In Paris, which was aborted twice when the the circle pit did not pass the muster of West’s scrutiny. Laughs and cheers alike could be heard throughout the venue and the cheerful spectacle was a welcome moment of lightheartedness during a show, which up to that point had proved less a concert than a celebration of Kanye West. But oh, what a celebration it was.
Photo: Andrew Briscoe