Alex Swhear bought the chain that always gives him back pain.
About halfway through the Indianapolis tour debut of Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour on Thursday night, I took a break from gazing up at the floating stage to check my texts. I’d received two messages, both from people sitting in the upper level: one from a friend who was angry that they couldn’t see the performer, and another from a friend astonished at his fortune—he had expected an unimpressive view due to his cheap tickets, but by his estimation, he had accidentally ended up with the best vantage point in the building. They were two people in similar seats experiencing a wildly different concert.
I’d purchased floor seats, and was therefore a part of the fluid, frenetic mob that formed under West. His platform (which reportedly took more than eight months to design) was suspended about 20 feet above a general admission crowd, which followed him dutifully around the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
I put my phone back in my pocket. A frenzied mosh pit was forming about twenty feet to my right, but I was more fixated on Kanye snarling his way through a rendition of “Freestyle 4,” a song that so confidently meshes horror movie theatrics and penis references that it almost ends up making sense.
The production design of Kanye’s latest tour follows in a long line of polarizing decisions that defy easy categorization. Every once in a while he’ll do something so brilliant (just try to make the case against 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—it’s unimpeachable) or so moronic (tweeting—on the eve of his album release—a full-throated, all-caps embrace of serial sexual predator Bill Cosby) that the reaction is uniform. But more than being praised or shunned, West revels in being at the center of debate.
It’s why in recent years, he’s expressed far less affection for the tailored-to-critics perfection of Fantasy than he does for the game-changing, bold nature of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak (which jump-started a subgenre that still enjoys commercial and cultural dominance) and 2013’s Yeezus (a feisty, abrasive record that, despite much initial objection from the masses, is comfortably settling into its status as one of West’s masterworks). Both albums are challenging, yet smartly crafted; they spit in the face of those who would like an album full of sequels “Good Life”s, and instead reward those willing to invest time in his latest left turn.
The Life of Pablo, West’s latest album, is no such left turn, despite a handful of moments like “Freestyle 4.” It’s the rare Kanye album that doesn’t commit to a sharply defined statement of purpose; instead it veers in a million different directions without much concern for cohesion or grand statements. The album arguably overstays its welcome a bit; those pleased with the streamlined 40-minute running time of Yeezus may greet Pablo’s 66-minute length with annoyance. Its kitchen-sink approach is somewhat reminiscent to the Beatles’ White Album, which was famously recorded by Beatles working in entirely different rooms, and which was also overseen by Swizz Beatz.
West’s brain seems to be taking a similar approach, crafting an album that embraces the sounds (“Freestyle 4”) and themes (“FML”) of Yeezus while also sprinkling in nods to his long-forgotten College Dropout soul samples (“No More Parties In LA”) and the lonely, autotune-drenched hellscapes of 808s (“Wolves”). With all that said, it might be the loosest Kanye album and, with the obvious exception of his Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, quite possibly the most fun. In the months since its release, Pablo’s replay value has proven sneaky and persistent.
Predictably, the Saint Pablo tour setlist leans rather heavily on Pablo songs. Based on the reaction of the Indianapolis crowd, it appears that this is likely to be a winning strategy. Crowd engagement with songs like “Wolves” and “Famous” was as high as it was all night. Witnessing a sea of people shout at the top of their lungs with utter giddiness about a “bleached asshole” can be filed under “shit I did not expect from 2016,” but that’s simply where we’re at right now.
Like he did with the Yeezus tour, Kanye packed the show with a liberal dose of his greatest hits; Thursday featured a jaw-dropping run that started with “Flashing Lights” and culminated in a rendition of “Niggas In Paris” that brought the house down so forcefully that I nearly called off work the next day. The only thing resembling a deep cut was Fantasy highlight “Devil In a New Dress” (previously unplayed since 2010), a welcome addition to the show, even if Pusha T didn’t show up to rap the verse he wrote for Rick Ross.
At one point, Kanye saw it fit to halt everything and apologize to Nike for his past vitriol—a mere hour after performing “Facts,” which accuses Nike of treating their employees “just like slaves.” But Kanye didn’t become diplomatic overnight. He has a maddening tendency to believe the world needs to stop spinning if things aren’t going his way (see his infamous mid-VMA stage crash of Taylor Swift in 2009). This can be on full display during his live shows—and indeed, during the first stop of a tour where kinks had not yet been fully worked out, he grew easily frustrated. There were several false starts and aborted songs (“Blood On the Leaves” was played three times, sort of, with mixed success). These sorts of glitches are to be expected during a tour’s first stop, but Kanye’s self-indulgent tendencies only amplify them, to the show’s detriment.
But such hiccups were largely dwarfed by the spectacle of the show, featuring a career-spanning 30-plus songs that filled more than two hours. Kanye’s showmanship was center stage as it usually is; he sneered through his verses on Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” remix and Schoolboy Q’s “That Part,” and he laid down on the stage during his “Mercy” verse as if to suggest he could do this in his sleep. Even tethered to the floor, his energy was often palpable and infectious, particularly during crowd favorites such as “Paris,” “Black Skinhead,” and “All of the Lights.”
Saint Pablo stops short of the ambition of the Yeezus tour, which structured itself (in a way that was at once slightly incoherent and deeply compelling) as a five-act play, starting with the cold anger of the darkest Yeezus tracks (“On Sight,” “New Slaves”), and building towards and ultimately climaxing with the euphoria of Kanye’s Graduation-era hits—and of course Yeezus closer “Bound 2,” which served a similar purpose in the context of the album’s tracklist. This feels fitting, as The Life of Pablo avoids the ambition of Yeezus. But even while stepping back a bit in scale, it still reveals Kanye West as an artist who is only comfortable if he feels like he’s pushing boundaries.
The most recent examples of this were the sporadic updates of The Life of Pablo, which was still being altered on music streaming platforms months after its release, and which Kanye has described as “a living breathing changing creative expression.” These changes prompted questions about what an artist’s relationship with their music might become in the streaming era. Does an album ever need to be truly done? Could Van Morrison spice Astral Weeks up with a Travis Scott guest verse and if so, what am I supposed to do about it?
The Pablo updates stopped short of fundamentally altering the album and ultimately served merely to give it back its new car smell, but new ground was broken. This continuous poking and prodding at his audience and their expectations are why Kanye West has endured as such a compelling artist and public figure for the past thirteen years. Anytime it appears we have him pegged, he subverts expectations to remind us that he’s out of reach. Unsurprisingly, this appeared to be the case on Thursday as well. As I chased him from one end of the Fieldhouse to another without missing a word of “Feedback,” surrounded by hundreds of people breathlessly doing the same thing, it became clear that he’s still got us in the palm of his hand.