Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar

Staples Center

Oct 28, 2013

Even fiancee Kim Kardashian wasn't too sure about Kanye West's concept for his Yeezus tour. “My girl even asked afterwards,” he recently told San Francisco radio station Wild 94.9, “'Hmmm, is that weird if Jesus comes on stage?'”

Yes, it was weird. Just about everything about Kanye's performance at Staples Center last night — promoting his sixth album Yeezus, and following his previous show there on Saturday — was weird.

For starters, it featured a giant fake mountain, a dozen near-nude female disciples wearing panty-hose over their faces, and a hirsute Jesus character, played by a white dude. Yes, oddly, Kanye did not play the Yeezus title character, or a god at all. Instead, he played a sinner.

The performance was even more bonkers than it sounds. But it was glorious.

Upon the release of Yeezus, the album, in June, most reviewers didn't focus on the religious symbolism, figuring it was more next-level braggadocio in the vein of Kanye's mentor Jay-Z calling himself “J-Hova.” But Christian imagery is at the center of this tour.

That said, the show felt closer to an MFA thesis project envisioned by stoned graduate students than a compelling coming-to-Jesus story of literary quality. After all, the main supporting characters were 12 thin, diminutive women wearing nude-colored bodysuits and leggings over their faces, as if about to commit a really sexy bank robbery.

They did not sing, though at various times they struck poses reminiscent of the ballet dancers in Kanye's “Runaway” video, quasi-wrestled each other, swung Catholic-style incense thuribles, and served as human chairs for Kanye. But that was the extent of the stunting; there was no jumbotron, although a giant screen (nearly parallel to the floor) above the mountain displayed the words “Fighting,” “Rising,” “Falling,” “Searching” and “Finding,” serving as act book-ends that made the evening feel something like a Christian 12-step program.

Kanye himself hid his face for a good two-thirds of the performance. At first he wore a garish, Lucha Libre-style mask, which segued into a gimp-style facial get-up and later a Daft Punk-esque silver headgear reminiscent of a disco ball. The coverings were supposed to be metaphorical for the dark times before his character found God, we suppose, but on a practical level they surely disrupted his performance: His voice was a bit obscured, and his range of movement was limited since he couldn't see too well.

The first half of the set was heavy on Yeezus material, as Kanye performed tracks like “On Sight,” “New Slaves,” and “Hold My Liquor,” while moving from the island stage on the venue's floor up a pathway on the big grey ersatz mountain. These songs aren't sing-alongs capable of easily thrilling a large crowd, but their production — given a minimalist aesthetic by West and Rick Rubin that plays well both on shitty boomboxes and in arenas — suited the environment.

His versions of his hits, meanwhile, weren't always true. “Stronger” was re-worked, while “Runaway” featured a maybe 15-minute interlude in which he rambled about a number of subjects, and culminated with him yelling, “DON'T TALK TO ME LIKE I'M JUST A CELEBRITY!”

OK. Meanwhile, a character who can best be described as Animal from The Muppets, if he was used as a chimney sweep, was pacing around, a priest was toting around an MPC player, and the disciples were setting off flares. “It's a painting, it's a sculpture, it's a moving opera, it's a play,” Kanye described the production in the Wild 94.9 interview, which is somewhat confusing because don't regular operas move? But the religious subtext became quite obvious at the show's climax, when the Jesus character appeared onstage, and Kanye bowed before him. He proceeded to remove his mask, revealing himself to be … MF Doom! (Just kidding.)

That kicked off “Jesus Walks” and the night moved into high gear, with Kanye finally able to jump, pump his fists, bound around the stage and look the audience in the eye. He was now clearly having fun — isn't that all we want for him? — as he went through “Flashing Lights,” “All of the Lights,” “Good Life,” and others. You know, the stuff everyone wanted to hear.

On Saturday he'd dedicated the night's last track, Yeezus' “Bound 2,” to Kim, who was in attendance and hopefully warmly interpreted the delicate story of his trying not to get semen on her mink coat. Sadly, the celebrity quotient was a bit down last night (although we can report that Joe Francis, out of jail on appeal, was in effect) but the track still brought down the house.

While making Graduation Kanye learned how to build songs to kill before colossal crowds, and “Bound 2” was particularly effective — declarative, choral, and just profane enough. Nobody knows better than Kanye how fun it is to yell bad words at the top of your lungs.

Below: Review of Kendrick Lamar's opening set

Kendrick Lamar; Credit: Christopher Polk

Kendrick Lamar; Credit: Christopher Polk

It's no small deal for Kendrick Lamar to open for Kanye West on this tour, which does not, like most rap tours, feature all-star special guests.

No, the show was just the two men, and during his nearly hour-long set Lamar was up there alone, without even so much as a semi-naked acolyte (or even Schoolboy Q).

It was another step in Lamar's rapid ascent toward superstar; with Good Kid, Maad City now a year old and his “Control” verse still rattling in heads' ears, he's won everyone over with his studio work, and has single-handedly re-established Los Angeles as a primary hip-hop center. (Sure, Odd Future has a fanbase with Juggalo-like intensity, but they don't draw much outside of it.)

In a sense Lamar is now at the Late Registration phase of his career, his task being to create a compelling live show. His area performances in the past year have been mainly for the converted; his Black Hippy crew did not show a lot of charisma at their Paid Dues show in April.

Last night wasn't a slam dunk, but it showed him going in the right direction, performing with a band and a few screens behind him showing Good Kid-era home movies. He started in a gold polka dot jacket, before removing it to reveal a white long-sleeved T to match his white jeans. He wasn't much for dancing or theatrics but he didn't really need them, performing faithful renditions of his tracks. Like Yeezus, Good Kid is not full of arena-rockers, and perhaps the biggest cheers were for his verse on A$ap Rocky's “Fucking Problems,” which he did twice.

The crowd seemed as much there for him as Kanye, and cheered wildly when he said he was “representing you tonight, and forever.” It was sweet and perhaps a bit naive. We all know where this is going for a genius like Lamar: His artistic temperament is going to rear its head in increasingly bizarre ways before much longer, and he'll no longer belong to Los Angeles any more than Kanye belongs to Chicago.

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