Kanye West Gives Houston a Concert Experience Unlike Any Other

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Kanye West, Travis Scott
Toyota Center
September 20, 2016

Note: Because Kanye West is such a multidimensional artist (and because his ego practically demanded it), the Houston Press sent our two foremost Kanye experts to Tuesday night's Saint Pablo show.

I've long argued that Kanye West can maximize the hell out of minimalism. Floating stage where most artists go from one end of an arena to the next? Pffft, he'll stand on a platform and rap for two hours.

Floor seats? For who? For what? What used to be a rather ornamented affair (remember, this is the guy who did a whole rap show with an orchestra to show the beauty of Late Registration), Kanye shows have now broken down to all our ragers and mosh-out affairs. Even Travis Scott, unlikely Houston rap star who associates almost outside of its orbit, decided to get in on the fun. There became two separate shows Tuesday night. There was Kanye, powering through 12 years of deep cuts, remixes and classics from his world of isolation and loneliness. There was also Scott, jumping off a speaker to crowd surf and mosh with fans — almost begging to be hit by somebody to show a connection. Oddly enough, had he did fight someone, he may have lost. Travis may be Mo City but his hands? Most certainly are not.

Doesn’t it seem weird that Kanye West has never released a concert film? Given all the time, money and effort he puts into his live shows, it seems like he’d want a permanent record of the legendary Glow in the Dark tour or Mount Yeezus. YouTube videos work well enough, or at least they did in the past. With the Saint Pablo Tour, Kanye West has created an experience that you can’t quite capture on video.

Ever the master showman, Kanye’s decision to scrap a real stage and instead move around arenas on a hanging platform is one for the ages, resulting in a show that is literally unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Sure, for a while there it felt like every pop star in existence had a flying contraption of some sort, but Kanye’s setup throws all the rules out the window, not giving you anything to anchor your view of the show other than the man himself.

West's elaborate stage designs always beg for explanation. The spaceship from Glow In the Dark made those shutter shades seem dope for about 35 minutes. The cubes from Watch the Throne made him feel like a god on a perch. Saint Pablo's floating stage makes him appear like a tortured soul, a man who has delivered fire and still been ridiculed and persecuted thanks to his ego and baffling fight for fame and to be heard on his own terms.

Going to a Kanye show is akin to watching various walks of life come together to remind you when they became fans. There were women dressed either for the club (strip or otherwise) who sung "Heartless" at the top of their lungs. There were teenagers who moshed out to the Nina Simone tugs of "Blood On the Leaves." Thirtysomethings who were in college when Kanye dropped out of college were there for "Touch the Sky" and "Flashing Lights." It's not until you stop and pause for a moment to realize Kanye has a generation-spanning rap catalogue. And so many different emotions are tied to it.

Sure, that sounds 30 percent pretentious given who loves and who abhors Kanye, but it's true. Rap is far more fun when Kanye's around. Live shows get redefined when he's around and the Saint Pablo Tour is no different. He’s also a Gemini in the highest sense of the word, so after “Runaway” in all of its faux apologizing to the worst of all of us, he was contrite about one beef he halfway escalated last week.

“I hope my brother Kid Cudi is doing well,” Ye began to a thunderous ovation from the faithful. “Most influential artist of the past ten years.”

Kanye beefing with Kid Cudi almost made Travis Scott’s entire visage fade like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Kanye stopping a show briefly to give Cudi his flowers? Sweet, touching. Is it going to stick? Maybe. Remember, this is the same guy who went off on Wiz Khalifa in February over thinking KK was a shot at Kim Kardashian and not weed.

While it’s easily the most interesting concert experience I’ve ever had, it wasn’t the best show I’ve seen this year, or even the best Kanye show I’ve ever seen. The vision is there, to be sure, but the execution in terms of what songs he performed and the arrangement of the setlist was lacking, and while Kanye had some moves he didn’t always have the vocal prowess.

Not that he needed it to send most folks home happy. The crowd on the floor appeared to be having the time of their life as they moshed and screamed and jumped. In the more aggressive first half of the set the floor was often pure chaos, but not in a “violence for the sake of violence way” but more like a community coming together in celebration.

If you were seated or given the chance to be on Tuesday night, you watched two bodies work. One was West, who danced, preached and did all he could to enjoy his own drum for more than 100 minutes. The second body, the much larger organism that inhabited the floor did its best not to die on the same floor the Rockets play. Only diehard Kanye fans should have been down there, the most savage amongst us who would have choked somebody with a Yeezy shoestring in order to make space. From afar, it looked like the tantric sex party from The Matrix combined with Lord of the Flies. All of your Christ-like allegories could have been made with people's outstretched attempting to be moderately close to Kanye.

Once the lights dimmed and drums amped up to cross the show closer in “Ultra Light Beam," the faithful trusted their arms up like they were seeing a mix of Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. As awkward as it is at times, The Life of Pablo is sort of a gospel record. A secular one thanks to Chance the Rapper and “Waves” but still, it has gospel moments. When Kirk Franklin’s final prayer led to the choir’s squelch of “FAITH,” West’s floating stage lowered.

And then he disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Because unlike Drake or Puff Daddy, Saint Pablo knows when he can leave his parishioners and not offend the city’s curfew law. Because he’s Kanye, a conflicted genius with so many big ideas that he is prone to stumbling over the little ones.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike Kanye West, some good (the Saint Pablo rollout) and some bad (stop obsessing over his wife), but if you’re a fan of music as an art form I don’t see how you can’t appreciate him even if you don’t like him. Kanye doesn’t have to try and push the boundaries of what concerts can be, because people are going to buy his $40 shirts no matter what he does.

In an increasingly banal time of popular music, we should be thankful there are artists who are interested in creative exploration. No disrespect to Taylor or Adele or Drake or Justin, but writing good songs shouldn’t be the end-all be-all.

At least Kanye, love him or hate him, is trying.

So, Who Had the Best September Rap Show In Toyota Center? That would be Puff Daddy & The Family. Then Drake. Then Kanye. And I'd never thought I'd ever say Drake had a better live show than Kanye but he did.

The Crowd: Imagine dressing for a fashion show. Then imagine half of the people who said they were dressed for a fashion show only wearing bras and jackets. Then imagine a ton of kids wearing overpriced Kanye T-shirts, Yeezys and more. A lovely mixed crowd indeed.

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