NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Early on in [artist id=”1230523″]Kanye West[/artist]’s headlining set at the 2011 Essence Music Festival on Saturday Night, the Chicago MC stood on a raised platform suspended high above the cheering crowd. As he spit “Dark Fantasy,” the hook “Can we get much higher?” seemed a particularly apt way to describe not only his literal skyward stance at the New Orleans Superdome, but also what was to come that night.
Yeezy was already knee-deep into career-defining classics like “Jesus Walks” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Diamonds are Forever,” when he told the elated NOLA fest he was “just getting started.” Rocking a white blazer, topped by a thick tangle of gold chains, and a pair of jeans and sneakers, the 34-year-old rapper bounded across the stage like a hyperactive teen, but there was no mistaking that West is a megastar, the “college dropout” who has more than made G.O.O.D. on his childhood dreams.
As a small army of classical dancers — dressed in a variation of the phoenix costume worn by Selita Ebanks’ bird in West’s short film “Runaway” — flanked him, Kanye launched into a bombastic rendition of “Power”; “Devil in a New Dress” and “Hell of a Life” followed as ’Ye tucked into singles and cuts from last year’s platinum-plus opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Performing to a massive audience that came to its feet (and stayed there all night) to the strains of ’Ye and Jay-Z’s “H.A.M.,” the Chi-town MC with a Nas flow touched on his recent scandals, explaining that he stopped granting press interviews after taking lashings from media and bloggers. But he wasn’t all rebellious rapper: He danced, sang along and laughed his way through an old-school medley of personally influential music, and the playlist jumped from Al Green to ’90s soul groups like Jodeci and Shai.
And West also emphasized that he knew who had held him down when, as he laughed, he “had a little too much too drink” before storming the MTV VMA stage back in 2009. Yeezy repeatedly thanked the predominantly African-American crowd for standing by him before going on to a stirring, church-tinged rendition of “Gold Digger.”
The songs felt big and anthemic; the stage and stands, for instance, were bathed in lights and lasers for “All of the Lights” and “Stronger,” respectively. As he bounced back and forth between hits from his discography, including his College Dropout debut and his introspective, Auto-Tuned 808s & Heartbreak, the weight of West’s musical success was apparent. If there is a handbook for how to headline an expansive show, West should write it. Concertgoers appeared awestruck at the sheer spectacle and scale of the show, mouths gaping when they weren’t shouting lyrics back at the energetic MC.
For the finale “Act 3″ (a title card projected onto oversize screens flashed the show’s three-part progression), a billowing white tent was spread across the stage. In cocoon-like fashion, the dancers re-emerged in black tutus; West clad in his signature red suit. As the rapper knocked out the mournful, tinkling opener of “Runaway” on his MPC machine, the ballerinas circled and Pusha T turned up for his verse.
Still, as large and loud as the show felt, Yeezy’s closing was as subtle. After rapping a heartfelt “Hey Mama” on his knees, with a nod to his late mother, Donda West , the star and his band, dancers and DJ took a ballet-company-style bow and walked offstage as the stadium lights went up.