AUSTIN, Texas — Kanye West is no stranger to the drama. So, it was fitting that on Friday at Austin City Limits — the final night of his ongoing tour in support of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — he staged a passion play in three parts, complete with dramatic ballet sequences, a matinee idol-worthy entrance and monologues that dove into the artist's twisted psyche.
In other words, Kanye West closed out the first night of the fest in the soul-stirring way only he can: by commanding the stage almost entirely by himself and letting the dense tracks and shout-along verses do the heavy lifting.
Some rappers need a huge posse onstage to support them, or a 10-piece band and large stage sets. Not Yeezy. Give him some flashing lights, a few dancers and an imposing Greek fresco-type backdrop and he'll do the rest on adrenaline alone.
As the dramatic intro to "H.A.M." swelled over the speakers and some beats kicked in, dancers reminiscent of the "Runaway" video took the stage, diverting attention away from West, who emerged mid-crowd on a crane, soaring 50-plus feet over his fans for "Dark Fantasy." Could he get much higher? It didn't seem like it, but when he made his way to the stage for the insanely hyped triplet of "Power," "Jesus Walks" and "Can't Tell Me Nothing," he commanded the space like a four-star microphone general, working it as the blazing lights turned from blood-red to orange and pink for "Hell of a Life."
Enclosed in two laser pyramids that looked like the phantom zone from "Superman," 'Ye rapped about what he called the "true story" in the song's lyrics, accenting the lines about falling in love with a stripper with primal scream grunts and dragging the microphone stand around as if it were a ball-and-chain one minute, a prehistoric club the next.
The crowd kept whispering about a possible Jay-Z cameo (which didn't happen), and Rick Ross also wasn't able to make it for "Monster," but with the stage bathed in cash-green lights, Kanye held it down just fine alone, backed by a three-piece band that was dressed in Kraftwerk-like white jumpsuits. And, of course, when he got to the line about needing to see some hands at the concert, thousands of pairs went up instantly.
For "Flashing Lights," he turned the stage into an early-80's disco, with, yes, flashing white and blue lights and search-beam lasers that scanned out over the crowd. The set-up already looked like an outtake from an Off the Wall video, so when the band chopped up a sample of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," there were some knowing nods among fans of a certain age.
Like the stripped-down thunder funk of "Good Life," Kanye was mostly dressed down, rocking ripped jeans and a short white button-down shirt over a white tank. The elegantly funky dancers were back at the top of Act 2 for the piano-thudding intro to "Love Lockdown," melding into a writhing ball of limbs midstage and performing a kind of hip-hop ballet to the song's spare, insistent beat. As the tune melted into just Kanye's anguished, echoing screams, one dancer remained, acting out his pain with exaggerated arm movements.
Rihanna's voice boomed at the beginning of "Run This Town," which 'Ye performed with an extra dose of swagger and fierceness as a sea of Roc diamonds went up in the air for a medley that included songs like "Touch the Sky" and early hits like "All Falls Down." And the ear-piercing shout of "We want prenup!" in the middle of a ground-shaking "Gold Digger" seemed to surprise even Kanye, who couldn't really have been too shocked about the audience's intense familiarity with his lyrics.
The second act ended with the visual feast of "All of the Lights," which layered a multicolored searchlight explosion of visuals to machine beats cranked to 11. But Kanye didn't like how the crowd sang the line that comes after "MJ gone," so he made the band start over and — along with the alien-landing lights, complete with horizon-scanning beams and a strobe-splosion — it was one of the night's high points.
The set ended with "Stronger," which was stripped back to just Euro jeep beats, hissing blasts of smoke from a series of columns all across the stage and "Tron"-like banks of red lasers. As the night drew to a close, 'Ye slipped into his red jacket and matching jeans, standing at his sampler for the opening plinking notes of "Runaway." The dancers were back, this time in black tutus, executing freeze-frame poses they held for long enough that it seemed as if they were moving in super slo-mo, like living sculptures that had crawled out of the ancient backdrop.
"This is the last night of this show," West said. "This is the last night ... there will be new times, but we gotta remember these times before we're ... runaway," he added, alluding to his upcoming tour with the Throne pal Jay. He stretched the song out, adding the line "If you love someone tonight, hold on real tight," during a nearly 10-minute freestyle in which he admitted to being the "#1" d-bag.
After a mellow run through "Lost in the World," Kanye thanked his crew, dancers, managers and choreographer for making his twisted fantasy come true, ending the show with his usual ode to his late mother, Donda West. As he sang "hey mama," over and over, he thanked the crowd for making his dreams come true and promised to keep sharing those dreams with them.
Did you catch Kanye at ACL? Share your reviews of his set in the comments below!