Kanye West spares nothing when it comes to properly sharing his art, but for his Sunday night (August 25) performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards, Mr. West was all about making a big statement while keeping it very minimal for the first live rendition of “Blood on the Leaves.”
In contrast to his jolting performances of the Yeezus single “Black Skinhead,” which came complete with threatening hooded figures and ferocious barking dogs, the controversial rapper, producer and self-proclaimed “Michael Jordan of music” — which Jared Leto so graciously pointed out during his introduction — turned down both the intensity and the lights for “Blood on the Leaves.”
The song began with a very dim light illuminating only ’Ye’s face, with the rest of the set shrouded in black, as the haunting refrain of the “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” came through the speakers in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Not until the beat of the song dropped were viewers finally able to see that Steve McQueen’s “Lynching Tree” was the only thing that Kanye had commissioned as his backdrop for the night. The painting depicts a tree outside of New Orleans where slaves were once hung, with their graves littered across the ground under the leaves.
“Blood on the Leaves” samples Nina Simone’s 1965 jazz cover of Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording “Strange Fruit,” which was heavy with commentary on racism, slavery and the rise in the number of lynchings in the United States.
As the eerie line “bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” (in other words the “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”) played back, Kanye’s completely blacked-out outline danced wildly to and fro in front of the painting. While his leather pants, Pyrex Vision tops and heavy gold chains are usually prominent during his set, things were different tonight.
It wasn’t until the song was finished and a dim blue light spotlighted Kanye for his final seconds onstage that fans even get a chance to see his full figure.
Kim Kardashian wasted no time congratulating her boyfriend on a stellar performance, immediately tweeting, “Best performance of the night @kanyewest !!!!!!!!!
Despite the heavy subject matter of the performance, though, some fans only cared about a cameo by his new baby, with @guestofaguest writing, “We just want Kanye to pull a lion king and hold up baby North at the end of this performance #vmas.”
Best performance of the night @kanyewest !!!!!!!!!
— Kim Kardashian (@KimKardashian) August 26, 2013
Kanye's "Blood On The Leaves" performance is reminiscent of his 2008 VMA set for "Love Lockdown" – high energy, minimal lighting. #VMAs
— On Air/Ryan Seacrest (@OnAirWithRyan) August 26, 2013
Y'all leather too tight if y'all think that Kanye performance was amazing.
— Creative Gold (@CREATIVE_GOLD) August 26, 2013
Kanye the only one who could pull off his performance
— SchoolBoyFach (@SODMG_NJF) August 26, 2013