By Mary J. DiMeglio
MANCHESTER, Tennessee — Going into Kanye West‘s Bonnaroo set Friday night, festivalgoers were clearly divided along two lines: those who gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he’d make amends with the fest after his disastrous 2008 appearance — and haters who actually seemed to want to see him fail.
So, who did the G.O.O.D. music boss prove right? Well, as always, it depends whom you ask. To the spectators who left when the other stages reopened — after watching ‘Ye perform a few intense new tracks then take a large chunk of time to rail against his detractors — West merely used the stage as a soapbox for his ego.
But to the die-hard fans who kept spitting verses with their boy all the way until the end, and were rewarded with the big crowd-pleasers, the show was a slow burn during which ‘Ye weeded out the crowd until only the faithful remained.
The performance began on time (with Pink Floyd’s “Time”) — which was a huge relief. Kanye kicked things off with some of his most brutal, dark tracks: “Black Skinhead,” “I Don’t Like (Remix)” and “Cold.”
Donning a mask and sounding out of breath, it almost appeared that he might be nervous. Kanye, nervous? Well, yeah: It was his return to the site of an incident he has called “the worst insult I’ve ever had in my life,” with everything to prove in front of 80,000 devoted music fans, most of whom have already formed a strong opinion of him.
About 20 minutes in, he busted out classic favorite “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” He relied on the crowd to fill in on the chorus, but their response was lukewarm at best.
Removing the mask, West shared, “I didn’t give a f–k about being on the radio or making a hit song. If y’all know this song, f–k with me.” It was “New Slaves,” and again, fans in the front helped out with the lyrics while the rest of the audience was quiet.
“Power” finally elicited some enthusiasm, and as soon as everyone started clapping and singing along, he moved into another surefire winner. But, when “Stronger” didn’t get the response he thought it deserved, Kanye stopped the music and tried to remedy the situation.
“If y’all having a good time, make some noise,” he encouraged. “How many of you traveled a long way to be here? How many of y’all don’t give a f–k what the press says? I’m giving everything I got. I talk that sh– so you can talk that sh–. If you’re a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself.
“Look how they try to make me look,” he continued. “They try to make me look crazy. I know you’ve seen movies … Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison. … You’re seeing John Lennon right now, because I am the number one rock star on the planet.”
And again: in the front, cheers. In the back, a sea of boos.
As he resumed “Stronger,” the lyrics were particularly poignant: “You should be honored by my lateness/ That I would even show up to this fake sh–,” seemingly aimed at the haters; and, “I need you right now,” asking his backers for their support.
For about the next 20 minutes, the video screens showed a waterfall as Kanye had a kind of confessional heart-to-heart with the audience in which he shared: “Whether you believe it or not, the fact there are so many people here tonight … it humbles me, in a way to give me strength to know that I set my goals very high.
“I stand here, 37 years old: This is only the beginning. … You can only achieve as high as you believe.”
Those who remained through the Auto-Tuned monologue — as the festival’s other stages reopened for their late-night shows — were rewarded with “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and Jay Z’s “Run This Town.”
West aimed “Heartless” at the media — specifically, coverage of his infamous 2008 appearance. “I did Bonnaroo six months after my mom passed,” he noted.
The show then took a more positive turn, as he rocked fan-favorites “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down,” “Touch the Sky,” “All of the Lights” and “Good Life.”
Yeezus cut “Blood on the Leaves,” with its sample of “Strange Fruit,” a song considered one of the most important songs of the 20th century — wrapped up the night.
And, in the end, it was all love: “I want you to remember this moment for the rest of your life,” he professed. “I love y’all.”