The first thing you notice when you walk into Kanye West's Saint Pablo tour is the noise. At New York City's Madison Square Garden last night, long washes of droning sound blared from speakers, rumbling deep and slow as whalesong while people toted drinks back to their seats. Shortly before 9 p.m., the whales turned into freaky howling wolves. It was serious, ominous pre-show music, the kind that suggests you're inside a dark temple right before the human sacrifices, or deep into a recording session with Aphex Twin. Something very important.
The last time Kanye headlined the Garden, back in February, it was to debut an album he'd been working on for three years. That night was supposed to be the musical event of 2016, but seven months later, it already feels like ancient history. Stories about The Life of Pablo were quickly superseded by stories about the lightweight controversies it triggered; fans cheered when Kim Kardashian West won the biggest skirmish, over a line from "Famous," but was anyone still talking about the rest of that crazy, brilliant, painful song? Kanye worked hard to gain access to this celebrity world, but by midsummer you had to wonder if even he wouldn't very much like to be excluded from its narrative.
Seen in this light, the Saint Pablo tour is a chance for him to reassert control over his own vision, a last opportunity to make us understand his most complicated album to date.
"Famous" is the third song in the Saint Pablo setlist, front and center where you can't miss it. There are no Jumbotron screens showing the tacky music video, so you're forced to actually listen to the song, which sounds much better than you remembered. The part Kanye delivers with the most conviction — way more than the played-out jab at Taylor Swift, which even he seems bored by — is the end of his second verse: "The sun is in my eyes / Woke up and felt the vibe / No matter how hard they try / We never gonna die." He raps those words like he needs us to hear them. Immortality was always the endgame. What he really means is: I'm more than just a juicy Twitter Moment. I'm one of your greatest living rockstars. Can't you see that?
Almost all the new songs on the Saint Pablo tour work better than they did on record. Part of this has to do with the floating stage, a visually stunning piece that soars smoothly back and forth above the fans on the arena floor like a magic carpet. You can't see Kanye's face up there — not all masks are made of jewels — but you can read his body language with unusual clarity for a show this size. He stalks around the stage, jumps up and down with restless energy, falls prostrate to stretch his hands toward the audience. He's a king who can't leave his palace, exalted and trapped at the same time, an elegant illustration of one of The Life of Pablo's central themes.
No one can join Kanye on this stage, so the crowd knows better than to look for a surprise guest when they hear the opening notes of Drake's "Pop Style" or ScHoolboy Q's "That Part" ring out. He's alone up there, with all of us watching. "I know you've seen it on the Snap, but you're here tonight," he said at one point last night, and the staging gave that routine comment a ring of truth: We were all there in one room, with no choice but to experience something together. Sometimes it felt like a party, when every head in the arena bopped along to Desiigner's "Panda" verses on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2," or when we wilded out as one to "Mercy" and "Can't Tell Me Nothing." At other times, the mood had a darker edge. The pleading intensity of "Jesus Walks" felt different on that bare suspended stage than it did when he addressed it to an actor playing White Jesus on 2013's superlative Yeezus tour. By exposing himself so starkly — hanging in the balance, praying on his knees, desperate to know if he's going to make it into Heaven — he's found the best way yet of representing his inner turmoil.
Toward the end of the show, during an intro to "Runaway" that he stretched into a long piano ballad à la "Jungleland," Kanye said that his pair of performances this week represented "the most tickets ever sold at Madison Square Garden for any form of event — hockey, basketball, R&B, rap, fashion shows." Of course he cares about popularity; his favorite brand is McDonald's. The biggest crowd reactions of the night went to "Gold Digger" and "Touch the Sky," 11-year-old pop songs as perfectly constructed as anything in Kanye's catalog. But The Life of Pablo is never going to be that popular. It's too self-contradictory, too fucked-up, too human.
When you hear "Ultra Light Beam" without Chance's verse, at the very end of a show instead of the very beginning of an album, it turns out to be a sad song, not an uplifting one. Kanye wandered around his platform in the artificial moonlight, searching for something he couldn't put his hands on. "This is a God dream," he said, like he was trying to convince himself. A recording of Kelly Price's voice echoed through the arena, arguing with Heaven: "Why send oppression, not blessings? / Why do you do me wrong?" Kanye was still. Then came a burst of bright light, and he was gone.