Most of us who pay any attention to Kanye West are desensitized to watching him break down. He’s done it regularly and vulnerably in public, onstage, and on Twitter. In the weeks following Kim Kardashian West’s robbery, though, we haven’t seen much of that. Kim has retreated from the public eye for an indeterminate period, canceling appearances and abstaining from social media. Beyond postponing two shows on his Saint Pablo tour, Kanye didn’t get to opt into his family’s extended disappearance; he picked the tour back up and continued on the road six days later. I saw the show after the postponed dates, without much premeditated concern about his performance in the wake of recent events. He came through like a pro, and the show was thrilling, but the darkness of the Saint Pablo production took on a new meaning in the light of recent events.
What does Kanye still want to achieve at this point in his career? He’s not quiet about wanting to solidify his status as an earthly legend, even as his career turns increasingly toward spiritual motifs and god-dreams. At Seattle’s Key Arena last week, those crossed intentions came through in a set list that turned his catalogue of hits into a two-in-one self-examination and exaltation. He elevates himself on that infamous floating stage with the God-splitting-the-heavens lighting on its sole, blessing his fans with a solid wall of light. It’s gobsmacking to watch the bodies react below him. The allegory is all very clear in the light, but when it gets dark, there’s a murkier mortality.
“Don’t call me after the robbery and say, ‘How you feeling?’ You want to see how I’m feeling?” Kanye said onstage. He had been dwelling on his rift with Jay Z over streaming industry politics, and it had become personal. “Come by the house. Bring the kids by the house, like we’re brothers.”
Hearing him make these concessions to hurt feelings somehow made that hovering stage look more lonely than transcendent. His performance remained powerful as ever — maybe even more so, since the songs give him something to work through. His verses were vivid, electric, and alive, coupled with the insanity of the crowd’s feedback beneath. But there came a point where he seemed exhausted from the exercise of working out his worries in his show, particularly during The Life of Pablo’s “Waves,” when he requested “10 seconds — I need a little breather,” and then counted down from 10. I learned later that a friend’s kid had seen the same show as I did; he’s 14, and it was his first concert ever. His observation was, “Kanye seemed tired by his own fame.”
Kanye’s lean toward darkness in this show could get pretty literal. Unlike previous stops on the tour, where Ye was at least well-lit enough for you to follow his form across the floating stage, he was almost untraceable in this new Saint Pablo chapter. The only spotlight was about as bright as a streetlamp, as if he were a pedestrian on a sidewalk at night. The Jumbotron meant to track his movements for those in the nosebleeds remained unhelpfully black, except for the laser sequence of “Fade,” when he was silhouetted in red. It was gloriously heavy when he crouched below those beams during the “deep inside”/“demon stop” refrain, and then he stood up to cut the lines with crucifix arms. Piecing together other elements of the production with some personal projection made for uncomfortable connections — the big carabiner attached to his back securing him to the stage, for one, stood out like a disturbing symbol of a binding contract to perform in moments when Ye appeared to be frustrated, or wanting a break. When he toed the edge of the floating stage, it made my heart thump with dread from the visual metaphor.
The performance seemed to hold Kanye’s real life hostage within the story he wanted to tell of Pablo, and it felt pretty tough, as though we in the audience were flinching from the first chips spraying off from an anticipated larger break. I don’t know if Kanye feels a domestic pull toward comforting his wife, if Kim feels alone, or if they have it handled and are taking care of their business as best they can and it’s all good. What’s most interesting is the way these moments of darkness seemed like a direct reflection of his present troubles. We know that Kanye doesn’t hide what he’s feeling, but the catch is that he usually feels like he’s a god. He believes in a broad canon of male achievement — Jobs, Disney, Picasso — to which he attests he belongs. As he lives, Kanye simmers in a pretty classical notion of greatness. Is it harder to feel invincible if your power can’t protect the ones you love, and the source of that power — your career — is preventing you from being there with her?
Kanye told Kocktails With Khloé this spring that the identity of “Pablo” was a hybrid of Pablos Picasso and Escobar, plus Paul the Apostle: “That mix between message, product, and art is The Life of Pablo.” I think of that floating stage, those descending lights, and the title of the tour itself. I feel like Kanye wants to tell Pablo’s story using sainthood as a device, to explode that identity into an echelon of reverence and power, for us to believe in its ultimateness as much as Kanye does. Or maybe he doesn’t want to do all that, and he just enjoys using religious words to make it all feel big. Either way, what’s haunting about this is that saints traditionally have to be martyrs in order to be canonized. It’s a sacrificial system, with the reward of reaching as close to godliness as mortals can get. It looks a lot like the hero’s journey, only more brutal. Kanye’s mythologizing — from his Yeezus identity to his obsession with classical, capital-G Greatness — can suggest that he sees himself living through that wheel, and he sees us as spectators to his ascension.
What was most unsettling watching the Saint Pablo tour in light of his family’s trauma — one that’s still shrouded in mystery and silence — was seeing him oscillate between stages of the hero’s tribulations: retreating into the cogs of vulnerability and mortality, going backward and being forced to reckon with a real personal horror after he’s accepted all other measures of ascension. It’s a dramatic moment to witness, if only because he performs his life so dramatically. If he does see himself as this type of character, it must be a very complicated realization to feel that fame isn’t a flawless prize, and brings with it new breeds of human risks. He’s known this for a long time, but has it ever come to light to such bubble-bursting effect before this year? He’s a man who is heroic, larger than life, and also a man with a family, a man whose partner was in very recent and real fear for her life. There’s a large, dark valley between those two perceptions of his realities, making the actual life of Pablo look like a pretty heavy place right now. I can’t blame him if he asked to dim the stage lights on him for a while.