"NYC, tell me how you feel," Kanye West asked the thousands of people who had left work early to attend the first listen of his latest album, The Life Of Pablo. "Did I deliver on my promise on that album? Tell me how y'all feel about the clothes this season." This was also the premiere of his defiantly Kanyesque clothing line, Yeezy Season 3. West got to achieve at least two of his dreams on Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps a third dream, assuming he dreams about living his life like a Charlie Kauffman movie.
The rest of us were there—or watching from movie theaters, computer screens, iPhones—to share in an all-too rare chance for a communal listening experience. It may not have had the rag tag charm of a parking lot experiment, but it was still a moment for all of us to vent our anger at prominent shoe brands. And for the models to exercise their ability to "not act cool," "behave as if no one was in the room” and "not break the rules."
"do not act cool"
"welp no problem there" pic.twitter.com/YHNqpzhESt
— skylar bergl (@skylarbergl) February 11, 2016
The last time West toured in 2013, he was hauling around an elaborate ice shaft centerpiece and a ton of jewelry-encrusted masks. But he's since ditched the frozen phallus for a troupe of Matrix Revolutions extras posing in his latest line of clothes (and the yeti mask was replaced with a sensible "Yeezus" baseball hat). Although his interests seem to have shifted more toward the world of fashion over the last two years, yesterday's event was first and foremost a musical one—the grand unveiling of "ONE of the greatest albums" ever. An album so "greatest," it was christened with four different names over the last year—So Help Me God, Swish, Waves, and finally The Life Of Pablo.
Not to say that fashion wasn't of high importance to attendees—these were probably the most fashionable people I've ever encountered at MSG (with all due respect to the Westminster Dog Show crowds). There were literally gangs of handsome people menacingly posing along 7th Avenue.
— Ben Yakas (@yenbakas) February 11, 2016
— Ben Yakas (@yenbakas) February 11, 2016
As for Kanye's designs, he definitely hits his targets well. Though some of the pricetags on the merch—that included a $90 "Ultra Light Beam" sweatshirt and $200 souvenir programs—may have been reaching a little bit.
— james (@BoltJames5) February 12, 2016
Even though I'm sure they were thrilled to be involved with the project, I mostly felt bad for the models, most of whom had to stand completely still for 2+ hours while avoiding direct eye contact with the Jumbotron. Some were definitely crying, which could be because they were truly moved by Kanye's new record, or perhaps because of the level of strain it took not to look over at West and Kid Cudi on a total sugar high:
It probably shouldn't have been a big surprise that the MSG acoustics weren't necessarily the best for listening to new songs for the first time; the fact that West plugged the sound system of the arena into his laptop at a certain point definitely didn't help things (nor did using Soundcloud). Overall, it was still better than listening to all the rough drafts and leaked clips that had littered the Internet in recent months.
But it was also hard to get a definite read on the album and the new Kanye sound. (From what I've heard, the Tidal stream was much clearer than it was in person. There were some glitches, but the company blamed that on "over 20 million people logging in at once.") West's descriptions of it as a "gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it" makes a whole lot more sense now. The electro-gospel "Ultra Light Beams" made for a fantastic opener (with a hint of Songs In The Key Of Life to it), with its glorious repeated refrain "this is a God dream," which was a theme West returned to toward the end of the event.
"Feedback," which invokes Pablo Escobar and Pablo Picasso equally, was one of the immediate surprise standouts. "Famous" may have been even better, with appearances by Rihanna and Swizz Beats, and a purposefully-controversial "joke" about Taylor Swift providing some immediate controversy: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous." West foresaw that reaction (or as he would likely put it, "misunderstanding")—TMZ reports that he reached out to Swift last month to get her approval before going forward. (Her brother, who threw out his Yeezys in disgust, apparently didn't get that memo.) Nor did her spokesperson, who said this to the Times:
Tree Paine, a spokeswoman for Ms. Swift, said in a statement that Mr. West had called the singer to ask that she release “Famous” on her Twitter account. According to the statement, “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message.”
Still hood famous pic.twitter.com/a8car4I2VX
— mean plastic (@meanpIastic) February 11, 2016
As the album went on, The Life Of Pablo edged closer and closer into The Gospel Of Ye. "Highlights" (which he announced would be played on SNL this weekend) ditched Madonna for Young Thug (and includes a very obvious Ray J reference/insult). The eerie "Freestyle 4" was followed by a quick freestyle (I think it was a freestyle? It's hard to say conclusively what is and isn't on this album, even now) that was a (humorous) ode to himself, concluding with, "And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye." It was but one of the most 'Kanye loves Kanye' moments of the night.
He may have forgotten to play the entire thumping "Fade," but however much of it we heard was fantastic, along with "FML" (shades of "Hold My Liquor") and the already-released classic "Real Friends." That last one shed some of its melancholy and took on an almost anthemic quality thanks to the packed surroundings (and increased low end). The album concluded with the other already-beloved "Wolves," although it featured different guests than previously performed versions.
Throughout the event, West was behind the sound table waving, swaying, and mouthing along with himself, surrounded by an immediate audience of two dozen photographers and collaborators (including Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, and a lot of pot enthusiasts). His Kardashian clan, draped in white fur and greeted with a heavenly spotlight when they entered, weren't too far away either (Lamar Odom and Anna Wintour in tow):
there's so much going on in this picture pic.twitter.com/UhsHSsOkSR
— Naomi Fry (@frynaomifry) February 11, 2016
"I feel a lot of times I get misunderstood just as an artist. No one can tell you what field to stay in," West said toward the end, transforming before our eyes into Scarily-Energetic Self-Help Guru Kanye. "I just want to bring as much beauty to the world as possible, I'm only 38-years-old." The sound issues and a few "fuck Nike!" chants aside, there was plenty of beauty to be found, beyond Kanye's ego and/or genuine artistic brilliance. "It's not regular," West said about his shoe line, but he might as well have been talking about his whole ethos. The mere state of "not regular" for Kanye is truly, meaningfully, uncomfortably inspiring, regardless of whether or not you think the original version of "Facts" is not so good.
Put it like this: he took a moment to plug his upcoming video game "Only One," which he said was about his mother traveling through the gates of heaven. No matter how much second hand smoke they may have ingested, the crowd had no idea what to make of it. West was put off by the underwhelming initial impression: "That's not easy to do, ya'll acting like this shit is regular," he said.
"That was hard to do bro," he added. "This shit was hard to do." Whatever it was, it was very not regular.
With additional reporting and photography by Kellylouise Delaney and Scott Heins