"As soon as they like you make 'em unlike you," Kanye West sings in "I Am A God," the third track on his spectacular, chiseled 2013 album Yeezus. "'Cause kissing people ass is so unlike you." West may have a lot of damn good reasons for not wanting to kiss people ass at this point, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want you to love him—and it doesn't mean he doesn't want to entertain you. And West was nothing less than entertaining over the course of two hours and 28 songs at Barclays Center last night, bouncing around the stage like a mix between a praying mantis and one of those scarily-energetic self-help gurus. And it was by far the best show I've seen at Barclays since the arena opened.
This was the first of four NYC-area shows for Kanye this week (tonight he returns to Barclays, then he plays MSG Saturday and Sunday) on his Yeezus tour, which was briefly derailed earlier this month after a truck accident. If you were one of those people skeptical about whether Kanye really needed a 60-feet-wide LED screen to perform, then rest assured he most definitely needed it: the show is thick with theatrics, broken up into shorter sets introduced by vaguely inspiring messages on the big screen and lots of vaguely-dramatic interplay between West and his nude body suit-wearing harem.
The stage setup alone is weird and impressive and impressively weird: there's a giant ice mountain where the main stage would normally be, one that West sometimes climbs upon to deliver sermons (like a bare-chested version of "Power"). During "Blood On The Leaves" and "All Of The Lights", there were spectacular fire displays that made the temperature tick up in the arena; the closest comparison I can give is Paul McCartney's fireworks extravaganza during "Live And Let Die."
Then in the middle of the room is a giant iceberg, or maybe an ice penis, where Kanye spends most of the concert huffing, puffing, and occasionally lying down ("Coldest Winter"). There are moments in the show ("Mercy," "Through The Wire," "Good Life") when it is shaking so much it almost looks like there are two of them.
There are also a lot of religious overtones in the spectacle: Kanye and his harem kneeled before "White Jesus" to be blessed before barreling into an Earth-shattering version of "Jesus Walks." But it's always a mix of the divine and the profane with Kanye: through every wardrobe change (at one point he looks like a homeless beggar wearing a diamond-encrusted yeti mask), West refuses to allow his various pairs of pants to cover his butt even in the slightest.
The music is ferocious and lean (the minimalist, hard beats of the Yeezus tunes work especially well live), keeping the focus on Kanye—even with alcohol-symbolizing Sasquatch-ish creatures occasionally popping up ("Hold My Liquor") or the aforementioned White Jesus, there are very few moments that West isn't the center of attention (or literally centered underneath a lone light on the ice penis stage). Even so, the audience mostly gets treated to the concept of West more than the man himself—for the first 2/3 of the show, West wore several of his various diamond masks. "Jesus Walks," the 23rd song in the set, is the first time we get a good, clear look at his face. For someone who is so concerned about being understood, it's an interesting decision.
And there's no doubt Kanye wants to be understood by his fans—he may want to bite the hand that feeds him, but he painfully wants to communicate and connect with his audience. Which is how we end up at the now ritual "Runaway" rant section of the night: for 10+ minutes, Kanye preaches about being The Underdog, about various inventors (Nikola Tesla!) who were misunderstood, about corporation managers criticizing him ("People who give me advice, I don't see them rocking to 15K motherfuckers in Brooklyn tonight!"), and about being a misunderstood genius: "Being a genius isn't a compliment to myself, it's a burden on myself," he noted sincerely.
This is how we want him: complaining that nobody believes in him while also basking in the glory of knowing everyone there loves him. Talking about how much he hates being pigeon-holed, while over-sharing in exactly the way we expect. The rant is somehow both predictable and terribly thrilling, and you don't want to miss a word even though you basically know the script. We are enablers in a sense, but with a performance this great, it doesn't seem like such a bad thing. At the end of the day, Ye doesn't want anyone on Instagram to try to tell you who to be, and that's genuinely a sweet sentiment.
After a hit laden near-medley of some of his greatest songs ("Jesus Walks!" "Diamonds From Sierra Leone!" "Flashing Lights!" "Through The Wire!") we get "Bound 2", the last song of the night and the most gushing love song West has ever written. Kanye stops the theatrical stuff for a few minutes and smiles. He shakes hands with various audience members, and generally looks like he's having the time of his life. Everyone here likes him, and he knows it.