A soft, heavenly light illuminated Kanye West as he sang the last notes of “Only One,” a touching ode to his mother and family. The Verizon Center was calm — a rarity during his Sept. 8 set — acknowledging the sentimentality of the song to the performer, yet eagerly anticipating whichever high-energy song could potentially follow.
Instead, the rapper embarked on one of his famous, meandering monologues — even freestyling lyrics at times — reflecting on everything from the previous day’s release of his newest fashion line to the time he spent in public art school in Chicago as a young boy. For more than 20 minutes, West spoke about his life’s journey and where he hopes to follow his vision next. His ambition is a defining feature of his persona, and as the “Saint Pablo” tour reaffirms, it is unmatched in the world of music and tour production.
The 38-date tour is a visual marvel: For the entirety of the performance, West performs on a suspended stage, floating above the floor. It hovers in one spot for just a few songs before moving to the other side of the arena, which sends the crowd rushing to get a better angle. Set underneath a massive expanse of lights that morphs and changes colors throughout the show, the minimalist stage is a far cry from the opulence of the 2013 “Yeezus” tour that featured a 50-foot mountain, Jesus and diamond-studded Maison Margiela masks.
With the “Saint Pablo” Tour, West has redefined the paradigm of live music: There is no “front row.” The entire area is transformed into a front row, where everyone can participate equally in the experience. The general admission floor was rife with exhilarating energy, as much a communal dance party as it was a celebration of West’s music.
West has no opening act on this tour, and no special guests. Of course, he does not need either to command a crowd or deliver a captivating performance. For fans in the seats, there is practically as much enjoyment in watching the dynamic liveliness of the concertgoers on the floor as there is in watching West himself. From the first raucous cheers as the stadium lights dimmed and the chords for “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” blared through the speakers, to the arenawide singalong of “Gold Digger,” to the electrifying reaction to the first piano note of “Runaway,” every moment of the show offered up something memorable.
The setlist for the concert featured 32 songs, with “The Life of Pablo” — West’s latest release — receiving the greatest share. The remainder spanned the entirety of West’s storied discography, from “Jesus Walks” off his debut album “The College Dropout” to “Black Skinhead,” a thunderous track off 2013’s industrial-influenced “Yeezus.” West played all his hits: “Flashing Lights,” “Good Life,” “Stronger” and “All of the Lights” to emphatic reception. However, West also went beyond his own tunes. Of the first eight songs, four were features. These tracks were some of the most energetic of the night, though, including West’s verses on Schoolboy Q’s “That Part,” Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and Drake’s “Pop Style.”
West rapped along to the songs, but often cut out the music to let the fans scream out the lyrics themselves; he often stood on the stage with minimal gesticulation, but burst into energetic dancing when the energy peaked. The performance was elevated to the next level with intricate lighting cues, changing patterns, colors and even shape during certain interludes. Highlights include the strobe-like effect during “Flashing Lights,” the sudden flash at the epic beat drop in “Blood on the Leaves” and the literal shape-shifting of the entire lighting rig during “Wolves.”
West does not hide his self-aware persona, but rather embraces it through the show. The ethereal lights that shine on him intermittently the show, the suspended platform that places him above the crowd and the devotion the fans show him throughout the performance certainly make him seem godlike, to an extent.
“Let me be selfish for a moment,” West said at one point. “I need to hear myself singing these songs.”
He acknowledged his place at the forefront of today’s society and media, but also made a point of building the show around the ideas of inspiration and determination. The days of West’s infamous, angry rants seem to have passed. Instead, audiences heard what were essentially motivational speeches, encouragement to spread artistic vision and take creative risks.
West’s final song, “Ultralight Beam” — a gospel-inspired song declaring his faith and its importance in his life — was a fitting conclusion to the show. As he sang, the stage slowly slid across the arena as he wistfully stared at the bright white light shining down at half-court. “This is a God dream,” he sang as he passed under the beam. A sense of awe hung over the crowd as it watched West disappear into the darkness at the end of the arena, leaving behind a concert performance that no one in attendance would soon forget.