The man in the mask
Kanye West, Qantas Credit Union Arena, Sydney, 13 September 2014

A man stands alone on stage, illuminated by a shaft of brilliant white light. In front of him is a plinth, and displayed atop the plinth like a sacred relic is an Akai Music Production Centre. The MPC is a hybrid sampler, drum machine and electronic instrument, and it’s the piece of gear that, over the past 25 years, has made much popular music possible. 

The man on stage is dressed in a voluminous, shin-length coat and a mask that glimmers like pearls. It obscures his entire face. He raises a hand, then brings one finger down upon the instrument. A high E rings out through the arena, and the assembled crowd screams its approval. He waits, milking the tumult, then repeats the action. More screaming.

The song is ‘Runaway’ – the crowd recognise it from that first, lone note. The man is Kanye West, as much myth and scourge as he is human being. On record, ‘Runaway’ forms an elaborate apology for West’s womanising and self-aggrandisement. “Run away from me baby, run away,” he pleads. Live, in front of roughly ten thousand people, the song becomes a celebration of those qualities.

Halfway through, West breaks off and starts talking – he has just realised, he tell us, that he is the Rolling Stones of this generation, and the U2, and the Jimi Hendrix. By “this generation”, he means the teenagers assembled here tonight, who have roared along to every word. West is infamous for his lengthy onstage rants, but this one doesn’t last for more than a few minutes. He wants us to know he takes his position at the apex of popular culture very seriously. Very seriously, he repeats. I know you do, Kanye, I think to myself. I know you do.

I don’t believe for a second that West has just experienced a spontaneous epiphany regarding his own importance, but I do, to a large degree, credit his claims. West is easy to mock, but he’s not actually wrong – he’s ascended into the rock ’n’ roll pantheon, in part because he wanted so badly to get there. Like the Stones in their heyday, his every misdemeanour is a tabloid headline. And if Hendrix was the wizard of guitar feedback, then West is the maestro of Auto-Tune, an effect that colours the current musical landscape as much as Hendrix’s purple haze did in its own time. In conjunction with his face masks, Auto-Tune transforms West into an android: at certain moments, his onstage presence is as unsettling as anything in Blade Runner.

West’s music can rival Blade Runner in its desolation, too – and it’s worth noting that before West even takes to the stage tonight, the music being played through the venue’s PA is Burial. The British electronic artist is as celebrated for his reclusiveness as West is for his attention-seeking, and between his album Untrue (2007), and West’s own 808’s & Heartbreak (2008), the melancholy template of much contemporary pop music was set.

Tonight, though, West pulls out his most domineering songs – ‘Cold’, ‘Stronger’, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’. The titles alone indicate the mood. The highlight is ‘Jesus Walks’, from West’s debut album, The College Dropout (2004). It’s a song about a genuine spiritual crisis that sounds, nevertheless, like the recruitment anthem for West’s own Messiah complex. It makes perfect sense in a venue this large, with each body, including mine, in sway to the song’s martial rhythm. I think of David Bowie, himself no stranger to provocation, who once observed to the journalist Cameron Crowe that rock stars are fascists. More than once tonight, I have the uncanny feeling that West can see me from the stage.

Bowie didn’t mean that rock stars have politically fascist leanings – though it turns out that Bowie did, for a time. He meant that politics, at its most dangerous and seductive, is aesthetic, assuming the quality of a stage performance. The difference between politicians and rock stars is that rock stars possess fame, not power. West is as famous as it is possible to be, as is his wife, Kim Kardashian – when she briefly appears at the rear of the venue, the audience is drawn toward her like iron filings to a magnet. But fame without power is, in the end, only celebrity, which is why Kim and Kanye attract as much derision as they do adoration. Just who do they think they are?

The man in the mask plays on. His final song is ‘Niggas In Paris’, originally a collaboration with Jay-Z, who is one half of pop culture’s other most talked about couple. It’s a song about conspicuous consumption, but it’s also a song about a city that has, historically, been a place of refuge, and sometimes exile, for African-American artists afforded little respect or dignity in their own country. West plays it once, then twice, then maybe a third time – by now I’ve lost count. His irresolvable contradictions do my head in. “This is the stuff that legends are made of,” he declares, and before I can think of a reply, he’s gone.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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