In an age where many creatives scold their audiences for avid smartphone use during their concerts, one man and one man only, leaned in. Yes, Kanye West’s stunning ‘Saint Pablo’ tour and its floating stage are visceral and visually exciting — the gift of your favorite rapper literally floating above you for the entirety of his set is the kind of populist benevolence only Kanye “I Am A God” West would bestow on his fans. The other layer, of course, is that the show seems to be the first of its kind designed specifically with smartphones, social media posts, and short bursts of video in mind.
By now, you’ve either been to the ‘Saint Pablo’ tour, will attend later in the year for the second leg of dates he just announced, or have voraciously and jealously consumed enough social media about the shows to know exactly how they go down. Contrasting red, orange and gold lights create an atmosphere that looks incredible when pixelated, shimmers when condensed into shareable video, and offers unparalleled access to the fascinating facial expressions, dance moves, and general glorification that a Kanye West performance includes.
So while I had a pretty good idea of what Ye’s show at The Forum last night (one in a string of six in the LA area) would be like, I still wasn’t prepared for the power of his stunning visuals, or the unfathomable live energy and absolute compassion he displayed throughout the night.
Then, there’s the music.
Whatever you think about The Life Of Pablo as a whole — I find it to be a faith-restoring balm, but suit yourself — the highlights of this album are among some of the brightest in his entire career. Those tracks will pump up any crowd around the world for years to come, so opening with “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” and segueing into “Pt. 2” and “Famous” is the only way this tour could begin.
To celebrate “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” going #1 on the Urban radio chart, Ye ran it back and performed the whole thing twice, and reprised it later on in the show in tribute to his protege Kid Cudi, who recently shared his struggle with depression and checked himself into rehab. This moment was not only poignant for Cudi fans — most of whom overlap as Kanye fans — but a reminder of Ye’s character.
Earlier in this same tour, he was up on his platform sharing his own deep pain at his friend Cudi’s earlier attacks on him. Yet, as soon as he understood what was motivating Cudi’s attacks against him, Kanye was able to not only forgive the betrayal, but become one of Cudi’s biggest supporters during a dark time. Contrast that with Drake’s behavior toward Cudi if you want a touchstone for how unique Kanye’s display of empathy here really is.
The scope of Kanye’s empathy occurred to me again and again throughout the night. It’s a quality that not many people recognize in the rapper. Most people are eager to point to his self-love, unchecked opinions, and sensitive spirit, and swirl these together into a portrait of an egomaniac. But that portrayal willfully misses Kanye’s compassionate heart. When he was talking about the backlash to “Famous” at the show, and how much he wanted to get his perspective out into the world, I was struck again by the fact that he asked Taylor’s permission before voicing his own thoughts.
I won’t quibble over wording or phrases, none of us will ever know that full story, but his heart was so clearly to protect Taylor while also expressing himself. As Kim herself pointed out, it’s difficult to think of any other rapper who would go to such lengths to protect the very person who was happy to help vilify him for years. That takes an empathy and compassion that remains out of reach for most of us, let alone a pop star.
And for all the claims that Kanye West is an egomaniac, every aspect of the show last night was designed to uplift others. The floating stage makes his diehard fans feel closer to him than ever before, his opening trio of Pablo hits lets fans hear their new favorites right up front, his inclusion of “Pop Style” and “THat Part” immediately establishes his support for his peers Drake and ScHoolboy Q — particularly Q who gets a big nudge from having his latest hit played continuously in front of Kanye’s audiences.
Then, Ye plays the hits, the songs that people who have never seen him (or those have seen him many times) crave hearing — “Mercy,” “Power,” “All Day,” “Blood On The Leaves,” “Black Skinhead,” “Jesus Walks,” “Flashing Lights,” the list goes on. Other Pablo songs appear, “Highlights,” “Low Lights,” and “Wolves,” snippets of which served as interludes throughout the show for stage shifts, and then he gets to “Only One.” For me, this song is the epitome of Kanye as an artist in 2016.
“Only One” is the song that is a three-in-one love song to the three most important women in Kanye’s life — Kim, North, and Donda. It encapsulates the life-alerting force of parental love and the devastating power of grief, balancing the two against one another in an unshakeable lullaby of affirmation. Earlier this week a SNL cast member shared the impact of Kid Cudi’s music on his life, even noting that he felt Cudi’s music saved his own life.
Well, that’s exactly how I feel about “Only One,” a song that finds hope even in the midst of limitless loss, a song that contains the perfect parsing of human existence: You’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes. Yes, Kanye West continues to make mistakes, but he continues to forgive himself for them too, a quality we aren’t used to seeing on the world stage. It’s his final act of compassion — even toward himself — that makes Kanye the towering figure he is. His ability to freely be himself, and then forgive himself when he inevitability stumbles, is what makes him such a compelling figure and artist. We would all do well to learn and internalize the power of self-acceptance that he daily enacts in the public eye.
While it’s not officially on The Life Of Pablo, “Only One” taps into the same eternal grappling that defines this album, and it’s full of the same compassion that powers the ‘Saint Pablo’ tour. Kanye is meeting his audience exactly where they’re at, leaving the necessary boundary of his stage, and still getting as close to the crowd as possible — letting us interact with him through social media, phones, and video — because he understands that’s the language of fandom in 2016.
“Only One” wasn’t the end of the show, a string of other empowering tracks followed, including uplifting crowd favorites like “Waves,” “Good Life,” and “Stronger,” and the show finally ends, of course, on “Ultralight Beam.” If the compassion of “Only One” has a twin, it’s the avalanche of gilded joy that shines through “Ultralight Beam.” Beyond the drama that may erupt with Cudi, Jay Z, Taylor or anyone else, these two songs show us the Kanye we know and love; these two show us his heart. They reveal his ultimate dream of love and peace for himself and for us. The God dream has arrived — it’s floating above you — and you are free to take as many pictures as you want.
Tickets are still available for five more ‘Saint Pablo’ shows in the Los Angeles area, purchase them here via Ticketmaster.