Kanye West at Madison Square Garden / Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be abducted by aliens? Just logistically: Consider what it would mean to have a spacecraft large enough to travel between solar systems swoop down and hover over you. Picture the lights switching on dramatically, one bank after another, like a football field’s, suspended above you. Imagine how loud it would be, with all the roaring of engines and the venting of gaskets and the screeching of metal sliding against metal.
There’s a moment in Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour that forces you to confront this possibility up close. The physical realities of spaceships docking at spaceports become apparent. An ominous ambient score plays. As you stand on the floor, breathless from moshing or just from rapping along to “Power,” the grid of lights, which is roughly the size of a basketball court and hangs over the central pit area of the crowd, begins to noisily shift to an angle, leaving you more breathless yet. The music blares dramatically; there is the distinct feeling of being in a movie and watching some vast, terrifying mechanized presence be revealed to the viewers for the first time. Except you’re inside of it. You are captive to this contraption. Mankind is nothing beside the machines of its own making. Except for Kanye, of course, who glides to the center of the room on a foot-thick platform that is suspended a dozen feet off the ground. He begins to play “Blood on the Leaves.” The beat screeches, like metal sliding against metal, and Kanye’s voice howls.
Kanye’s music has shifted dramatically in sound, content, and texture over the years, but he has an uncanny gift for making his latest artistic bent feel like the natural culmination of everything that came before it. His albums reveal the rough-hewn ambitions of their immediate predecessors but refined and rendered in flawless HD. Late Registration unveiled an orchestral ambition that had been just under the surface of College Dropout; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy solidified the portrait of obliterated ego that drifted through 808s and Heartbreak. Et cetera. As Kanye performed “Wolves” last night at Madison Square Garden under the slanted roof of that lighting grid and ringed by enormous speakers, its dense, abrasive instrumentation pulled all his past music into focus. Yeezus’s dystopian sci-fi future was in fact just an imperfect glimpse of this industrialized behemoth. Where we were now, it turned out, was what Kanye had actually imagined all along.
The space thing, the feeling that you were in a movie, the sensation that this spectacle could only be matched in magnitude by two aircraft carriers colliding—all of it was part of a grand plan to reveal both human insignificance and the sheer power of human ingenuity. Kanye didn’t speak much outside the music, but you could more or less imagine him comparing the invention of steel beams to the invention of the electric guitar. Both were bigger than any of us. And bigger than us is exactly what a concert should be, especially one right now from Kanye West, the biggest rock star in the world, who is currently at his creative peak. As opposed to the story-driven spectacle of the Glow in the Dark and Yeezus tours, the showmanship here was more in the power of suggestion. Kanye spent much of the performance barely illuminated, as just a silhouette against red or orange fog, but this contrast pushed the hugeness of the music, the enormity of the rig, the simple human importance of the figure at the center of it, to the forefront. Have you ever thought about what makes a concert iconic, the kind of event that people will want to buy replica tour T-shirts of at Target decades from now, like they do with Slayer and Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin? Kanye has.
“Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, if y’all are still alive, I want y’all to remember this night, this moment,” Kanye said. And surely we will: What can match the sensation of leaping into a mosh pit in the lights underneath the stage as the beat drops in on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” to open the concert? Is there a better way to remember “All of the Lights” than by watching Puff Daddy, democratically mixed with the rest of the celebrity guests and the energetic, windmilling teens on the floor, dance along to it? No doubt there will be kids who are introduced to the concept of a pit by Kanye on this tour. It is inarguable that plenty of people will wear what is heretofore the coolest outfit of their life to a Saint Pablo show.
Pin it on his ego if you must—sure, he’s happy to be the center of attention and the one bringing this to you—but Kanye’s guiding artistic principle right now is above all making sure that everything he does feels as important as possible to the fan. (If the literally interminable wait for merch is any indication, it might be working too well.) The Life of Pablo is an album that is less about conventional songs than it is about revealing moments of ecstatic beauty to be excitedly shouted and lovingly savored. In the age of streaming playlists and lifestyle brands, so much music exists as something to be consumed briefly before it is traded in for an update. We’re still figuring out the greater existential question of how music right now, absent the LPs to hand down to our kids, will be remembered. Kanye is correct in figuring that its best legacy will be the way it lives in our imaginations, the way Woodstock does or the Grateful Dead do, the way that movies leave flickering images that stay in our subconscious long after we forget the context. Why else do we all have a common image of what an alien abduction looks like?
And so he gives us revelations. Here was mine, last night: As ‘Ye tore into the second verse of “Jesus Walks”—“to the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers!”—the stage floated toward me. I was in the center of the venue, and around me the audience seemed to clear away, until it was just me, looking straight at Kanye, almost into his eyes, rapping along to each of those words that had been burned into my brain for over a decade. For a moment, there was nothing holier than this: me and the music and Kanye. Then the stage kept floating, over me, onto someone else.
Kyle Kramer came out of his body last night. Follow him on Twitter.