On Sunday night at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival, I looked up at the towering screen next to the main stage and saw men. Thousands of them. Pressed together and compacted like sardines, only faces visible as they stared onto the stage before them. The festival’s onstage camera was trained on the crowd as the stage was reset for the debut of Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts project, and the feed gave a fairly good indicator of crowd demographics. While some women had braved the absurd crowd crush, the audience looked to be largely comprised of young men, most of whom appeared to be in their teens and early twenties. They had travelled miles and waited hours to witness something akin to religious experience: The return of Kanye West.
Over the past two years – since a California show two years ago this week that precipitated a life- and career-changing mental break – Kanye has been more visible but less present than he’s been in his entire career. All the livestreams and TMZ interviews and merch drops have obscured the fact that, save a Cubs game here or a fashion show there, Kanye hasn’t really been connecting with his fanbase on the same level that he used to. There have been no awards show appearances, few TV performances and, crucially, no public shows. 2017 was the first year in over seven years that Kanye didn’t play at least one live set, festival or otherwise.
That fact might seem standard in terms of how most artists tour, but not for West. The Kanye West live show has always been an integral part of his art, an opportunity to explore the increasingly dense content of his records. Kanye’s records almost don’t work without the live show. Where his albums have been a space for hedonism, nihilism and unbridled ego, the live arena for Kanye has always been closer to church – a space for him to breathe, to atone for whatever sins he had confessed to on record, and, above all, to bring people together. Kanye’s last three major tours – Glow In The Dark, Yeezus and Saint Pablo – were all, at heart, about the mission beneath Kanye’s bombastic art. They were about finding redemption, in whichever form it may take.
Over the years he found different ways to bring the audience closer to his vision of transcendence. Initially this happened through setpieces like moons and mountains and waterfalls, but eventually, on his Saint Pablo tour, through engineering – a floating stage that could be seen just as well from the back of the room as it could from the floor. (Lady Gaga recalls Kanye once telling her that he would never sell a ticket for a seat with impeded viewing; the Saint Pablo stage was a natural progression of that ideal.) His shows, as heavily influenced by the communitarian nature of gospel as they were the musical aspect, were designed so thousands of people could come together and find what he had found through his music. During the Yeezus tour, he started delivering a speech during “Runaway” about the importance of being yourself, loving yourself, empowering yourself. These speeches were sometimes characterised as rants, but they were more like sermons, and they truly felt divine at times.
For Kanye, his live shows served as a reminder that, despite his rarefied celebrity status, he was still speaking to the same kinds of people he had grown up with–dreamers and devotees and fans. Whenever it felt like Kanye’s records were about to disappear into a cloud of namedrops and high fashion references, the shows pulled him down to earth; it was almost like he needed them to remind himself that his fans loved him because of his vision and not his immense status.
Because of this track record, I thought that Sunday night’s Kids See Ghosts show might be the start of a new era for Kanye, one that did away with this summer’s MAGA hats and cracked revisionist histories and instead looked back towards the communal spirit that defined his earlier work. In Ye and Kids See Ghosts, he made dark albums that would be perfect prelude to a classic Kanye show; it would have made sense for this set to offer explanations and, perhaps, atonement. This was, of course, incredibly naive. Instead of a redemptive counterpoint, Kanye and Cudi offered up a dark and emotional distillation of the hyper-masculine recklessness that’s coursed through Kanye’s work over the past two years.
If there was a theme that ran through both Ye and Kids See Ghosts, it was that Kanye and Cudi are both searching for a kind of freedom within a society that they believe will never let them be free. For Cudi, freedom means living without the depression and addictions that have plagued him during his career; for Kanye, freedom is a little more complicated. Through his Wyoming records and their associated press cycle, it almost felt like he was searching for a line to cross in the eye of the public. Kanye has always wanted to push limits of what’s in good taste and what’s not, and this time, it feels more personal. Freedom from society’s gaze, as Kanye expressed it on his summer’s work, only comes when you’ve lost all of society’s love. The most telling lyric of his two Wyoming records came on Kids See Ghosts’ “Reborn,” when he admitted that he wanted “all the pain,” “all the smoke,” “all the blame.” To Kanye, with exile comes liberation.
True to that ideal, the Kids See Ghosts show leaned into this desperate need for oblivion. The show’s setlist – beginning with The Life of Pablo’s “Father Stretch My Hands” before running through the entirety of Kids See Ghosts, two songs from 808s, Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and, finally, Ye’s “Ghost Town” – was unusually dark for a Kanye show, and centred on songs with blackened emotional cores, ones about getting fucked up or being fucked up. “Welcome to Heartbreak” and “Paranoid” were given rare showings, and given their origins on Kanye’s most emotionally broken record, their inclusion feels telling. The only solo Cudi track performed was “Pursuit of Happiness,” and that, too, felt of a piece with the bleakly nihilistic bent of the show.
Rather than re-use the floating stage design from the Saint Pablo tour, Kanye and Cudi were suspended in a large perspex box. This staging was typically on-the-nose – Kanye dressed in dark clothing in his glass prison, looking down on the public; Cudi, in a huge white jacket, circling him like a redeeming angel – but undeniably compelling to watch. Both Kanye and Cudi remain magnetic performers, even when obscured and warped by sheets of perspex, despite the fact that it seemed like Kanye was having trouble getting out words at points. Little banter was delivered between songs, and, seemingly as a way to address his lack of political discussion, Kanye clarified that he and Cudi were “just [t]here to have a good time.”
A good time is what Kanye and Cudi have both always excelled at, and to their credit, this show was undeniably great – the pure chemical thrill of hearing tracks like “Pursuit of Happiness” and “Paranoid” will probably never wear off. Kanye sometimes looked dazed—a little tired, maybe, or nervous – but still the most animated he’s looked in months; the live stage is his natural environment, and having Cudi as an anchor beside him clearly helped when he looked disengaged.
Despite only being there for a “good time,” Kanye was still sermonising, just in a different way than usual. Rather than a combination of light and dark, this show was all darkness, and that itself sent a strong message. Of every Kanye show I’ve attended – five total, including Sunday night’s set – this crowd felt the most rabid, and the most masculine. The crowd around me – fairly close to the stage, albeit slightly to the side – was entirely made up of young men who lost their minds when Kanye and Cudi appeared.
It makes sense that this show felt more aggressively male than usual; Kanye, at this point in time, represents a kind of alternative masculinity that seems as if it’s free of the (supposed) strictures that are placed on masculinity today. He sides with Bill Cosby and XXXTentacion, does what he want, says what’s on his mind at any time. I can absolutely imagine being a 16- or 17-year-old and wanting to be like Kanye – perhaps not fully understanding why you can’t say some things nowadays or not understanding why it’s not okay to support someone accused of abuse, and therefore identifying with a figure who goes against the right opinions to have. It’s a deeply tempting path, deciding that society is too regulated and too PC and just blowing everything up. It certainly felt like this crowd – dancing to XXXTentacion when “Look At Me” was played between sets earlier in the day, lining up hours to buy KSG merch, expressing their love for Kanye without reservations – had completely given themselves over to the gospel of new Kanye.
A Kanye West show is still a goddamn Kanye West show. There are few artists living or dead who can capture the same feeling of invincibility and project it onto a crowd of thousands. But as someone who once idolised Kanye for his willingness to call bullshit on injustice, and his innate ability to convey both hubris and humility all at once, it was hard not to feel a little disconnected. It’s hard to accept the fact that even when he’s playing the hits, Kanye isn’t preaching the same message he used to. Sunday’s show was thrilling because it was anarchic, not because it was redemptive. Some nights it feels good to get lost among the damned, but it's hard not to miss the times where it felt like Kanye might reach down and save you.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.