Rock stars are in short supply these days. Admittedly, living life on the grand scale of a Mick Jagger or Keith Richards in their heyday is hard work, but epic self-indulgence gives music its mythic scope. Thankfully, Kanye West seems ready, willing and able to be larger than life.
Thursday night at the New Orleans Arena, that was clear in a show that included an Alp, a yeti, a faceless choir that engaged in synchronized rotating and held lit flares on the Alp, and Jesus, who emerged from a fissure in the Alp.
His touch prompted West to discard the mirrored mask that covered his face for most of the show. A video screen announced titles for each segment of the show — Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding — but it’s doubtful that anyone in the arena besides West followed that narrative beyond it being, at some level, about salvation.
What saved the show from being a high school theater arts project with a budget was West. He may have come up with an unlikely presentation, but he also came up with the songs. They’re what people came to hear, and regardless of the theatrics, they connected.
The night wasn’t a hits show — no “Goldigger,” no “Touch the Sky” — but it didn’t have to be. It included “Power,” “Stronger,” and “Jesus Walks,” but the audience was also with him for the delicate ballad “Coldest Winter,” which he sang lying down after announcing that he wrote it after his mother died.
West could be quiet and let the audience collectively rap not just choruses but full verses as they did during “Blood on the Leaves,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and “Bound 2” among others. He also committed to his performance of the songs with physical intensity, singing and rapping with his whole body. That passion helped gloss over the show’s odder moments.
West is touring in support of his recent “Yeezus” album, which challenges listeners with its abrasive, often industrial electronic sound. He has challenged his audience before with unpredictable musical choices, but this time it has translated to more empty seats than usual on the tour. At the arena, the upper ring was largely empty, but that didn’t affect West or the audience in attendance, who were with him regardless of what he did. When he asked for the crowd to light him with their phones during “All of the Lights,” they did so with enough brightness that he could safely instruct his lighting operator to turn out the sole spot on it.
The tour has included a nightly sermon during “Runaway,” and Thursday he sang/spoke a free-associated, Autotuned monologue that touched on his belief in himself, being protested, dreamers, haters, and it comes as no surprise that he feels misunderstood and persecuted. “If I get in so much trouble for telling you the truth,” West sang, “what are they telling you? What are they selling you?”
Those thoughts don’t relate, but that didn’t slow West down. He also sang that he never “downed nobody,” which might come as a surprise to Taylor Swift, whose acceptance speech for an MTV Video Music Award he famously interrupted to suggest that she should have lost to Beyoncé in 2009, but West makes the most sense in broad strokes, not details. He’s dealing with big themes in his art, and at his best he makes them personal. Some in the audience snickered when the faceless choir walked with blank, formal deliberateness out of the back in nude body stockings, but no one doubted that it all made sense somehow to West.