God or man, Kanye is king of Rod Laver Arena
Walking like a human onto the stage is not an option for Kanye West. In 2012, the rapper rose like a deity from the centre of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl audience in a cherry picker to the first notes of 'Dark Fantasy'.
This time, West appears in a sudden cloud of thick smoke, feet firmly planted on stadium ground. Red and black light hammers epileptically like a horror movie bloodbath. There’s no discernable song yet: just a harsh, industrial wall of sound. Poised like a predator, West’s concentrated gaze burns through his bejewelled Maison Martin Margiela gimp mask. Then, the gasping, panicked beat of ‘Black Skinhead’ begins: 'I’m aware I’m a wolf/Soon as the moon hit/ I’m aware I’m a king/ Back out the tomb, bitch'. Spitting lyrics as fast as the frenzied crowd can rap with him, West stalks the length of the stage. He lunges at a hanging camera, which is shooting his thermal-imaged body onto a towering screen like a target in a one-man gladiator death match. This is not just a performance: it's a one-and-a-half-hour drag race through the mind of Kanye West.
Quickly, one thing becomes obvious: he's not living in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy anymore. Tonight he’s Yeezus, and he doesn't care if you think it's ugly. Unlike previous tours, there are no ballet dancers, Renaissance-style set pieces or choreography. West is free to ad-lib his moves. For some tracks, like 2010's 'Power', he's motionless in the light of a thin, white beacon. It fits with the pared-back aggression of 2013's Yeezus, and – most importantly – the sparseness of the stage directs attention straight to his rapping skills.
Which are shiver-inducing, to say the least. If slower tracks like ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ or ‘Mercy’ bring down the energy slightly, then 'Stronger', ‘New Slaves’ and his tighter-than-tight verse from ‘Clique’ raise it back to fever pitch.
Loosely, the set is divided into two acts – with the centrepiece being his magnum opus ‘Runaway’. Re-emerging in another mask and long, heavy trench coat, all it takes is one hit on his small sampler for the crowd to go wild. The beat drops, but what the audience is really waiting for are gems of wisdom from the inevitable, wavering auto-tune sermon part way through the song that Yeezus' disciples have come to collect like scripture verse. In recent shows, he’s waxed lyrical about unrequited love, boundless creativity and his sneaker brand. Tonight, he’s got beef with a tweet from an unnamed publicist: “I better see those emails in the morning apologising,” he snarls. Praise be.
Much has been said about West’s religious appropriation and egotism over the years. To some, he’s a deluded megalomaniac – an opinion given weight by his ‘do you deign to look upon me, mortal’ masks, cathedral-slivers of white light, as well as previous quotes like “I am God’s vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” To others, he’s a misunderstood genius with no regard for how his eccentric ‘true’ statements are received (“Imma let you finish”).
But really, these things matter less when the man is putting on an undeniably impressive performance. Off the back of ‘Runaway’, the audience gets joyful, old-school renditions of ‘Touch the Sky’, ‘Jesus Walks’ and of course, ‘Gold Digger’. Somewhat jarringly, he chases the 2005 crowd-pleaser with ‘Bound 2’: the last track on Yeezus, and possibly the most divisive/bizarre. But whatever your thoughts on lyrics like ‘I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/And after that give you something to drink’, maybe the key to the West enigma is that he simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his art. He knows he’s God’s – or is it his? – gift to mankind.
Who else, after all, would do three renditions of ‘Niggas in Paris’ in a row, baiting the rabble to form a huge circle pit every time – and still have them screaming for more? Call him whatever you want: Kanye is definitely in his zone.