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Kanye, Minus (Most of) the Ego

What is a Ye tour without the speeches?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’ve been getting in a lot of trouble lately,” Kanye West told a packed crowd in Miami almost three years ago, an embellished mask obscuring his face. He said it in this familiar and particular tone of voice, like this one sentence is the prelude to something greater. In the pit, a voice cried out, “The Rant!” as though he had just identified the opening notes of the hit song he and his friends were most hoping to hear that night. I cannot see them in this particular YouTube video, but I imagine there are high fives.

The Yeezus Tour Rants are now the stuff of legend, the most memorable cultural detritus from West’s last big arena tour — which is impressive, considering that the show also included a stage in the shape of a mountain and a nightly appearance from a character known only as “White Jesus.” It went like this, show after show: Over an extended instrumental cut of “Runaway,” West would stand on the mount and regale the crowd with whatever was on his mind for 10 or 20 minutes, usually quite passionately. It’s unfortunate that “rant” was the word that stuck (rather than something less loaded like “speech,” or something more fitting like “homily”), as it seemed to spring from the same biases through which the media often stereotypes West as the Angry Black Man; a white performer like Adele can say things like “go fuck yourself” in her concert monologues and they’re rarely classified as anything more than “banter.”

But as that voice in the Miami pit attests, “The Rant” quickly became a recognizable entity. A few years removed from the tour, they’ve all been well-documented for posterity, and nearly every one of them lives on in multiple perspectives, via different YouTube videos of varying quality and shakiness. Earlier this year, Slate published painstaking transcriptions of every single one, organized by recurring topics like “Walt Disney,” “Steve Jobs,” and “love.”

Usually in the days leading up to a concert I’m excited about, I’ll revisit older albums by that artist. But in the weekend before I saw Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, I found myself clocking just as many hours watching some of the Yeezus Rants on YouTube. Or sometimes merely listening: I put the audio of the Miami rant on as I did my hair (“I’m not crazy. I’m not out of control. I’m just not in their control.”). It does not feel sacrilegious to say that they were as integral a component to the tour as the music itself; Kanye structured the Yeezus show so it would feel that way.

And part of the fun was that you could follow along from home, because something he said at the previous night’s show usually made headlines every morning. The Yeezus Tour felt interactive in that way, bigger than just its one-night stop at your nearest arena. After seeing West’s latest concert on Monday night, I can’t imagine the Saint Pablo Tour will play out in the same way. For better or for worse, I just don’t think he’s in the same place he was three years ago.

The first major indication that the Kanye Rant was on shaky ground came at the VMAs. MTV prominently advertised that it was giving West four minutes to do whatever he wanted, clearly in an attempt to replicate the spontaneous, live-TV-without-a-net feel of West’s 11-minute Video Vanguard acceptance speech at last year’s ceremony. But spontaneity, by definition, isn’t something you can recreate, and “four minutes” is a strangely specific amount of time to give someone to do Anything They Want. Kanye’s speech couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, and as a result it read like recycled parts from other speeches, even pieces of Kanye West Magnetic Poetry, the phrases perhaps lifted from the organizing tabs of that Slate list. Walt Disney. Steve Jobs. Love.

We look to Kanye West for urgency, passion, and meaning — to say the messy things we might think but are too timid (or just not famous enough) to say with any real impact. “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” “Beyoncé Had One of the Best Videos of All Time.” “Listen to the kids, bruh.” Even if we don’t agree with him, we expect a certain authenticity of feeling.

But what I learned from watching him at the VMAs is that there’s something dispiriting about watching him when he’s not quite feeling that urgency, when the impulse to speak is coming from somewhere external rather than a genuine desire to talk his shit. We don’t want Kanye’s mandate to Do Kanye coming from anyone but himself. It came from a good place, but the MTV producers were a lot like that guy in Miami, expecting a very commodified thing — predictable unpredictability. “The Rant!”

The most striking feature of the Saint Pablo Tour is the stage: An opaque, floating rectangle that hovers about 12 feet above the ground, moving with the omniscient and mysterious patterns of a Ouija planchette. There are no seats in the general admission area, and because the stage is not taking up space on the ground the crowd is not packed as densely as usual. Fans are free to run around chaotically and follow the stage, sometimes even starting a mosh pit beneath it. It is a radically and wonderfully anarchic reimagining of the space: Kanye West turned the floor at Madison Square Garden into something that most closely resembles a punk show at a VFW hall.

Of course I would have liked to have been down there, but viewed from the above seated sections it was still stunning. The lights and aesthetic recalled West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show, which I’d seen at MSG earlier this year. The architecture of the stage felt like a large-scale imagining of his “for the kids” ethos: From afar, everyone on the floor was a piece of the artwork, everyone was a Yeezy Season model. It was a democratization of the concert experience. A friend who was down there reported bumping into J.R. Smith and Odell Beckham Jr.; a fan uploaded a video of Vic Mensa and Jonah Hill joining a mosh pit. There was no such thing as front row.

There was also no Kanye Rant — and very minimal banter. It sometimes felt like there was a strange divide between the democratic, dance-party vibe of the stage and Kanye’s lack of verbal interaction with the crowd. “Runaway” came and went without an extended sermon. I felt guilty for feeling a twinge of disappointment.

But I don’t think grand pontification is what this tour is about — and if he’s not in that headspace right now, I certainly wouldn’t want him to fake it. (He did give an extended talk at the Boston show this past weekend, but it’s both heartening and hilarious to see how different the headlines are from the days of his “rants”: “Kanye West Delivers Beautiful Monologue on Self-Love”; “Watch Kanye West Give His Most Inspiring Speech Yet.”) Maybe he’s just in a less confrontational, more content place, and he’s learning to make music and stage concerts that give off that vibe. Pablo is a guest-studded record that shows off the generosity of Kanye’s collaborative spirit. The Saint Pablo Tour captures that vibe of the record well; it’s so For the Fans that Kanye quite often leaves his ego out of it. Which will disappoint you if ego is what you come to Kanye for, but Monday night I found it refreshing. It was like a big kegger in a house that was going to be torn down the next day. Kanye played the hits, but really he was just one more voice in a crowd of thousands singing every word.