Review: Kanye West brings ‘Yeezus’ to Staples Center

Kanye West, pictured in 2012, performed Saturday night at Staples Center, the first of two shows at the arena in support of this year's "Yeezus" album.
(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)

Kanye West was unloading some feelings, characteristically strong ones about the media-industrial complex and its attempt to muzzle an artist who believes music “ain’t just entertainment,” as he described himself. The outspoken hip-hop star, onstage at Staples Center, invoked the glass ceiling, insisted he was being prevented by players in Hollywood and high fashion from ascending to a fulfillment of his vision.

“I know I’m a creative genius,” he said -- it’s a demonstrable fact at this point, safe from the credibility-straining effects of West’s legendary arrogance -- but genius, he added, is still subject to the “racist, classist” elements at work against him.

No doubt this is all true, or anyway that West believes it to be, which is the burden of proof we enforce upon artists.

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Yet the real downward pressure in Saturday’s concert came not from outside but from within -- from the show itself, an elaborate multimedia spectacle that flattened out West’s natural dynamism.


The rapper is on tour behind this year’s “Yeezus,” a thrillingly corrosive album that strips away the soul-inspired lushness of his trendsetting earlier work. (He’s scheduled to play Staples again Monday and Anaheim’s Honda Center on Friday.) As bitter as it is darkly funny, the record captures West at his rawest and most immediate; it feels like a musical version of the outbursts with which he’s famously interrupted award shows and a Hurricane Katrina telethon.

Here, though, the songs from “Yeezus,” reproduced by a three-piece band, served as the soundtrack to an often-baffling stage production built around an enormous replica of a mountain and 12 female dancers wearing sheer body stockings.

For most of the 2½-hour show -- which media outlets including The Times were barred from photographing -- West performed in a series of masks that covered his entire head; his body too seemed similarly constrained by the need to hit certain marks at certain times.

Powerful images occasionally coalesced, as when a dancer, dressed as a wolf with glowing red eyes, stalked up the mountain while West sang “Coldest Winter,” an older song about the death of his mother. Later, during “Stronger,” he donned a mask made of small reflective panels that sent light beaming through the arena, his head a kind of man-made moon.

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But with its restrictive costumes and wooden choreography -- with its mission to deliver a uniform experience every night -- West’s new show seems largely to misunderstand his role as hip-hop’s most theatrical figure. He’s not an actor; the theater is him.

We were reminded of that near the very end of Saturday’s performance, when the appearance of a real actor -- this one portraying White Jesus, as West greeted him -- prompted the rapper to remove the last of his masks and launch into a furious barrage of songs that channeled the unbridled exuberance and the righteous indignation the rest of the concert lacked: “Jesus Walks,” “All of the Lights,” “Good Life,” the brilliant “Yeezus” closer “Bound 2,” in which he crystallizes the moral contradictions at the center of his work.

This too was where West took aim at his would-be oppressors.

But if his remarks suggested the makings of a rant (to use the term so often employed by those seeking to diminish what he has to say), West declined to satisfy anyone’s desire to see him implode. He got deeper into showbiz machinations than many in the audience likely cared to follow, but he spoke calmly and reasonably -- even tenderly, in a way, the after-effect, perhaps, of his widely publicized engagement last week to Kim Kardashian, with whom he recently had a child.

You could think of his manner in these moments as a tamping-down of his once-fiery temper, as evidence of whatever miscalculation led to the bulk of Saturday’s muted presentation. But West’s heat hadn’t cooled -- it was just searing a more precise target.


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Twitter: @mikaelwood