TAMPA — For a rapper who is always sermonizing, or something, it makes sense that verbose visionary Kanye West travels with his own mount, a cartoonish summit that took up the main stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Saturday. 'Ye also rolls with his own berobed flock, who, it should be noted, also disrobed. He is Yeezus, saint and sinner — cue the religious imagery and the persecution and more explicit bedroom predilections than a 7-Eleven girlie mag.
Oy 'Ye, where to start with this one, a 2-hour-plus melange of well-choreographed ego, as controlled as the chaos in the Chicagoan's solipsistic brain can get. It ended with a prayer but started with a tantrum: In the midst of third song Send It Up, from new album Yeezus, the 36-year-old — wearing a sparkly mask, perfect for trick-or-treating in Beverly Hills and/or pro wrestling — shut it down, sulking into a crouch, barking "Turn off the lights!" waiting for crowd love, before excitedly boogying down a catwalk.
Kanye sold out recent gigs in New York's Madison Square Garden but drew a throng of just 7,408 here. (There were a lot of Kim Kardashian look-alikes, in honor of his fiancee, who was reportedly in the house.) He is polarizing, and fascinating, and creatively daring, and frustrating. He is beloved and berated with equal measure, usually for the same reasons. He screamed at his tech crew; he barked at the audience. But just try looking away: The local crowd would sing along one minute, collectively hold its breath the next, worried the star would storm off (or perilously writhe off) the stage for good.
Yeezus is a deliberately disjointed LP, and those songs often played like performance art, the artist stomping in darkness, as a DJ and keyboardist kept the tricky beat. And yet cuts such as the ferocious Power and the arena-rocking Black Skinhead were spellbinding, provocative Kanye questioning not just his own grip on fame but those people trying to loosen that grip, threatened by his money or his skin color. He is nothing if not honest, and you'd be wrong to mistake truth-telling for derangement.
Not that there weren't many moments of pure nuttery. After I Am a God, which is both a declaration of greatness and self-flagellation ("Hurry up with my damn croissants!"), he was lifted by his chorus, now clad in skin-tight nude body stockings. A triangular slab in the middle of the crowd lifted for the defiant Can't Tell Me Nothing. He then talked about a time when his "life was spiraling out of control," which makes you wonder about his definition of normalcy. But that segued into the tender, altogether sane Coldest Winter, about his mother, and a snow effect dropped from the rafters.
The concert kept that pace, confounding (Guilt Trip) and rewarding (Heartless, deliberately Auto-Tuned to the point of somnambulating). Mount 'Ye turned into a volcano for Blood on the Leaves, a sexualized song that samples Nina Simone's rendition of Strange Fruit, a song about racial injustice. For dance-beaten Lost in the World, an inexplicable Catholic mass broke out.
For his obligatory sing-song rant 'n' ramble, he stuck to a generic (for him) Defense of Kanye West that was still pretty awesome: "Have you ever been afraid to say your dreams out loud? . . . I had a dream I was the Wright brothers. I had a dream I was Thomas Edison . . . I'm not losing my mind; I'm using my mind!"
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Funny and reverent, he said hello to a bearded actor he greeted as "White Jesus" then finally doffed the mask for the life-affirming Jesus Walks. That looming mount exploded for the crowd-pleasing All of the Lights, the star finishing in party-thrower mode. Predictably unpredictable, the show was all over the place. And, for better or bonkers, it was all Kanye West.