kanye west spreads his gospel at madison square garden
The rapper-designer’s Yeezy Season Three arena mega-event was his most powerful and perplexing performance piece yet.
photography jeff rogers
On the one hand, Kanye West was performing to an audience of 18,000 people, which was hardly foreign to him. On the other, he was putting on his biggest fashion show yet — and the fashion world is an arena he's less at home in. But at Madison Square Garden this afternoon, he broadcast his fashion credentials to the world, loud and clear.
"Thank you to Carine for putting my wife on the first fashion cover," he called to Carine Roitfeld. "Olivier, thank you for doing a collaboration with me," he yelled to Olivier Rousteing, who designed custom Balmain outfits for the entire Kardashian-West clan — resplendent, and visible probably even from the highest of nosebleed seats, in a glistening flurry of white feathers, sequins, and fur.
West may have manned the mike for the full length of the show — an hour and a half of captivating, genre-defying, mind-melting entertainment. But he was effusively generous with his shoutouts. "I know some of you think because I'm a celebrity this is easy. But getting all these talented people together was the hardest," he boomed out to the crowd in his first address — anticipating and deflating the criticism that has dogged him since his first foray into fashion.
Among the talented people West assembled: The artist Vanessa Beecroft, who collaborated with West again, to stage a dramatic multi-level tableau vivant in the middle of the floor, peopled with a diverse chorus of models wearing West's most colorful collection to date. Naomi Campbell, who prowled onto the fabric-draped stage early in the proceedings, giving the best Jumbotron face MSG has ever witnessed. And Virgil Abloh, the Off-White designer and West's longtime collaborator, who helped emcee. Oh, and a roll call of rap's finest.
More on the music later, but first: the fashion. "I just told Anna [presumably Wintour] this backstage: to be the creative director of Hermès would be a dream of mine," West announced. (Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, watch the throne.) But for now, he said, he just wanted to bring as much beauty to the world as possible. For his third Yeezy offering, that beauty came in every color.
West's signature combination of bodystockings, sweats, combat boots, and boxy jackets was out in force. But in a move away from his neutral palette of seasons past, bolts of burnt orange, cyan, and poster-paint red cut through the soft browns and burgundies. And for all the military-inspired garb — camo appeared on army jackets and pullovers — there were softer pieces here too: a baggy cable-knit mohair sweater, an easy zip-front jumpsuit. West was demonstrating his range as a designer, for all the fashion world to see.
Then, the music: Over the mike, West described The Life of Pablo as a gospel album. And in part, that's true. The record — debuted this afternoon — contained impossibly gorgeous vocal harmonies, lifting and swelling in unison. And it makes sense, West has made wonderful use of gospel in the past, most memorably on the incendiary "Jesus Walks." But this is church like we've never heard it before.
For as much gospel as West infused, he balanced it with up tempo trap cuts, glitchy EDM-inflected beats, and on a fittingly emotional track featuring The Weeknd, a wall of industrial noise walk. For a man whose last album contained a track called "I Am a God," he's certainly making good on that promise.
Flanked by an army of his collaborators -- Vic Mensa, Pusha T, Virgil Abloh, ASAP Rocky, and Young Thug -- West played the record on what appeared to be his personal laptop. Though not physically present among West's pit (or maybe they were, a few "real friends" began by West's side before things got wild) Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, and Rihanna all made appearances on the record, too. Chance dropped a massive verse on the album's opening track, "Ultra Light Beams."
Lyrically, this might be West at his sharpest. His powerful lyrical punches contain the braggadocio we're used to, but also the aggressively self-critical introspection often missing from his public persona. That's the subject of one amazing beatless passage dedicated to "the Old Kanye." "I invented Kanye/ there wasn't any Kanyes," he spat rapid fire.
Though West's record demanded worship, its debut wasn't infallible. He'd frequently start and stop tracks, pressed repeat on a couple bangers, and stopped to ask the crowd how they were feeling. Like a diety descended, he came to rock with us, mosh with us, and turn all the way up with us.
West's final act, before handing his microphone and laptop over to Abloh ("I want to go backstage to be with my wife"), was to premiere a video game he'd developed. The game's narrative, he explained, focuses on "my mom traveling through the gates of heaven." Across the Jumbotron, a pixelated woman with angel wings passed through white pixelated clouds. "Only One Game Coming Soon," read the final credit and the crowd cheered, confused but on board.
"I feel like at times, I get misunderstood," West said in his closing speech. "As an artist you've just got to fight for what's in your heart." Then he went backstage to find his family.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson and Emily Manning
Photography Jeff Rogers