Entering the Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night to see Kanye West, ticket-holders were handed masks of the iconic rapper and asked to wear them throughout the concert. Presumably, the only thing better, for Yeezus, than performing to 10,000 screaming fans, would be if all 10,000 screaming fans were HIM.
The fan-mask thing didn’t happen, of course, though the idea that West’s ego might require such a thing certainly seems possible given the star’s lyrics and public histrionics.
As it turned out, the only one wearing a mask Friday was West himself. For much of two-plus-hour show, West’s face was covered in a whole Mardi Gras’ worth of masks.
But they were only a small part of an incomprehensible conceptual story arc for the “Yeezus” tour. West in recent years has been adamant that he’s a performance artist as much as he is a rapper.
As such, the Sun main stage was transformed into a Matterhorn mountain peak. An arrow-shaped runway bisected the arena floor and ran almost to the soundboard. There was a bigamist-sized coterie of female supplicants who appeared at various points in the production as druid-babes, hot angels and, dressed in sheer, leave-little-to-the-imagination tights, women-as-living-room furniture. There was an eyes-glowing abominable snowman. There were intricate laser patterns and explosions.
To that point, the music was incredibly loud and distorted and mostly pre-packaged — which had a diluting effect because one of West’s greatest talents is as a producer. If he’d had a Roots-style live ensemble, it could have been wonderful. Too, West’s voice, Auto-Tuned beyond any reasonable necessity, was distracting in dentist-drill fashion.
Still, he brought a wave of hits. “Black Skinhead,” “Blood On the Leaves,” “Mercy,” “Coldest Winter” (complete with snowfall), “All Falls Down,” “Runaway” ...
And, then, two-thirds of the way into the festivities, Jesus Himself emerged from a crack in Mount Kanye, walking perhaps less spryly than we would hope from the Son of God. He met West on the runway and anointed him (is that what happened?) and West removed his mask! Finally, free from, ah, whatever, the energy and clarity of the entire show completely shifted. We could see and hear West. It suddenly became a great concert — or at least a great last-part of a concert.
Racing to the climax, West blistered through song after indelible song to a hall full of mostly younger folks — all of whom were happy to scream along with the lyrics, particularly when, in the role of a Chautauqua tent preacher, West conducted call-and-response exercises.
Too, taking a short break from the music to address the crowd, Kanye tried to convey the power of dreams and believing in oneself. He invoked his own heroes, folks like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, and warned of haters who would lock you down and keep you boxed up.
In the end, maybe West, who would seem to be the least insecure man on the planet, needs to take this trip every night — masked and ultimately not masked — to remind himself of precisely these things.