Kanye's Bold Greek Tragedy Closes Coachella

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Kanye performs at Coachella 2011 / Photo by Erik Voake
WRITTEN BY
William Goodman

The surprise entrance, via crane, rising up through the middle of the massive crowd to a majestic height, where he then asked, "Can we get much higher?" The 30 ballet dancers, virtuallly nonstop fireworks, and a monolithic painted backdrop of battling angels fit for a medieval cathedral. It was unadulterated pomp and grandeur. But Kanye West's festival-closing set Sunday was perhaps most defined by what it lacked: Any of the numerous A-list guests who punctuate his catalogue.

This was Kanye's bold, singular artistic moment – and all of the lights were on him alone.

The two-hour set was conceived as a Greek tragedy with three acts, narrated by a song cycle ofWest's mini-monologues that grew from power-drunk to heartbroken to out of control to self-flagellating. The producer/rapper's struggle with himself was the show's theme, and every painstaking detail of the performance was meant to spotlight one man's drama: The stage was a vast, open white space with West's band – two keyboardists and a guitarist – pushed to the rear, almost out of sight.

The night's only guests, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Clipse's Pusha-T, played minor roles. This despite reports afterward that Rihanna and Katy Perry both watched West perform their recent collabo hits – complete with canned vocals – from the VIP section. Even for "All of the Lights" (which features more than a dozen guests in its recorded version), Kanye was all alone onstage.

It was a lot of space for one performer to fill, but the 33-year-old star took on the task with unflagging intensity.

Early on, he dropped "Power," "Monster" and "Jesus Walks," bombastic explorations of Kanye's own conflicted feelings about stardom and spirituality, while spinning and bounding across the stage, gold neckpieces flying and flopping along with him.

In the second act, West turned sensitive, crooning 808s and Heartbreak hits "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," both dark confessions of romantic hopelessness, minus the album's Auto-Tune. He sounded convincingly lonely and exposed as a waterfall of sparks fell behind him. He told the crowd that 808s was recorded during a tough period in his life and thanked his fans for their support. "[To] be able to close [Coachella] and see you love me after everything I read and saw on TV said the opposite...." he said mid-song.

For the third-act "tragedy," the ballet troupe pulled a billowing white curtain up over the stage, covering the rapper. When it was lifted, West stood on top of a white podium, wearing a bright red suit. He kicked into "Runaway," the first single off SPIN's 2010 Album of the Year My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, playing the sample burst – "Look atcha! Look atcha!" – over and over on his MPC.

He called himself a douchbag, asshole, scumbag, and a jerkoff for blaming an innocent lover for his problems. "Run away as fast you can," he advised her. And as the song progressed from echoing single piano notes to brooding beats, the ballet troupe gradually departed the stage, leaving only a sole dancer to circle West, moving expressively. Soon she left, too, leaving the rapper all alone, again.

On "Lost in the World," Bon Iver's Vernon sang Auto-Tuned backup from the rear of the stage, as West got even more deeply personal, breathlessly rapping, "You're my devil / You're my angel / You're my heaven / You're my hell / You're my now / You're my forever."

"This is the most important show since my mom passed," he said, referring to Donda West's sudden 2007 death from complications related to plastic surgery. He closed with "Hey Mama," an emotionally raw open letter that took the evening's vulnerability and isolation to its greatest extreme. "This show's dedicated to you," he said of Ms. West, looking up at the sky, almost moved to tears.

After all this theatricality, perhaps the night's most provocative image came when the entire cast – band members, guests, ballet dancers – joined hands to take a bow. With all of his supporting players wearing white, Kanye stood out unmistakably, a lone figure, in bright, devilish red.

Set list:

  1. H.A.M.
  2. Dark Fantasy
  3. Power
  4. Jesus Walks
  5. Can't Tell Me Nothing
  6. Diamonds from Sierra Leone
  7. Hell of a Life
  8. Monster
  9. Flashing Lights
  10. Good Life
  11. Love Lockdown
  12. Say You Will
  13. Heartless
  14. Swagger Like Us
  15. Run This Town
  16. We Will Rock You
  17. E.T.
  18. Homecoming
  19. Through the Wire
  20. All Falls Down
  21. Touch the Sky
  22. Gold Digger
  23. All of the Lights
  24. Stronger
  25. Runaway
  26. Lost in the World
  27. Hey, Mama
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