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Kanye West Connects the Saint and the Heathens at MSG

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Kanye West performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

In February, Madison Square Garden was the site of Kanye West’s years-long holy war against Nike, following a dispute over the production of his Yeezy shoe line. The Yeezy Season 3/The Life of Pablo premiere presented West as finally victorious, aligned with Adidas and backed by his Kardashian clan as Young Thug thumped through the Garden speakers. The symbolism of the most powerful musician alive holding court in the most famous stadium in the world couldn’t be overlooked. Brooklyn’s Barclays Center might sport 21st century production values, but the Garden is iconic—and for his Saint Pablo tour, Kanye ignored the outer boroughs entirely, setting up in Manhattan for two shows showcasing his Pablo material and revamped stage show.

The astounding Yeezus Tour was a maximalist juxtaposition to the album’s minimalism, featuring a Holy Mountain-inspired backdrop, a vaguely Shakespearean five-act narrative, and a full wardrobe of diamond-studded Maison Margiela masks. This time, Kanye made no pretense about trying to stay grounded. The Saint Pablo set was literal high art, with Yeezy performing atop a floating stage that hovered over a mosh pit of fans. Fans sitting in the seats surrounding the stage saw the commoners (plus J.R. Smith, Jonah Hill, and Vic Mensa, who were spotted in the pit) as part of the spectacle, their hands and bodies following ‘Ye’s platform to the thunderous percussion. West fans are predictable—they get raucous when “All of the Lights” blasts during the home stretch, they beat their breasts to the psalms of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” But I legit feared the Knicks were going to have to find somewhere else to struggle as the Garden shook during “Pt. 2,” the show’s second song, when Desiigner’s hand-whipping verses kicked in.

West started off with a muscular run through his late-career sonic abrasion (“Mercy,” “All Day,” “Black Skinhead”) as he enveloped his audience with industrial orange lighting. Then, he opened up the floor to his pre-2012 splendor (“Jesus Walks,” “Touch the Sky,” “All of the Lights”) and temporarily caked his audience with sanguine, Sex on the Beach colors. The seated audience got to stare at the chorus of swinging elbows from afar, and got a better view of the big screen distortion of West, where he was a motion blurred silhouette. It rendered him as The Force made flesh and fashion-forward apparel. Taken holistically, the scene at the Garden ended up representing the West’s multitudes: the physicality of his art on the floor and its omnipresence on HD.

The hour-and-a-half set remained mostly high octane in a setup that represented one of the central dichotomies of West’s career: close, yet frustratingly out of reach. Kanye makes music for the people, but he’s not one of us. The contradictions were sometimes glaring—West isn’t the first rock star to slow things down with a ballad, but the poignant “Only One” felt out of place within the cinematic bacchanal. At many times, West often felt like the crowd conductor, instead of the star of his own show. His voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the surrounding hysterics and production: It was frustratingly absent during the beginning bars of neo-noir banger “Flashing Lights,” as well as parts of 808s & Heartbreak’s standout “Heartless.” He was also uncharismatic during the climax of “Blood on the Leaves,” which left me feeling mildly apathetic to them other niggas.

Saint Pablo’s highs were ground-trembling, but I recall staring at West when he was standing atop the Holy Mountain and thinking he could beat the Spear of Longinus with his bare fists. The Yeezus tour showed Kanye working his way to the top of the mountain; Saint Pablo featured a man levitating atop his already established cultural cachet. The show-ending scene of West quietly stepping off the platform toward moving light as “Ultralight Beam” played is supposed to represent some kind of ascension. Instead, he felt human.