Will he fill the stage with guests? Paint Michael Eavis gold? Go jump in a lake? Get bottled? The one thing that is certain, says Gavin Hayes, is that Pilton is Kanye’s for the taking…
The day after Wireless 2014, the headlines told a tale of Kanye West’s decline and fall. ‘A testing performance’ said The Guardian. ‘Kanye BOOED offstage’ ran the Daily Mail. ‘Masked West launches into “20-minute” rant’ added the Daily Mirror.
He’d flipped, the consensus was: swan-dived from the highest of his Christ-complexes and banged his head on the cold, hard reality of drunks at a festival baying for recent single ‘Bound 2’. Haha. Silly little clown man didn’t know which way was up any more. The Axl Rose of rap had lost it. And so horribly publicly, too.
But they were all wrong. The fact that almost no-one had bothered to pick up on was that Kanye had been doing this little performance piece many nights on the preceding ‘Yeezus’ tour. In DC, in Baltimore, at Madison Square Garden, about two-thirds into the show, Kanye would go onstage, and, still clad in his face-obscuring Maison Martin Margiela jewel-mask, start extemporising about whatever shit was pissing him off in an Auto-Tuned freestyle somewhere between a crotchety TripAdvisor review and Bugaboo Bill. “The CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, wouldn’t get on the phone with Kanye West for eight months!” he would growl about himself in the third-person. “Ain’t never been a rapper to have problems with two presidents,” he’d gripe. And on, and on, until the demon spirit left him.
This wasn’t a man suddenly going: “Wait a minute, wait a minute… where are my goddamned brown M&Ms?”, clutching at his oxygen mask and shaking his fist as he staggered through ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. This was obscure, eccentric and dubious performance art, a man invoking the gods of personal paranoia and workaday misery, and trying to summon a richer catharsis from them.
Perhaps it was too obscure for most of his audience. Hell, perhaps it was too obscure for most critics. And even the most ardent Kanye-watchers had very much ‘got it’ by the time the rants reached twice the running length of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’’s nine-minute ‘Runaway’. But the basic point remained. This wasn’t a man lacking entirely in self-awareness mistakenly harpooning his performance. This was an artist going way above his audience’s conceptual pay-grade simply because he wanted to. It made sense to him. It felt like art to him. So fuck ’em.
That is at the heart of what makes Kanye a thrilling live performer, one whose shows are not only visually sumptuous, but who exudes a genuine anything-can-happen menace so often lacking in an era of play-the-hits festival appearances governed by the big money game they’ve become. Kanye goes on a personal journey. And he takes the crowd with him. Sometimes. If not, again: fuck ’em.
Predictably, the same people who were carping in Finsbury Park a year ago have returned with more of their great ideas. Over 130,000 of them signed a petition to stop the jackass de nos jours taking to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury on Saturday night. Bizarre, given that a) this is slightly more than the number of paying punters at the festival, and b) anyone there will of course be free to go and watch something else instead. Deadmau5. George Clinton. Jon Hopkins. Suede. But then, logic has never stopped ‘controversy’.
Seven years ago, Jay Z played the same slot, and the row was simply over rap at Glastonbury. That battle Jay won by addressing the hate-mob head-on with wit, then throwing out a rollicking greatest hits set like he was gunning 20 quid notes into the crowd. This year’s war, however, is about the public idea of West. It’s about the contingent of people who see him embracing the crass end of celebrity culture, and they find it repugnant. Who hear him fulminating arrogantly over who invented the leather jogging pant, and they don’t like it. They like their stars to be craven. They like their stars to give the audience what they want.
Sadly for them, Kanye just doesn’t do that. His response to that ideal, of pop star-as-entertainer, came at the Baltimore gig of the ‘Yeezus’ show. Clad in the silver beadwork of the Margiela mask, his face invisible to his audience for the entire show, he was repeatedly heckled by a guy in the front of the crowd who wanted him to take off the mask. Eventually, he responded directly: “This is the Yeezus tour; this ain’t the who-ever-the-fuck-you-are tour.”
Whoever-the-fuck-he-was gained a valuable lesson that day. In Kanye’s mind, superstars who tug their forelock before the public aren’t superstars. They’re just entertainers. In order to have someone worth worshipping, that individual can’t just be a conduit for the energy of a crowd, first among equals. They need to be directed by their own sense of mission, and among the acts big enough to command the world’s thunder-domes, Kanye stands almost alone in his commitment to that ideal.
Even if that commitment has often led him into odd or uncomfortable territory. In 2007, his live show included a section where a screen listed the names and publications of journalists who’d given him bad reviews. In 2013, halfway into ‘Touch The Sky’ at the Hammersmith Apollo, he started screaming, then walked off, never to return. This is the guy who jumped in the fountain at Art Basel, who lay down on the floor on the Jonathan Ross Show in February rather than say a single word to host Ross, who returned to Saturday Night Live in the past few weeks to showcase his new cut ‘Wolves’, performing the first song of his set lying on the ground, filmed upside-down.
The question of ambition versus ego has slain many of pop’s greatest stars, sometimes literally. The difference is that Michael Jackson was delusional and had no clue that he was. But, for now at least, part of Kanye understands that he is delusional and actively uses it to launch his art to new heights. It means which Kanye we get at Glastonbury still remains a thrillingly open question. The Yeezus tour saw him install a loopy high-art stage set inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 psychedelic masterpiece The Holy Mountain, complete with a glacier, volcano, dancers in hoodoo robes, hi-def circular video screens, a scene in which he fist-bumps with Jesus and even snowfall during ‘Coldest Winter’.
But that was two years ago now. The game has moved on for West. His seventh album, ‘Swish’, is still somewhere on the horizon, but its artistic direction remains an open question.
At the Brits, he took to the stage with two flamethrowers, and a 30-strong posse that included American rapper Vince Staples and grime MCs Skepta, Jammer and Novelist to play his new song ‘All Day’. At the opposite tack, his most recognisable recent cut was the Macca and Rihanna feature of ‘FourFiveSeconds’ – a cute enough little ditty plucked out raw on an acoustic guitar. Its spiritual partner is the other Paul McCartney ‘feat.’: ‘Only One’, a slightly more substantial but similarly breezy cut which reassures us that “the good outweighs the bad, even on your worst day”, and “you’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes”.
These are early hints that Kanye is looking for simplicity and pop music after his increasingly esoteric recent adventures. They seem to suggest a more placid cast of mind. But hints are all they are. For now at least, ‘Swish’ is still pencilled as a title more than a musical manifesto. The direction he chooses, given he is simultaneously trying to turn the page on the ‘Yeezus’ years, could be radically different to anything we’ve seen from him before.
Uniquely, right now he could legitimately do pretty much anything on the Pyramid Stage. If he were wheeled-on inside a gold-plated iron lung with a gang of 40 Biafran railway men, and lay there yawling in Auto-Tune for a full hour while they played all the percussion on railway-sleepers, it wouldn’t be way beyond the bounds of what he has done before, nor of what his sense of himself as an artist would permit.
Given the fuss the show is sparking, the desire to react could be a spur to a one-off. As far as Kanye is concerned, no-one puts Yeezy in a corner. If this volatile volcano of deep sensitivity and raw narcissism comes out swinging, it’ll be spectacular. And messy. The one thing no-one should expect is straight lines, a clear mission statement, a three-song encore and welly-bants.
Even arch crowd-pleasing showman Dave Grohl understands that. Shortly before he dislocated his ankle and snapped his fibula “like an old pair of chopsticks”, West’s former-fellow headliner told NME: “Kanye’s become the fucking Johnny Rotten of Glastonbury.”
He added: “You’ve got a situation where he’s the most controversial person on the bill, 100,000 people have signed a petition against him playing, and if it doesn’t turn into a riot, everyone’s gonna go home disappointed. He can’t just go out there and play a set and have it be like, ‘Well, I guess that was OK.’ You want him to go face-to-face with all those people and be like, ‘Fuck you, I’m here, live with it.’ I don’t listen to Kanye’s music, but that situation is kind of fucking rad.”
As Grohl knows only too well from his time in Nirvana, bad, mad and sad West may be, but none of these things preclude rad.