04.18.11

Kanye Storms Coachella

The polarizing hip-hop titan closed California’s wild music festival with a thumping late-night set that redeemed some of his past live follies—but it wasn’t quite a triumph. Chris Lee reports.

Hailed as a grandstanding musical genius by critics and demonized as a Douche Supreme by detractors, Kanye West always manages to tweak and stoke the passions of the musical cognoscenti by virtue of his reliable magniloquence, virtuosic sound-bombing and ego-fueled swag. But when it was announced that the platinum-selling rapper-producer would headline the main stage of America’s preeminent outdoor musical event, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which took place over this weekend, the haters went into overdrive.

“A real disappointment that loudmouth Kanye West is going to be there,” commenter oldskool57 wrote on the LA Times’ Pop & Hiss blog in January. “What a goof that dude is.” Another grammar and punctuation averse commenter added: “kwest is a deal breaker and thats saying a lot with the lineup they have but I don’t want to support him in any way.” Heading into West’s 10:30 set time Sunday night—the grand finale of a three-day dance music-rock-hip-hop extravaganza in the low California desert that drew approximately 90,000 fans a day—you’d have been forgiven for fearing the worst from him. While indisputably attractive as a concert draw around the world, the Louis Vuitton Don has a spotty record with live performance. West’s 2006 foray headlining a giant footprint music fest is remembered as nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. And both fans and performers here simply didn’t know what to expect.

“So right, fuckin’ Kanye?” asked Julian Casablancas, lead singer of the Strokes, the alt titans who preceded the hip-hop superstar on the festival’s main stage in the penultimate slot. He could have been speaking for Coachella nation with his final verdict on the matter—a mixture of admiration and bewilderment: “Fuckin’ shit!”

In 2008, the Chicago MC claimed the late-night finishing slot at Manchester, Tenn.’s Bonnarroo Music and Arts Festival—a first for a hip-hop performer at what has traditionally been an indie and alt-rock leaning fest that is the east coast’s equivalent to Coachella. Set to hit the stage at 2:45 am, a Jumbotron message suddenly informed the weary festival masses that West’s show would be delayed until 3:15 am and later, that it would start at 3:30. But in an apparent fit of prima donna pique, West refused to perform until he was good and ready—and by then the sun was almost rising.

In the end, Kanye didn’t emerge into the spotlight until 4:25 am, resulting in an audience revolt with cascade of thrown garbage and empty glow sticks pelted at the stage, chants of “Kanye sucks!” rippling through the crowd and one vandal’s unsubtle verdict about his performance spray-painted in giant letters on a bank of Port-a-pottys: “FUCK KANYE.”

That year, however, also saw the rapper-producer mount a well-reviewed nationwide tour called the Glow in the Dark Tour with no shortage of elaborate set decoration designed to take fans on a sci-fi galactic voyage: a gigantic LED screen full of stars and a Hal 9000-esque female computer voice intoning, “We need the brightest star in the universe— you, Kanye! Only you can bring us home. Only you can glow in the dark!”

But here’s where it gets convoluted. His arena touring bona fides apparently established, in 2009, West was scheduled to embark on an ambitious co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga called the Fame Kills Tour. Then came West’s infamous temper tantrum freak-out—grabbing Taylor Swift’s MTV Video Music Award mid-way through her acceptance speech and jabbering about how the prize should have gone to Beyonce. The tour was scotched with no rationale given, the implicit logic being that West was simply heading off the negative publicity he had generated by dropping out.

This year does not, in fact, mark the first time West will grace Coachella’s main stage. In 2006, he performed a none-too-memorable afternoon set, running through such hits as “Jesus Walks” and “Golddigger” beneath Indio’s blazing sun. But the game-changer in terms of his Coachella headlining fortunes changed when the festival’s co-founder and organizational mastermind Paul Tollett heard West’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”—a towering work that topped many critics best of year-end lists.

“I got a copy of Kanye’s record in the morning and just instantly was like, ‘This is phenomenal,’” Tollett recalled. “That night, without going to sleep, I flew to New York to meet with his agent. I said, ‘I’m interested in Kanye.’ She said, ‘Well, you hadn’t shown much interest before.’ I said, ‘I know I’m kinda being a band-wagon guy.’ She said, ‘At least you admit it.’ She was really cool about it.”

Another added motivation for Tollett was toppling the perception that West may not yet be ready for prime-time as a top-of-the-ticket act: “I wanted to do it before anybody picked up that he’s a solid headliner. Bonnarroo was a bust for him. He did good at Lollapalooza Chile. But nobody was thinking about him as a headliner.”

On Sunday, almost a year to the day after his mentor and frequent collaborator Jay-Z ascended the main stage as headliner for a triumphant run through his platinum-plus discography, Kanye came forward before the Coachella masses beneath a cascade of skyrockets to similarly rip the spot. He was flanked by some 20 ballerinas dressed in flesh-colored unitards and feathered cloaks who provided a visually lush tableaux vivant as the rapper launched quickly into one of the hits from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the world beating anthem Power. The volume cranked and bass bumping, West’s sound washed across the festival grounds, bleeding into portions of sets by acts including PJ Harvey, She Wants Revenge and the Presets.

Video screenshot

At the outset, festivalgoers seemed galvanized by the spectacle of it all, pogo-ing up and down, rapping along and throwing hands into the air. And West seemed determined and focused, preening in a pair of jeans and a designer-y jacket before a Michaelangelo-inspired faux relief of winged goddesses. But before long, he was alone on stage, running through a cavalcade of his deep bench of hits— Flashing Lights, Love Lockdown and The Good Life—among them. “This is the best night of my life,” West said with a sense of rushed quiet.

Then, somehow, less than a third of the way through his one-hour and 45 minute set, the show seemed to run out of gas. You could chalk it up to the dreary quality of his singing voice on a number of songs an issue he addressed at one point by acknowledging, “I’m not the best singer in the world but the notes are inside me” or how West seemed dwarfed by the main stage’s massive infrastructure whenever the ballerinas and collaborators such as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon were offstage. But the audience became restive even in the face of the rapper-producer’s best-known bangers such as All of the Lights and Homecoming (respectively featuring vocals by Rihanna and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, neither of whom were in attendance).

Not that West’s resolve flagged at any moment during the performance.

“This is the most important show to me since my mother’s passing,” West said solemnly. To be sure, it would have been difficult for any performer to measure up to the previous night’s headliners—Arcade Fire’s arty, transcendant barn-burner of a set or the Chemical Brothers’ blunderbuss tear through their heaviest electronica head-bangers. But by the time a title card alerted festivalgoers that this was “Act 3,” there was an acute sense that West’s momentum had already been lost. While the theme song to Chariots of Fire played, the star changed into the same fire-engine red suit he had worn at the Lollapalooza Chile festival just weeks earlier to perform the Cri de Coeur/mission statement from his most recent album, Runaway. The chorus goes, in part, like this:

Let’s give a toast to the douchebags
Let’s give a toast to the assholes
Let’s give a toast to the scumbags
Every one of them that I know

West chose the sentimental—if not particularly rousing— Hey Mama as his set closer. But by the time, he, collaborators Vernon and rapper Pusha T, plus the various ballerinas joined together on stage for a Broadway-style group bow, many festivalgoers were already streaming for the exits.

Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.