Kanye Returns to Bonnaroo With a Night of Lectures

After angering the crowd with a late start in 2008, West was back with some better music, and a lot of preaching.

Jason Merritt/Getty

Kanye West turned a fun Friday the 13th at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival into a nightmare.

The artist returned to the four-day festival in Manchester, Tennessee for the first time since his widely panned appearance in 2008. Then, the typically good-natured crowd seethed with anger when West appeared hours late and then delivered an underwhelming set.

I, for one, was excited to see Kanye for the first time, sharing with some of the more skeptical festival-goers near me that I expected an epic performance.

If Bonnaroovians harbored ill will for the star, it did not show. The What Stage and surrounding area were packed and the crowd leapt to its feet as the masked hip-hop/rapper began only seven minutes past his 10:00PM start time.

As he performed his first few songs, Bonnaroo was largely with Kanye, loudly singing along, dancing, screaming with approval. Unfortunately the music show dissipated into a narcissistic auto-tuned rant.

Early in his monologue West went to his old playbook—“I am the greatest fucking rock star on the planet”—while not-so-subtly reminding the audience that John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix are no longer living.

Yeezus, West’s self-given moniker, transitioned immediately to hit song “Stronger,” which he had minutes before abruptly stopped so that he could speak to the crowd. As he went back to the song the lyrics “bow in the presence of greatness” reverberated throughout the festival grounds, leaving little doubt as to whom he meant the crowd to bow to.

“Where the press at,” Kanye asked repeatedly. “They try’n to make me look crazy. And the people writing that, I don’t see them performing for ninety-thousand.”

Much of his auto-tuned lectures bordered on funny: “I believe everything,” the artist shared. “I believe anything … everything does not make anything I am.”

“I’m going after Shakespeare, I’m going after Walt Disney, I’m going after Howard Hughes, I’m going after Genghis Kahn … and Elon Musk,” whom he acknowledged, thankfully, is still alive. The “greatest rock star on the planet” described himself as humble, even admitting “I done fucked up so many times … I know I ain’t perfect.”

At times West made efforts at inspiration: “You only achieve as high as you believe.” During those few moments I sensed that the artist had something positive to say, but his over-the-top arrogance always killed the message.

The diatribes continued and “corporations” were the next target. “Why you (corporations) so scared of me,” he asked before suggesting it is because he “gives kids the truth.”

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The topic of commercialization continued. “What’s the new cool?” West asked. “I need a new barricade to hide behind … let’s just stop the music and play a Bruno Mars song right now. What’s the new shit with the most commercials at the Super Bowl … they told me I will never play the Super Bowl ... not at least until I’m super old.”

When Kanye was performing his music, the crowd was largely behind him; it was the lectures that pushed them away. Many bailed during his second speech of the night, shouting profanities with several demonstratively covering their ears while escaping the area.

Just as Kanye was wrapping up, a group of classy, veteran superstars elected to share the That Tent stage together for one of the festival’s famous Super Jams. Chaka Khan, Ben Folds and Taj Mahal joined Derek Trucks and many others for a terrific performance that had the crowd yearning for more. The contrast between those more modest legends and Kanye was striking.

If Bonnaroo is bold enough to invite West back for a third time, perhaps it will be to participate in a Super Jam with the artist’s peers, hologram versions of Beethoven, Morrison, Lennon and Hendrix—only this time it might be in the Comedy Tent.