By Sam Keeling
The air in Columbus’ Schottenstein Center on Sunday night was heavy with artificial smoke that was relentlessly pumping through giant machines for two hours before Kanye West’s concert finally began.
The only light in the giant arena — aside from a few thousand phones recording the event — came from a small, rectangular platform. Attached to thick metal wires, the platform hangs above the few hundred people lucky (and wealthy) enough to buy standing-room tickets.
Perched on that platform, barely visible, was one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history.
For a majority of his performance, West was never prominently illuminated. At first, this seemed like a surprisingly humble move by a man who is typically the dictionary definition of a narcissist. After all, West does have a song called “I Am a God” — with God as an officially listed guest star — on an album entitled “Yeezus.” You wouldn’t be foolish to expect 20 spotlights on his face for an entire show in which he rants about his greatness.
Yet the only lights shone on the fans below his floating stage. Perhaps they were enthralled by the knowledge that a living legend was mere feet above them, because they formed frenzied mosh pits in the hazy orange glow. As the stage moved, so did the crowd, flocking like sheep to the light emitting from West.
A long beam of the orange lights turned on and tilted toward the standing group. They became aware that they had become part of the show and began to cheer. Meanwhile, West’s platform tilted further toward the illuminated crowd.
Everyone reached toward him in excitement. He stood in the middle of the platform, at the very edge of the light.
To those of us in the cheap seats, the picture created is alarming — a large mass of people throwing their hands, as if in prayer, toward the hazy outline of a man. The title of his hit track “Father Stretch My Hands” suddenly takes a new, ominous meaning.
West didn’t have to say that he was a god; his fans did the talking. The standing-room audience members were his pawns. He was asking to be worshipped, and they willingly played right into his hands.
The audience went wild as thunderous bassline of his early megahit “Jesus Walks” shook the venue, but West did not.
He was down on one knee, eyes to the floor, utterly concentrated. He rapped fluidly and confidently, but so quietly that his voice barely registered in the microphone. Concert-goers that weren’t completely captivated by the beat began to murmur: “I can’t hear him.”
West didn’t care. “Jesus Walks” isn’t about the audience. As the lyrics go, “I ain’t here to convert Atheists into believers.” Instead, the song is a conversation between West and his God. At this point, he wasn’t looking for praise: he was the one doing the praising. For three minutes, the crowd doesn’t exist. And, for the first time in the entire show, the orange lights rest solely on him. It was his turn to worship.
The concert thrived through contradictions like these — moments when West would go from the king to the follower in the course of a song. It was perfectly reminiscent of his decade-long career. From his debut “College Dropout” to this year’s “The Life of Pablo,” his song lyrics have painted the picture of a man whose self-consciousness created a dangerous need for praise. Once fulfilled, this need created the ranting persona that will forever define “Kanye.”
Both sides of West were highlighted on the Saint Pablo tour, and a nonverbal question is posed on the viewer: Who is Kanye West?
Can he say “I am a god, even though I’m a man of God,” and actually mean it? Is he an idol or an idolizer? A deity or a subject? The most unabashed braggart in the world or a humble man of Christian faith?
The concert ended with “The Life of Pablo” opener “Ultralight Beam.” West sang softly, “This is a God dream, this is everything.”
His floating stage moved across the arena. In the center, a concentrated white light beamed from the ceiling. The stage moved through it, and West stood in the light. For the first time that night, all of his features were visible.
Arms outstretched, he stared up at the light.
“This is a God dream.”
All the while, thousands looked upon him, screaming and reaching out. Suddenly, all those questions on whether he’s a god or a man of God didn’t need to be answered — he’s perfectly comfortable being both.