When people focus on Kanye’s televised outbursts, all-caps blogstyles and jam band-style tweeting, they’re overlooking the thread that binds it all: his sharp sense of humor. And while he’s has made himself very publicly vulnerable, it took seeing the man in an intimate setting to reiterate why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars and most compelling talents. Larger than life or not, Kanye West is a real person, y’all!
As you may have learned from the late-night twits, Kanye, John Legend and keyboard player Mike Dean performed a secret midnight show last night, complete with a strict “women in dresses/men in suits” dress code (which we adhered to). Held at the Box, a 300-capacity burlesque club in New York’s Lower East Side, the atmosphere was grown/sexy, suiting Kanye’s all-bespoke business attire as of late. (We walked in and the first person we saw was Mos Def, wearing a tie and a kufi.)
At about 1:45 AM—to a crowd that included a handful of G.O.O.D. Music dudes (Big Sean, Mr. Hudson, Pusha T), West’s former DJ/FADER friend A-Trak and London designer Cassette Playa—West, Legend and Dean took the stage, opening with a stripped-down version of their track “Home.” Clearly used to compelling arenas, Kanye was in full gesticulation mode, laser-beaming energy like he would obliterate us all with his light—although, to a tiny crowd that included so many of his friends, colleagues and label people, he seemed to be trying even harder, that boyish, eager-to-please side of ‘Ye rearing its head. But a few songs (and wines?) in, with Legend singing hooks and Kanye BEASTING on live MPC, the mood got loose, casual. “Live Fast, Die Young” rolled around and it felt like watching some friends practice in a basement. We would have expected Mike Dean to hand us a PBR or something, if the trio hadn’t been wearing matching suits with red silk pocket squares.
Estelle came up to briefly body “American Boy” and that’s when it got really fun. West’s guard was fully down and he was ready to sing. He didn’t give a fuck if he didn’t hit all the notes (he didn’t)—it was the intent in his quavering voice that mattered, a sincerity in his delivery that people accuse him of not possessing. He was clearly TRYING REALLY HARD, like a little kid who knows the end result might not be perfect, but his teachers will applaud him for the effort. Again, a contrasting tenet of West’s outspokenness is his desire for approval, hence the cycle of freakouts, apologies, and resulting awesomeness.
Here is West TRYING REALLY HARD:
Did anyone know this dude is like, a legit comedian? When he’s tweeting all that outrageous stuff, he might seem like he’s not self-aware, but like R. Kelly—who uses absurdity and caricature to create distance—it’s exactly the opposite. During 808s tracks “Heartless” and “Welcome to Heartbreak,” using his “autotune mic,” West went off on hilarious, tangential adlibs that blended gospel testifying with stand-up comedy bit. One rant in particular seemed to involve a New York booty call, in which West’s several-minute monologue included the lines (paraphrased), Your pussy is why I fell in love with youuuuuuu and I’ve been in New York for three days and I’ve been emailing you for twwwoooo. He was calling this girl out and putting himself out there, at the crux of being kind of an asshole while unafraid of looking like an ass. West rides that line so earnestly you kind of just want to give him a hug.
Nearing 3 AM, the trio ended the show with a hit factory, ripping through “Love Lockdown,” “Mama’s Boyfriends,” “Power,” “Good Life,” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothin.” The damaging chords of “Power” were a highlight—particularly when Ye pounded out the King Crimson sample on the MPC like a medium channeling Robert Fripp. But the totally awesome new jam “Mama’s Boyfriend” was the best—and most illuminating—part of the night. While Legend played the chords from Billy Joel’s “Movin Out,” Yeezy laid bare his childhood psyche with the precision of a comedy screenwriter:
Like a peek into his therapist’s manila folders, his every endearing, megalomaniacal, sweet, impulsive, brilliant action is evident in this one song, a hilarious and revealing one-way window into his psyche. So as a nice piece of closure, it was appropriate that he ended on “Can’t Tell Me Nothin”—no matter what happens, no matter what you think about Kanye West, he is always, forever unabashedly himself. And with a bow, he put on his sunglasses and leapt off the stage into the crowd to hang out with his friends, at that moment not a genius or a megastar but a regular dude. Wearing sunglasses in the club.