Roughly a half-decade back, in the early days of the Kim Kardashian thinkpiece era, it was often asked: Does the sheer fact of Kim’s sweeping popularity make her interesting? Does her grand fame connote importance due to its existence alone? Time passed, our understanding of the Kardashians strengthened, and those questions were pushed away in favor of better, wiser, more-informed kweries. But I imagine asking those now-primitive questions to Kanye West, back then. I suspect he’d answer by staring blankly and softly saying something along the lines of, Yes. Yes, of course.
Kanye’s curious passion for the monoliths of culture — the unignorable totems that cut through all content and class — has come up repeatedly over the last few weeks. In a speech at the MTV VMAs, he rattled off the names of some of his now-familiar icons: Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, um, Henry Ford. A week before that, Frank Ocean put out his magazine Boys Don’t Cry, which featured a poem credited to Kanye. Delightfully anthropomorphizing menu items — “The french fries had a plan / The french fries had a plan” — Kanye paid homage to the savory goodness of McDonalds. And if we’d missed this point, he made sure to double down at the end of August, tweeting:
There is an obvious question here — what is this obsession with banal bullshit?
And there is an obvious answer: Kanye imagines himself behind an empire that will one day be so grand and sweeping that it, too, by the sheer face of its permeation, will become banal. At various time he’s insinuated that his company, DONDA, will revolutionize everything from architecture to design to summer-school education. “We want to help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see hear, touch, taste and feel,” he’s said.
Kanye West’s monolith passion still feels curious, though, and for a couple of reasons.
First: we’re so used to artists namechecking influences that are either obscure or highfalutin or bulletproof in their perception and acceptance as “important” or “good” that it’s bizarre to hear someone do otherwise.
Second: within our current mass culture, Kanye is the furthest point from banal. As a pop star, he is our most forward-thinking, our boldest, our bravest — for lack of a more elegant summation, our artsy-est.
Take his current project, the Saint Pablo Tour, which stopped at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Monday. Kanye’s last proper outing, 2013-14’s Yeezus Tour, was inspired in part by Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and was an unabashed spectacle — bedazzled face-masks, body-suited dancers, a mountain, a red-eyed monster, white Jesus. Saint Pablo, however, is a whole different sort of beast.
As you’ve probably already seen via breathless Instagram posts, on this tour Kanye performs on a stage that hovers ten or so feet above the heads of the crowd on the floor of the arena. A cable tethers him to this roving stage, which illuminates a circle of loving congregants gathered directly below, gleefully dancing, sweating, and moshing. Eventually, a massive lighting rig descends from above and reveals even more acts of happy devotion (at one point on Monday, Kanye leaned over the edge of this stage, reaching toward the crowd, and a rising swell of people clustered together to reach back. It kind of looked like the zombie wall from World War Z, but in a good way). On his flying stage Kanye roams everywhere, giving a bit of himself to us all
After the Yeezus Tour, we wondered how Kanye would try to top the outlandishness. Smartly, he dumped outlandishness altogether for something forward and beautiful and direct. On recent tour outings, Beyoncé, Drake, and other pop A-listers have been much more ambitious about their stage sets. But Kanye has reimagined the actual possibilities of what an arena space can do. Seen from above, he moves like a low-flying, highly-advanced, and almost-certainly-peaceful alien craft. From below, he’s a post-apocalyptic savior-warrior dropped from the heavens and ready to rally bedraggled troops. I feel justified in using this cliché: I have never seen anything like it.
So how can a man who thinks and makes something like that still feel reverence for the Quarter Pounder?
It’s because Kanye has long been a utilitarian, fighting to create things that will bring the most joy to the most people. As Eater points out, that has meant striving to make things like good, affordable furniture and sneakers. “I’m going to Adidas and I’m like, ‘Adidas, I know you’ve never made a shoe under $50, but we have to make a shoe that costs 30 U.S. dollars,’” he told the BBC. “And I’m gonna wear it—it’s gonna be the coolest shoe of all. To me, this thing I’m saying is the thing I’m most excited about of anything I’ve ever done.” As the consistently elusive Yeezy releases indicate, he’s not there yet — but he’s working on it. And then consider the utilitarianism of Saint Pablo.
On this tour, Kanye is less an all-consuming hub of attention and more the man flicking the switch: once the lights are on, it’s up to you what you do. For most of the night, what really drew the eye were the circles of joy swirling in the lights beneath Kanye’s stage; the man had managed to create a show in which his audience had become its own fascinating attraction. And on the floor, all were forced together — even his wife, she of grand fame, Kim Kardashian. There is no walled-off VIP section: the famous are left to enter the scrum and make do. And judging from the goddamn smile on JR Smith’s face, they seem to be doing just fine.
It is the most democratic I’ve ever seen a pop star be. Saint Pablo is grand, and it is for everyone.
Maybe you look at McDonalds and see trash food that might kill you in the long run. That makes sense! Kanye looks at McDonalds and sees a place where nearly anyone in the world can walk in and be soothed by a calculated color scheme and the comfort of hard plastic seating, and can hand over a few dollars and get back exactly what they want. He loves it for itself — he loves it as a monolith, and as the banal. Because he knows that in that monolith, in that banal, there is unity.