There were a lot of rumors flying around Glastonbury before Kanye West's performance, mostly related to special guests—bookies had good odds on Kim making an onstage appearance, while everyone from Taylor Swift to Paul McCartney was rumored to be joining him. Some at the Somerset site whispered that there were mass plots to bottle the stage, others that Kanye would go on one of his famed mid-set diatribes.
None of these things happened, and yet the set was historic for totally different reasons. Kanye played it understated: he lurked, jumped and even rolled around the massive stage totally alone for the vast majority of the set. Members of the audience didn't throw bottles, but set off flares and fireworks during "Jesus Walks." When a terrible comedian rushed the stage, his efforts weren't greeted with cheers but a moment of annoyance, as "Black Skinhead" had to be paused and restarted. The only musical guest was Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, for a melancholic extended version of "Lost in the World" and "Hold My Liquor." And yet, despite Kanye cutting a solitary figure for the most part, his audience, waving "Yeezus" and "Yeezy Taught Me" flags, seemed ecstatic.
The set blazed brightly through all of Kanye's biggest hits, as well as treats like a piano rendition of "Heartless" and even a full performance of "FourFiveSeconds" (yes, he sang all of Rihanna's bits; no, his voice isn't quite as good). The only other thing blazing as bright was the raft of spotlights that hung immediately above his head throughout, sometimes focused on a single spot, sometimes lighting up the whole stage like floodlights. It was a set-up that mimicked the style of all his recent TV performances of "Only One" and "All Day," using a single light source to place eyes firmly on him, but the effect on a stage as iconic as this one was powerful.
The only truly flashy moment came when Ye disappeared offstage during "Touch The Sky" only to reappear on a cherry picker way above the crowd (an obnoxiously, brilliantly simple visual pun). But whether elevated into the night sky or not, throughout the show it felt like Kanye needed nothing but himself and a microphone to make the thousands-strong crowd erupt. He barely even spoke to the audience, a rarity for him—instead he occasionally cut the music to let his fans shout-sing his lines back to him.
It was after his detour into the sky that Kanye produced the headline moment of the set: his declaration, screamed twice over "Gold Digger," that "you are now watching the greatest living rock star on the planet!" This came right after he performed the opening minutes of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," putting one of rock's biggest anthems into his own mouth on rock's biggest stage. Coming from only the second hip-hop artist to headline the Pyramid Stage after Jay Z in 2008, it felt like a reclamation. Rock music, after all, was born from black artistry.
If before this performance you didn't like Kanye West for being "egotistical" or found his long auto-tuned ballads "self-indulgent," you more than likely weren't won over by his Glastonbury headline set. With the entire visual focus on him—whether playing the MPC himself on "Runaway" or being lifted above the crowd—it's clear that Kanye doesn't mind playing the quintessential egotistical frontman. Besides, it doesn't matter in the slightest whether you were won over or not: perhaps the greatest defining quality of a rock star is that they don't have to apologize to or compromise for anybody.
But you'd also be mistaken to see this show as being one all about ego. Kanye closed his set with "All Falls Down," a significant choice for its confessional second verse: It seems we living the American Dream/ But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem. Performed right before he outlandishly dropped the mic, that verse epitomized the contrast that underpinned Kanye's headline set. There's something badass about a solitary performer who stalks around in front of and above a crowd, mostly only appearing as a silhouette; but there's also something lonely and unsettling about a figure battling his demons in the middle of a vast empty space. If you paid attention, you'd see Kanye's egotism as not pure, but cut with anxiety (tell me that ain't insecurr). If that wasn't apparent from the open wound moments that were his live performances of "Heartless," "Lost in the World" and "Only One," it became so when he made that choice to close with "All Falls Down."
The line, Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe, came off as a not-too-subtle "fuck you" to the 130,000 people who signed a petition to get Kanye's slot replaced by a "rock band"; because if those who worship white guitar bands don't appreciate his stardom after a show like this, it seems like they never will. Rather than pander to a crowd that don't accept him, he took to one of the world's most famous stages and was unapologetically himself—and he was received with rapture anyway. That's what you'd call a real rock star.