After days of speculation about who would perform with the rapper at the music festival, he took the stage without any high-profile guests
Spencer Weiner/AP Images
They weren't rumors so much as they were building blocks for a consensus that fell over the aching-footed, sun-blasted, gauzy-eared throngs of the Coachella Arts & Music Festival by Sunday evening. Katy Perry had been seen watching Animal Collective. Rihanna had shown up to a nearby industry party. Kid Cudi was maybe lurking around the festival grounds, somewhere. Celebrity sightings at Coachella are commonplace, but these ones grabbed a certain kind of buzz. Pitchfork voiced the inklings of many when it tweeted early Sunday afternoon that certain pop-music celebrity spectators had arrived in Indio, Calif., "almost certainly to perform with Kanye."
It was a fair assumption. Kanye West's Sunday evening headlining slot—the last major performance of the 3-day festival—represented the Chicago rapper's first proper concert for the American public since the October 2010 release of his commercial and critical smash My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. An album debut show at New York City's Bowery Ballroom and a gig at South by Southwest in Austin—both witnessed by largely industry-insider audiences—saw West enlist a clutch of famous friends to help him recreate the elaborate, guest-heavy songs from Fantasy and earlier albums. And besides, Coachella is known for collaborations. Scarlett Johansson joined the Jesus and Mary Chain on stage a few years back. Would it really be out of the question, someone nearby me in the crowd speculated, for Daft Punk or Jay-Z to lend West a hand?
Turns out we were all snookered. On Sunday night, West delivered a fantastic, provocative, carefully crafted spectacle—almost entirely free of high-profile guests. Of course, it had to be this way: West's art is about keeping the spotlight to himself.
That's not to say he was alone up there. The production opened with a flurry of movement from a troupe of ballerinas. An immense white sheet fell, revealing the imposing image of a fake Greek stone-relief panel depicting long-dead deities. The choral refrain, "Can we get much higher?" went up, and lo, there was West rising from the middle of the audience on a crane platform. The crowd frothed in recognition and surprise. On stage, the dancers moved in worship of the airborne West, but all eyes were on him—just him.
You don't have to search hard to find someone who thinks West is a narcissist; the conceit of his latest album is his own conceitedness. That was the case Sunday night as well. West divided the concert into 3 "acts," with the first displaying his most arena-ready, self-aggrandizing hits—stuff with military-march beats and big, stern-voiced choruses. Then came the melancholy middle nodding to the archetypal hero's demise through hubris, with icy cuts from 2008's 808s & Heartbreak and a slew of truncated renditions of other peoples' hits—the parts of those hits that feature West. Act 3 envisioned a moral course-correction and opened with the soul-baring "Runaway," on which West stares into his own douchebaggery and blinks.
Throughout, West was the center of the attention but also seemed oddly small, hopping around in front of the immense Grecian backdrop, usually without sidekicks save for two sound technicians dressed in white. There was a kind of visual poetry in the set-up: For the tens of thousands of gazes he commanded, West appeared solitary, dwarfed by his own mythology.
Two guests did take the stage. Justin Vernon, the indie-folk artist known as Bon Iver, had stuck around from a Friday-night set with his other band Gayngs to lend West his otherworldly melisma. And rapper Pusha T, West's No. 1 protégé of the moment, performed his "Runaway" verse. But in both cases, they acted subservient to ringmaster West: Vernon stood stiffly off to the side wearing white to match the other musical extras, while Pusha T did his thing as Kanye looked down at him from a pedestal.
After extended displays of pyrotechnics, a costume change, and an admission from West that this was his most significant performance for him since the 2007 death of his mother, West gathered the "cast"—instrumentalists, ballerinas, Vernon, and Pusha T.—to bow in gratitude to the audience. It was an acknowledgment that the show was as theatrical as it was musical, and that it took a team to pull off. And yet West stood in the center, dressed in a red against the taupe and white of his comrades, remaining the focal point to the end.