Kanye's Beautiful, Haphazard Yeezy Season 3 Spectacle

The Life of Pablo debuted at Madison Square Garden with a mixture of joyful chaos, careful choreography, and boredom.

Spencer Kornhaber / The Atlantic

If anything’s been made clear in the run-up to Kanye West’s seventh album, it’s that the man is not, in the traditional understanding of the term, a perfectionist. The p-word’s been assigned to him before due to the opulence of his music and precision of his taste: He mixed “Stronger” 50 times in 2007 before he had a version he felt okay about, and he made a fuss about the gilded restroom specifications at his wedding in Versailles. But no one for whom the impression of flawlessness was the goal would let the public see him waffle about his album title and track listing right up to the release date, or promote his fashion line with lo-res JPEGs in his twitter feed, or use that same feed to commit PR suicide by calling Cosby innocent.

It’s not that Kanye never before seemed to act on a whim—see “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” or the Taylor Swift VMAs incident—but it’s surprising to see him seem to allow so much chaos in his creative process. It’s even more surprising for him to allow the audience to witness it.

The culmination of this ongoing demonstration of how madness and premeditation can coexist came at Thursday night’s unveiling of West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion line and new album The Life of Pablo in a Madison Square Garden event simulcast in theaters and online to a reported 20 million viewers. The public didn’t get many details about what was about to happen; many of the people who paid up to three-figure sums for tickets expected a concert, as would be typical for a musician at Madison Square Garden. Instead, West stood behind a rig on the floor of the arena as his album reverberated from speakers above Yeezy-clad models acting out choreography by the artist Vanessa Beecroft. After the album finished, West made remarks that some will label “a rant,” and then played a few extemporaneously chosen songs from his catalogue and others, using Soundcloud. At one point, the thousands in attendance heard the sound of a message notification from his laptop.

Which is not to say the work on display was haphazard. Though the acoustics were harsh, the content of the album seemed super-delectable: gospel-tinged like Kanye advertised, but with crunchy dance beats, an epic Rihanna hook, and one track that managed Yeezus-style spookiness without Yeezus-style noise. I am not qualified to judge the clothes on display, though I will note that despite widespread skepticism about his previous lines, this particular arena full of West fans had seemed to have fully absorbed their idol’s fashion dictums—minimalist, muted, militaristic, and with big contrasts between wide and skinny shapes—and looked pretty cool.

Most impressive was Beecroft’s presentation. When the show began, the center of the arena featured an enormous grey sheet that billowed and undulated over bulbous shapes, almost looking like a CGI data visualization. When it was pulled away at the end of the first Pablo song, it revealed an entire fashion village: hundreds of models in an encampment that nodded either to poverty or a post-apocalyptic community. The models mostly stood steely and still for extended periods of time, though some—including a black-fur-clad Naomi Campbell—did slow versions of runway walks.

To be clear: It was impossible not to feel a little bored. But it was the boredom of a long church service—healthy, the kind that makes you think. Beecroft has said her performance/conceptual work is akin to painting, and from my seat in the venue, the best way to approach it indeed was as a static visual experience. You could admire the inexplicably beautiful arrangement of earth tones throughout the crowd like you can appreciate the total effect of a pointillist landscape. Or you could focus in on the individual models and notice how each person held themselves in ways that were unique to them—hands on hip, or legs draped off a roof, or slumped forward, or stick-straight—and yet seemed of a piece with the rest. During the show, the purported do’s and don’ts for the performers leaked online. A lot of people made fun of how dictatorial and contradictory instructions were (“LOOSEN UP NO STIFFNESS … DON’T BE CASUAL”), but the only sad part to me was in learning that the seemingly ineffable vibe of the set could be achieved with a list of rules.

What did the Beecroft arrangement, the Yeezy clothes, and The Life of Pablo all have in common? I really don’t know. Some people on Twitter have noted the diversity of the models and proposed that there’s something political in the presentation. That’s very possible; I heard lines about police abuses in the music, and at one point, some of the actors put their fists in the air. But it’s also possible that Kanye simply thinks Beecroft is dope, that his own clothes are dope, and his music is dope, and bringing them all together creates a dopeness supernova. Kanye’s art, after all, is largely about Kanye. The speech he gave was shorter than usual but hit the typical themes about him wanting to bring beauty into the world despite all the people trying to limit him as an artist. At one point, he seemed to suddenly remember to show off a video game he was working on, about his mother ascending into heaven. I will tolerate no joking about this. The trailer was the most emotion I felt all week.

Given this busy season in pop, it is inevitable that roll-out strategies for superstars will be compared. Last weekend, Beyoncé exercised her command-and-control model of stardom with a perfectly timed video, song, and Super Bowl performance that were surely meant to cause almost all of the conversations that they then caused. Kanye’s sudden outpouring of not-very-congruous creative statements is the opposite of that. The final judgement on this phase of his career will come once people have decided what to make of The Life of Pablo, no doubt. As of this writing, despite previous indications to the contrary, it has not officially been released to the public.