Though not as extravagant as the kind that Pharrell Williams usually sports, one must doff one’s hat in his direction. There aren’t many who could get away with spending the first half of their set sweet-talking every single member of the fairer sex (the ‘girl’ count really isn’t worth keeping up with tonight) in attendance before launching into a spiel about equality and then moving on to belt out a run of ‘Blurred Lines’, but here we are.
Of course, he doesn’t just get away with it. You get the sense that most who’ve made the trip to Marlay Park on a pleasant if not sun-scorched summer evening would go to war for him. He’d never ask such a thing of you though, not when there’s so much love to make.
You can’t argue with his charisma or conviction. It helps that he has a frankly ridiculous catalogue of tunes to call upon. ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, one of the very few bright spots from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, makes for a fine, set-the-tone opener. From there on, it’s essentially a ‘Greatest Hits’ affair, with N.E.R.D. favourites ‘Rock Star’ and ‘Lap Dance’ shining brightest. ‘Get Lucky’ happens, as it must, while a limp ‘Happy’ provides a curious end to a fun hour. Like the song itself, the performance feels perfunctory. The crowd, so booming for ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ earlier, aren’t as into it as you might expect, either. Still, the man with the Midas touch gets by, as always.
Kanye West, giving much less away, trades on division. It’s there from the second he swaggers onstage, the strains of ‘Black Skinhead’ powering him up. It’s in the previously-alight screens, now pitch black save for occasional bursts of blood red, shutting us out. It’s in the bejewelled, shattered disco ball mask, under which Kanye will spend the majority of the next 90 minutes. You’re either with him or against him. As he hollers later during a stunning ‘New Slaves’, it’s all about leaders and followers.
Tonight, he preaches to the converted, right down to ‘gifting’ them the questionable comeback to that previous line. It’s his show so it’s a given to expect disciples, but there are doubts in the air, whispers of disapproval aimed at his behaviour, his lyrics, his general self-deified demeanour. At one point, he’ll inform us that some day, we’ll tell our first-borns about the time we were privileged enough to “see Yeezus play in a field”. Such grand designs are par for the course. Apart from this and a not-crazy-enough mini-rant about his t-shirts (clever marketing, presuming the stalls were still taking cash), Kanye was mostly all business and about as professional as you can get while still making the odd fuck-up, at least one of which was clearly staged. You’d suspect he’d say all of them were.
But let’s return to ‘Black Skinhead’. As calls to arms go, there are few better. Though the 23-song set will ultimately suffer from pacing issues and a minimal set-up (DJs, occasional guitar, sparse use of special effects), West’s opening shot is one that cannot miss. It doesn’t. Same goes for a rampaging ‘On Sight’, a snarling cover of Chief Keef’s ‘I Don’t Like’ and a stroll through ‘Cold’, the latter affording Kanye the chance to throw his studded head to the heavens, his body tensed as one ready to fight. In contempt? In pride? In unwavering self-belief.
“Such poetry,” quips a friend next to me as ‘New Slaves’ takes hold, but to so many assembled here this evening, the spouted scripture is precisely that. Front, back, middle… voices unite as one when asked to take over. Well, for the most part. A scattershot ‘Bound 2’ proves a hurdle too far for the masses, the song suffering as a result. It’s a scattershot kind of evening, really. The mix-up of Pharrell and Kanye (who don’t share the stage together at any point) was an odd one to begin with. The result is something akin to following up a popcorn movie with an art house film. Kanye can do big and brash too, of course, as spirited runs of ‘Power’, ‘Stronger’ and ‘Niggas in Paris’ attest.
There are flashes of true brilliance. A bruising a cappella conclusion of ‘Clique’ here, the power of ‘Blood on the Leaves’ there. And yet… and yet… something crucial is missing. Though it feels churlish and perhaps obvious to fault the venue, there’s no getting around it; so much of tonight may have felt transcendent if delivered indoors, darkness penetrated by brilliant light. Tonight, beneath an overcast summer sky, endeavour is present but magic is absent. Gods demand perfection. Their audience should too.