We didn’t want no devils in this house Wednesday night.
Kanye West kept things heavenly in Austin during a one-and-a-half-hour Saint Pablo Tour stop at the Frank Erwin Center, where the rap superstar was a god. No, I’m not saying Yeezus is the Lord Almighty. (He might, though.) West has always flirted with the divine, as do plenty of major cultural figures. For this show, he stopped flirting and entered a fully committed relationship.
(And if you don’t agree that West is a significant cultural juggernaut, read no further and stop quoting that one episode of “South Park” as if you’re having some kind of original thought.)
From the opening praise service of “Father Stretch My Hands,” the evening with West was a study in visions and vices. The tour’s much-touted floating stage was as cool as you think it would be in person, with the rapper holding back none of his hyperactive bravado as he glided over the audience. General concern that he would slide off the edge hung in the air. It looked like a hip hop “Metropolis,” and West was throwing a Fritz Lang house party for the revelers down below.
A little variety in stagecraft would have nice, though. Even Superman lands for a sec every now and then.
The crowd felt the spirit of worship, with no compunction about screaming “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” with the conviction of a thousand snake emojis. West moved the audience to clamor beneath him with phones aloft as he laid down for “I Love Kanye”; he turned them into an Auto-Tuned gospel choir for the a capella homestretch of “Heartless.” As a performer, West lacks an athletic flow and pipes that get the job done without technology. Yet somehow, when he’s at full tilt, you believe a man can fly.
Visually, the evening was lit like a hot shower seen through sunglasses during a power outage. West gave a shrouded, weirdly alien performance, cloaked in smoke and darkness from his magic carpet, his face never completely visible. Even the screen projection for the cheap seats gave the impression of an oil painting as seen during a mushroom trip. The aesthetic made West an unknowable mystery. It felt like peering behind the tabernacle curtain to see the Ark of the Covenant or gazing into a burning bush, and anyone with nostrils could tell there were a lot of burning bushes in the arena.
The hymnal was stacked. Cuts from living album “The Life of Pablo” reigned. And some cheeky cover-work at the top of the show — Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman, straight to “Pop Style” — led to a thrilling tour of Yeezy’s discography: a dark and murky “Mercy,” a searing “Black Skinhead,” a rapturous “N***** In Paris” with Jay Z’s entire verse preserved, a “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” that served a palpable burst of energy in both West and the crowd. “Blood On the Leaves” hit a somber note that could help but conjure this week’s headlines in your head. Dancing ‘Ye showed up for “Jesus Walks,” as did kneeling ‘Ye.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but West’s pre-“Yeezus” songs — you know, from before West was fully committed to capital-A Art — crackled with a clear-headed soul (samples notwithstanding) that his most recent work just doesn’t have. West tore into his lyrics and threw his body into the physical focus we’ve all in the “Otis” video. (But no, he didn’t do “Otis” at the show.) “Touch the Sky” was clearly the most explosive powder keg of the night, and the only number where even West couldn’t help but to command everyone to jump. That electricity didn’t seem like it could be matched, but “All of the Lights” gave it a run for its money, as did a truly joyful “Good Life” (Kanye grin!) and a “Stronger” that literally gained momentum from start to finish.
But hooky cuts from “Graduation” don’t quite round out the messianic metaphor. Kanye’s talk of visions coming to life and a palette of “Stranger Things”-like synths decorated his most religious experiences, like the heartbreaking prayer of “Only One” and the nightclub nativity of “Wolves.” West, who you can’t accuse of half-assing anything, danced with devilish red lasers for “Fade” before literally moving on his chariot of fire into a column of glowing white — an honest to ‘Ye ultralight beam for the song of the same name.
As he dismounted the stage and walked out, West met the anemone-like arms of his disciples, walking the line of adulation straight out of the arena. All he needed to complete the picture was a donkey and some palm fronds. This was a God dream. This was a God dream, except that meant entirely different things for the performer and his fans.