At his Verizon Center show in Washington on Thursday night, Kanye West kept certain songs to brief snippets — “All Day,” “Mercy” — but made sure to perform all three verses of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” still one of his most anthemic and inspired songs in a catalog of many. Soon after, the 39-year-old confirmed he was making a point.
“I have to be selfish for a second,” West said, briefly cutting the music. “Today, I needed to hear these songs. I needed to rehear the lyrics.”
The artist who once rapped “Old folks talkin’ about ‘Back in my day’ / well, homie, this is my day” was looking for affirmation (or at the least a pep talk with thousands of fans) that his attempts to help the world — through music and design and fashion and whatever else West is determined to follow in earnest — weren’t made in vain.
The subject of West’s ire Thursday night was, at this point, a familiar one: the fashion world, which largely panned the unveiling of his Yeezy Season 4 clothing line the day before. West, whose early forays into high fashion were mocked by fashion gatekeepers but has since become a dominant force in luxury streetwear, felt doubted again.
“I’m feeling like the Cavs right now, when Kyrie [Irving] got hurt,” West said. “I’m talking about the fashion show yesterday. When you the LeBron [James], when you don’t bring home that ring it’s your fault. You could score 70 …” he said before trailing off.
He returned to the need to hear his own work on Thursday night, stating in the most Kanye way possible, “Every one of these lines means so much to me. I needed to hear me today.”
These are the statements that induce eye rolls from the unconverted, but few of them were likely in attendance anyway. Harnessed to a small, moveable stage, West spent the night hovering the pit of the arena and inducing mosh pits — a rarity at rap shows of this magnitude — throughout the lean, two-hour performance.
From compulsively quotable recent guest spots like “Pop Style” and “THat Part” to serotonin-raising tracks like “Blood on the Leaves” and “Black Skinhead,” the crowd met West’s pogoing enthusiasm with even higher jumps, harder stomps and louder bellows.
The Washington date was a part of the Saint Pablo tour, a North American outing in support of West’s seventh solo album, “The Life of Pablo” from February. Like the album, the concert’s appeal was its unabashed looseness.
Unlike his Yeezus tour from a few years ago, this show felt far less dramatic and precise. There are no classically trained dancers, characters or props. It seems West, as he often points out, is most interested in human connection and the shared joy of loving music that makes anything feel possible. The ingenious stage design put West within a few feet of his fans, making the performance feel communal, like the spirit of hardcore. The power was undeniable.
Like plenty of previous West shows, it was also imperfect. He still has trouble remembering his own lyrics at times, and when he and his band — including Mike Dean, Tony Williams and Caroline Shaw — were slightly off timing-wise, it broke West’s concentration.
“Do the drums like the night before,” he said when “Pablo” song “Highlights” faltered. “Everybody’s gotta do their job tonight.”
And it wouldn’t have been complete without a soliloquy, and West took his time after the tribute to his daughter North, “Only One.” For approximately 20 minutes, West reflected on his late mother, the color choices painters make when depicting heaven and how he was told he’d be shunned by the public after he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at an awards show years ago. He compared his sneakers with Adidas to “Picassos” and famous sculptures. It felt familiar — gripping at times, and like acceptance-speech sound bites at others. Convicted, though? Always.
Before the crowd’s restlessness grew any more noticeable from the break, West kicked off the party portion of the set with radio hits like “Gold Digger,” “Stronger” and “Touch the Sky,” which earned the night's biggest pop from the crowd.
In the most visually striking moment of the night, he closed with “Ultralight Beam,” the gospel-rap opening track of “Pablo.” Starting on one end of the arena, West stood still as the stage crept toward a single column of light shooting out of the pit’s center. As the music swelled, West traveled under the light — staring longingly toward the heavens. Was he looking at God, or his mother? He said earlier in the night that he pictured both talking about him, looking down as he performed.
West didn’t offer clues, but before leaving the stage, he once again thanked the audience and reiterated how much the night meant to him.
“I needed your energy tonight,” he said to the crowd, many of which seemed to still be hanging on each word. They were sweaty, and likely more sore than they were just a few hours before, thanks to the pit’s unrelenting and joyous chaos. But just as he needed their energy, they needed his.