I'm not sure what all the fuss was about with Kanye West headlining ACL this year; though some might take offense to his oft-lofty attitude, many might agree that he is the most forward-thinking man in American music today. And it's only just for the king to take his rightful place on the throne: the main stage at the biggest music festival in the Live Music Capital. And King Kanye does it in grand style, without the much-anticipated help of Viceroy Jay-Z.
As the show begins, choreographer Yemi Akinyemi’s dancers take the stage—you might recognize some of them as those exotic ballerinas from last year's avant-garde "Runaway" video—while West is covertly toted into the middle of a crowd inside of a giant red trunk. With the crowd’s attention diverted to the angels on stage, he’s hoisted onto an electric platform and rises above the crowd, waiting expectantly for his dancers to bow to their leader.
Eventually, along with the rest of the crowd, they do. And the set that follows is less like a traditional hip-hop performance and more like a Daft Punk or Justice show, with DJ Million Dollar Mano at the decks re-mixing and interweaving songs from all four of Kanye West’s solo studio albums to create a larger narrative.
West enters the stage through the crowd and begins his performance—a three-act show that casts him as a hero figure—autotune crooning "Pinnochio Story/Heartless" with an exuberance of emotion, dancing with excitement to songs like "Stronger" and "Flashing Lights" and, eventually, exciting the crowd with his second (and final) extended-version freestyle performance of "Runaway."
In this, he is exceptional; while he and his dancers are acting, nobody in the crowd is thinking. They’re just feeling, and the range of feelings he can bring about in a crowd are unmatched—the mark of a true artist (and probably America’s only truly unpredictable artist left in this muddled playground of 21st century social promotion). And it’s this ability which has allowed him to surpass “business, man” and branding genius Jay-Z to become the most influential hip-hop artist today.
Watching the evolution of the two men (culminating in their recent collaboration) has been like seeing a modern day, real-life version of the story of Narcissus and Goldmund unfold—it is amazing that two egos as big as West’s and Carter’s were able to come together on one album. And regardless of what you may feel about it, Watch the Throne turned out to be the only thing that it could: a collab based on the reality of an outstretched American Dream, of two unlikely heroes with two very different personas rapping about their luxury goods and rich-boy problems.
But if West would have turned last night’s ACL show into an extension of the Watch the Throne tour, I’m afraid it would not have been as much of a fanatical performance, but instead more like an arena-rock show with less melodrama and more swagger. And I suppose if that’s what festival-goers were really looking for, they would have walked across the lawn to see Coldplay.