“Old folks talking bout back in my day/But homie this is my day”
The BBC, which is only occasionally insightful enough to see past a cheap talking point, had been lapping up the ‘hip hop shouldn’t headline Glastonbury’ so called debate from the moment its main 9.30pm coverage started. Top marks though to the researcher who’d dug out Kanye’s 2013 Radio One interview with Zane Lowe, where he firmly stated ‘Rap is the new rock and roll, we the rock stars’.
On stage it appeared Kanye was, unusually, the only one not talking about the haters. Even before he became more famous as en ego than a rap star Kanye would complain about any apparent slight, and has always thrived on criticism and never been embarrassed about his arrogance powering his dreams.
But on Saturday petitions and death threats went without comment. Only with seven minutes of the show remaining did Kanye seem to make any reference to questions about his legitimacy when he stopped the intro to ‘Gold Digger’ and stated: “I’m a say this tonight because in twenty, thirty, forty years from now I might not be able to say it. You are now watching the greatest living rock star on the planet.”
BBC host Lauren Laverne had from the outset warned viewers there was an ‘unusual’ Saturday headliner, before admitting there may be no such a thing as a usual one and roving reporter Gemma Cairney thought there had ‘never before been so much fuss’ about a headliner. Never since 2008 in fact, when Jay Z became the first rapper to headline at Worthy Farm and a small-minded complaint became a tired talking point. Seven years later and the current fad for online petitions meant 134,00 time wasters had registered their protest.
Within days the man behind that petition had admitted he, like me, had never even been to the festival but Cairney had been dispatched to find out the opinions of those who were actually on site, the BBC having of course already broadcast the mostly positive views of the other festival acts.
“Hip hop shouldn’t be on the main stage. It should be rock and roll,” opined a Scotsman seemingly unaware Coldplay headline most years. In 2015 no BBC programme is complete without the UKIP view, which was duly delivered in a south east England estuary twang: “It’s just not English, British music.” Eventually the vox pops scratched the surface of a topic that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation: “I think it’s slightly racist.”
When the talking stopped the lights descended on stage. A rig of spot lights was lowered, as if a spaceship was landing. The strains of the Daft Punk sample from Kanye’s only solo UK number one single, 2007’s ‘Stronger’ played and the harsh, industrial lighting made it difficult to see what was happening, although you now knew Mr West was on the farm.
“Harder, better, faster, stronger,” has become a mission statement for Kanye and the electro sample a hint of how over eight years his output would come to reflect a harsher, angrier industrial soundscape than the softer, soulful sounds of his first two albums that established Kanye as a breakout hip hop star.
It wasn’t until exactly an hour into his set that Kanye performed a track from either of those classic albums. The first hour was dominated by material from the experimental ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, the minimalist ‘Yeezus’, his Jay Z collab album ‘Watch The Throne’ and 2012’s Cruel Summer as well as 2015 releases ‘All Day’ and ‘FourFiveSeconds’ – which is actually a Rhianna single.
Just as Kanye lives his life in the spotlight on the stage he was constantly under lights as bright as the intensity of his performance.
Kanye’s winter 2006 ‘Touch The Sky’ and autumn 2007 ‘Glow in the Dark’ tours saw him cram the stage, but on the giant Glastonbury platform, that was illuminated as a wide, white open space Kanye was the only visible figure – as if he’d shunned the support of a band and ensuring all critical eyes would have to focus on him.
That plan was slightly disrupted when a stage invader, (a BBC television host) bolted from the side of the stage and appeared to try to dance with Kanye before being tackled by an engineer. The unexpected companion though had disrupted Kanye’s Linford Christie like level of concentration and he was forced to restart ‘Black Skinhead’. It at least demonstrated Kanye’s highly tuned Olympian level of committment.
Eventually Kanye’s cousin and long time backing singer, the legendary Tony Williams stepped from beyond the horizon at the back of the stage, singing the Labi Siffre ‘My Song’ sample from ‘I Wonder’ which features on 2007’s ‘Graduation’. It followed ‘Heartless’ from 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ and the emotional, calmer songs helped settle the mood from the darkness and anger of ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ when the lights were dimmed to just two spotlights on Kanye, standing alone in the pitch black.
Kanye was now willing to share the limelight with ‘one of the baddest white boys on the planet’, Justin Vernon of American indie folk band Bon Iver – a regular collaborator.
Anyone questioning the set list was also reassured. ‘We got hits to do, but I’m not going to run through this in like two minutes,’ said Kanye as he and Vernon, singing into a vocoder, performed an extended version of ‘Lost in the World’ which samples Bon Iver’s ‘Woods’. Kanye explained how ‘this girl I loved so much, who ended up being my wife had brought this poetry out of me’ as he recorded ‘My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy’. The crowd cheered when Kanye announced she was here with him. Whether those wanting the early, more upbeat, less intensive Kanye were satisfied is unclear.
On the hour Kanye performed ‘Jesus Walks’ the defiant anthem from his debut ‘The College Dropout’ that is not just a statement of Kanye’s faith in God, but in choosing his own musical direction and the risk and rewards it can bring.
Kanye’s 28 song set was dominated by post 2007, moodier, perhaps more mature but lyrically and thematically more abstract material.
Fittingly towards the end Kanye’s first thanks were for the light crew, ‘the baddest light guys’. The lights apart it was a stripped down basic show, incredibly minimalist for the Pyramid stage in front of thousands.
The only concession to Spinal Tap style rock star grandiose was performing ‘Touch The Sky’ – a favourite from his second LP ‘Late Registration’ – from a crane, above the crowd.
Kanye again interrupted the intro and shouted to keyboard player Mike Dean ‘stop it and start like we said in the dressing room’. After a nervous three minutes of silence the star appeared above the giant screens to the side of the stage, strapped in an aerial platform – slowly sweeping from left to right. The TV cameras captured the concentration on Kanye’s face as he issued instructions to an assistant as he performed while being elevated many feet up in the air.
Kanye also hinted at his sense of fun as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ blared out. He stood centre stage, grinning widely as he mimed the lyrics ‘I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy’ and then leading the crowd in singing the first verse.
Kanye’s defiance was back with ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ before closing the show with ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘The College Dropout’ single ‘All Falls Down’ which helped establish his reputation as a supremely intelligent lyricist, with fresh thinking and sounds that could cut across many of hip hop’s conventional divides.
The headline slot seemed to reveal Kanye believes the ‘harder, faster, stronger’ approach he adopted post 2007 is ‘better’ and those who wanted that more rounded, soul sound, ‘cut from so many records’ in his teenage Chicago basement would likely have been disappointed. For those, probably including me, the only thing Kanye’s performance was lacking was those older songs that represented a less angry character.
Kanye’s performance was always likely to leave opinions divided but his simplistic, imaginatively illuminated show brilliantly ensured the spot light was on him, just as it usually is on the world’s ‘greatest living rock star’.
Is there a conventional rock singer able to hold down the biggest stage in Britain’s festival season almost single handedly next year?