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Kanye West 808s & Heartbreak at Hollywood Bowl: The most surprising moments

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Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for go90

On Friday night, Kanye West emerged beneath the Hollywood Bowl’s historic clamshell dome to journey back in time. Specifically, for the first of two back-to-back Los Angeles performances, he came to revisit 2008 — to showcase his Auto-Tune opus 808s & Heartbreak, performing the platinum-selling album in its entirety for one of exceedingly few times in his career.

A transgressive work of pre-Yeezus experimentation, the LP reset the boundaries of urban music upon its release (the chart-topping Emo hip-hop of such artists as Drake or the Weeknd would be nigh inconceivable without 808s’ pioneering influence). And largely abandoning rap in favor of clumsy yet yearning sing-song vocals, the album presented a real-time reflection of an artist discovering his voice: that is, West’s not-quite-yet mature artistic voice addressing the existential uncertainty of superstardom, aided not insignificantly by tribal drums and pitch-correcting software.

Among the show’s highlights:

Orchestral maneuvers in the light

Fittingly enough for a venue that hosts the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the summer, he employed the better part of a symphony orchestra — a female conductor, string section, oboes and eight-person choir — to flesh out the album’s glitch-y New Wave sounds. The added instrumentation helped broaden 808s’ stark minimalism. But it also placed the songs in a new context. Just months since having proclaimed himself the “greatest living rock star on the planet” on Glastonbury’s stage, West’s Bowl performance served as another kind of grand rock star gesture. But more Emo navel gazer than Golden God.

New god flow

Running through the album’s lead single “Love Lockdown,” it was clear West intended the Bowl shows as more than sonic showcase for a critically overlooked song suite commonly understood to be his “superstar freakout album.” A prop that began the performance as a monolithic white background wall was transformed through Broadway-like stagecraft into a two-story-high stairwell thronged with dozens of muscular African-American men stripped to the waist, wearing white jeans and coated in chalky white makeup. As fireworks erupted in the sky above the Bowl’s bandshell and clacking drum sounds exploded from the speakers, the men descended from the stage to take strategic positions in the crowd. They stood still as statues for the duration of the song — a spectacle with provocative racial implications that had little to do with the song’s nursery rhyme-like simplicity but that spoke volumes in an era when #BlackLivesMatter continues to capture national headlines.

Special guest stars

808s features notable cameos by four hit-making Friends of Yeezy: Young Jeezy (who lends his street cred to the song “Amazing”), British singer-songwriter Mr. Hudson (featured on “Paranoid”), Kid Cudi (whose mentoring influence on the album cannot be overstated and who sings backup on “Welcome to Heartbreak”) and Lil Wayne (delivering memorably demented sung-rap bars in “See You in My Nightmares”). All of them except for Lil Wayne turned up for the first Bowl show and all fit with burgeoning fashion doyen West’s sartorial mandate for the evening: all white everything, Jedi-reminiscent tunics for the men and hooded djellabas for the women.

Technical difficulties

At several junctures in the show, West appeared frustrated by staging glitches that affected sound quality. Jeezy’s microphone was apparently switched off during parts of “Amazing.” And late in the performance, Ye stopped and restarted the music, piquantly grousing almost as an aside, “This is one of the best dress rehearsals…so please excuse…”

Mum’s the word

Infamous for dedicating a hefty portion of each performance on his “Yeezus” tour to signature “rants” — opinionated outbursts-come-stream of consciousness tirades about any number of topics including West’s beef with Nike or his lack of Grammys love — the producer-turned-rapper-turned-singer upended all expectation Friday by keeping his between-song banter to an absolute minimum. “I want you to have a good time tonight,” he informed the crowd. “This is my first time playing here!” And no, West made no more mention of his apparently serious plan to run for president in 2020.

Homage to Donda?

The evening’s most overtly poignant moment surrounded West’s performance of the song “Coldest Winter,” a composition touching upon dislocation and insomnia, loneliness and regret, that crystallizes 808s’ melancholy vibe. A swell of violin accompanied West’s ascension to the top of the mobile scrim’s flight of stairs. Then, as the music cut away to silence, a cluster of women in white djellabas emerged onstage pushing a diagonal plinth, an older African-American woman prostrate and unmoving upon it. The implicit homage seemed obvious to anyone who has closely followed the performer’s career: his mother Donda West died of heart disease while suffering “multiple post-operative factors” after plastic surgery in 2007 — just months before 808s & Heartbreak was recorded. Despite the 75-degree, 10 p.m. heat, synthetic snowfall was unleashed across the Bowl to heighten the overall atmosphere of desolation.    

Who was that masked man?

With 808s’ key compositions performed and his work implicitly finished, West exited stage right for a moment and returned cloaked head to toe in a theatrical costume: a burlap bodysuit replete with a bulging codpiece and rough-hewn mask that covered every inch of his body and face. With just piano as accompaniment and his singing voice cloaked by pitch-correcting computer effects, the artist delivered a kind of tortured Auto-Tune soliloquy. “I just want to be a real boy,” West sang. “This must be what it feels like to live a real life — to be real!”

Lurching around the stage with the herky-jerky movement of a marionette, he continued singing: “I’ll tell the truth…and keep running. There is no Gucci I could buy. There is no Louis Vuitton that I could put on… There is no YSL that they could sell/To take my heart out of this jail…There are no clothes I could buy that could turn back the time…There is no vacation spot I could fly that could bring back a piece of real life… I ask you tonight, what does it feel like? To live a real life?”

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