Image Credit: Walik Goshorn/Retna Ltd.The hundreds of people crammed awkwardly onto the sidewalk outside NYC’s Bowery Ballroom around midnight last night were there for one reason. It wasn’t to hear Kanye West deliver a free-associative monologue about the media, George W. Bush, and Taylor Swift, though maybe that wasn’t a complete surprise when it happened almost three hours later. No, most of us were there for the music. On Monday, West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that just might be his best ever. Yesterday morning he announced a surprise show at the Bowery, a storied little club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that fits 550 people, tops. Chances to see the day’s most talked-about star in such an intimate venue don’t come along every day, so downtown we flocked.

The line outside the Bowery was still stalled indefinitely at midnight. Even some people on whom the fickle Ticketmaster gods had smiled that morning (or so they claimed) were having trouble getting past the door. Inside, a smallish crowd of lucky and/or connected folks milled about wearing wide-eyed smiles. I spotted Parks and Recreation‘s Aziz Ansari, an avowed West superfan, chatting excitedly with friends by the bar. A few minutes later he was deep in the crowd pressing against the stage.

The rumor all day had been that West would perform My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in its entirety. Just what that might mean wasn’t certain. Fantasy is very much a studio construct, a sprawling affair packed with A-list guests. It’s closer in form to a prog-rock opera with a proverbial cast of thousands than a traditional rap album. How many of his far-flung collaborators had West persuaded to join him at the Bowery on short notice?

When the house lights went down it was approaching 1 A.M. Three figures stood on stage: “Google Me”/My Super Sweet 16 starlet Teyana Taylor, a backing vocalist on Fantasy; indie-folk act Bon Iver’s scraggly singer Justin Vernon, who contributed more prominently to several tracks; and West himself, standing sternly at the back of the stage in blue jeans, big shades, and a black blazer with gold buttons. Vernon began warbling in a vocoder daze while West fiddled with an MPC sequencer and Nicki Minaj’s pre-recorded “Dark Fantasy” prologue began unfurling. “Can we get much higher?” sang Taylor. You bet we could. Soon West was front and center, reeling off impassioned rhymes. After the song ended, he greeted the audience for the first time. “Tonight I’m gonna do My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” he told us to rapturous cheers.

West performed the second song, “Gorgeous,” by himself. It didn’t matter that Kid Cudi’s chorus was a canned recording. West alone held us all in rapt attention. Toward the end of the song, he cut out the beat so he could repeat one pungent couplet — “What’s a black Beatle anyway, a f—-ing roach?/Guess that’s why they got me sitting in f—-ing coach” — four times for emphasis. He returned to his MPC to bash out “POWER,” stripping the lavish beat to its bare essentials and rapping even more furiously. At the end he tacked on a powerful verse that didn’t make the album, including the line “I sold my soul to the devil.”

West removed his shades for the next song, “All of the Lights.” This is the most star-studded Fantasy track, with audible contributions from Rihanna, Sir Elton John, Fergie, Kid Cudi, and Alicia Keys, among others. Unfortunately none of them were on hand last night, but West made it one of the night’s highlights anyway with his fervent delivery. He cut the song off halfway through as Fergie’s recorded verse began, muttering something I didn’t quite catch about

Then it was on to “Monster,” one of the most directly performative rap tracks on the album. “I’ma need to see your f—ing hands at the concert,” West demanded. Somewhere between 550 and 1100 hands flew up in unison. Vernon nodded sagely and mouthed West’s opening verse to himself. Rick Ross and Jay-Z were no-shows, but the most important “Monster” verse belongs to Nicki Minaj, and the Bowery all but exploded when she ran out on stage. She gave a bravura performance that matched her supernatural energy on the record. And yes, she can toggle between all those crazy voices and flows without help from studio editing software.

“So Appalled” without Jay-Z or the RZA is, to paraphrase the song’s hook, kinda ridiculous, but Swizz Beatz, Pusha T, and even West’s protege CyHi da Prynce handled their parts well. Rick Ross arrived next for the second half of “Devil in a New Dress,” winning the second-biggest crowd reaction of the night after Nicki Minaj. Up in the crowded balcony, his pal Diddy gesticulated wildly as Ross walked out.

“Runaway” is Fantasy‘s emotional centerpiece. It served a similar function last night. West climbed atop an amp and led all 550 of us in a “toast for the douchebags,” a sight I’ll not quickly forget. At first it seemed like he was doing the single/VMAs edit of “Runaway,” ending the song shortly after Pusha T’s verse and before the three-minute vocoder outro that appears on the album. Then West changed his mind. “I didn’t do my favorite part,” he said, returning to his MPC to bang out a raucous yet mournful coda.

He stayed at the sequencer to cue up the heavy guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” That segued into the next song, “Hell of a Life,” which lifts part of Sabbath’s melody; Vernon growled out the hook instead of West. “Hell of a Life” is an aggressive, unhinged song, and it absolutely slayed live. “Turn the piano down a little bit, turn me up a little bit,” West requested as the song ended. “Need to hear these lyrics.” He rapped the entire song over again almost a cappella, forcing us to confront its nightmare imagery.

By now the show was starting to wind toward its conclusion. A tired-seeming John Legend showed up to croon on the regretful “Blame Game.” Finally we reached “Lost in the World,” an ecstatic extended finale that made me wish the show didn’t have to end. West seemed to feel the same way, kicking his verse a couple extra times for good measure. After a very brief break, he returned grinning for an encore. Ryan Leslie assisted him on G.O.O.D. Friday track “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” then West asked for requests from their audience. He ended up giving us short but sweet versions of 2007’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” 2008’s “Paranoid,” and 2007’s “Good Life,” apt nightcaps to the long artistic binge of Fantasy.

He probably should have said goodnight there, but he couldn’t resist airing a few stray thoughts. “As you know, it’s been an extremely hard year for me, but it felt good to get back to music,” West began. He continued thanking his fans and supporters, adding, “I never thought I’d say this, but thanks to all the magazines for the perfect scores.” (You’re very welcome.) From there he rambled on for quite some time — see Stereogum for a partial transcript. Of his infamous run-in with Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, he said, “If I wasn’t drunk, I would have been on stage longer.” He was critical of her — “Taylor never came to my defense in any interview” — but also criticized his own behavior regarding George W. Bush in 2005. He again expressed sympathy for the former president, saying Bush had been misquoted by the media and that “Any man that gets though [the criticisms leveled at Bush] deserves one moment of redemption.” And on and on, sound bite after provocative sound bite.

As the crowd filed out to the street, I was left thinking about a line from the middle of West’s impromptu speech. “Don’t tell me about what I’m supposed to do,” he had stated. “I’m my own man.” Sort of says it all, doesn’t it? Even after orchestrating a magnificent concert like last night’s, a self-contained success that put him in his very best light, he couldn’t abide not speaking his mind in full. Being defiantly forthright is more important to him than tying up a performance with a neat bow. That’s Kanye West, his own man no matter what. I wouldn’t have him be any other way.

Were any of you at the Bowery last night? Thanksgiving thoughts on Kanye West’s performance, or on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Let’s hear it.

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