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The meaning of Kanye West's floating stage

What if you went to see a concert and got a metaphor instead?

Kanye West, on his latest tour, which plays his hometown Friday (United Center) and Saturday (Allstate Arena), spends the entire show literally above the fray, looking down on the audience. There is no traditional stage at one end of the arena or in the center. There is just Kanye, alone on a platform surprisingly small for an arena setting, 20 feet long, 16 feet wide. It is suspended a mere 15 feet above the fans on the floor. Designed by the Wood Dale-based special-effects company Strictly FX, the platform resembles a Hershey bar, or one of those flying cars from "Blade Runner" stripped to its chassis. It floats barge-like, back and forth, the length of the venue, then side to side, creeping closer to the upper rows; as it tips downward, Kanye looks tantalizingly within reach.

Metaphors, particularly for an artist's relationship to his audience, are rarely so indelible.

I caught the tour last week at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and for the majority of the show Kanye remained hidden in the dark, wrapped in a velvet haze, the best fog that several zillion sodium lights and smoke machines could buy. It's an image impossible not to free associate about: Kanye, tethered to the platform by an umbilical cord streaming from the back of his shirt, is like an artist chained to his art; Kanye, starkly dressed in loose, muted workman clothing, is like a lone wolf wandering a minimalist, dystopian landscape. And that lighting rig, a rectangular truss designed to carry Kanye's chariot, exploding in deep oranges and reds, blasting earthquakes of bass and hyper-focused light beams — it wouldn't be out of place in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

But the key image — the one that makes his Saint Pablo Tour so innovative, pointing at no less than the direction of pop culture itself — is how those lights redistribute the attention of the traditional concert from the performer to the audience, reimagining the possibilities of a live performance. No joke: Kanye stands in the dark for much of the show. And so, if you're on the floor, it's hard not to notice how in the spotlight you are, how close you are to Kanye, how actually beneath this millionaire provocateur you have become. As the stage moves, you move, the crowd around you moves, a shepherd and his flock. And if you're in the bowl of seats above the floor: Your eye is drawn instinctively to that churning flood of an audience flowing beneath the artist, a roiling impromptu ballet/dance party/mosh pit, bathed in far more dramatic lighting than the guy on the stage.

A security guard, who noticed me taking notes, sidled up and shouted: "You know what this reminds me of? It's like 'The Walking Dead,' man!" The guy was on to something.

Kanye's previous tour featured a stage (also designed with Strictly FX) that was arguably just as memorable: Two fake icebergs and along with it, cameos by an androgynous chorus dressed in white, people disguised as wolves and Jesus Christ on a cherry picker. Kanye wore a mask for most of the show. It was performance art for 18,000, and decidedly chaotic. This tour boils down to that moment in every zombie movie where the hero has scrambled to high ground, above a clamoring undead army.

Needless to say, this being a Kanye show, ego gets more than a cameo: To stand alone above an audience for 100 minutes, walking, sitting, sometimes just watching yourself being watched, is to invite an audience to wonder what you're thinking, if you're bored, etc. Indeed, the show I attended started 90 minutes late; a couple beside me watched an episode of "The Americans" on their phone in that time, then argued why Kanye was still late. (Him: "Maybe he's waiting for a bassist." Her: "Kanye will not wait for no bassist.")

To be generous, ego looks a lot like ambivalence here, a queasy confrontation with too much fame: In one of the show's most striking images, Kanye walks to the lip of the stage, which has been tipped low, and before the reaching arms of the scrum beneath him, repeats: "We're surrounded by the (expletive) wolves." (Eerily, a few nights later, after this moment in New York, he was told his wife Kim Kardashian had been robbed at gunpoint and stopped the show.) If he gets away with what could be read easily as contempt, it's because he is not so much performing for you as with you, an audience and a performer recognizing the co-dependency of their relationship, unwilling to stop.

As I stood on the floor and Kanye floated above me, a woman took a selfie with the stage. So did many others. A group of hipsters stood to the side and watched the audience watch the stage — when a performer is moving above you, it's hard not to start looking at those around you, to become acutely aware of their patterns of movement. All of which decentralizes the traditional concert set-up in fascinating ways. Kanye himself had to tell security at some shows, from the stage, his idea is to let the audience roam.

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Destabilizing what it means to be at a concert, and offering possibilities, is his point. Before the show begins, no music is played, only a Brian Eno-like ambient soundtrack of surging and pinging strings. Actually before anything begins, as the fans enter, they see nothing at all, just an empty bowl of a floor where a stage and seats normally are, to be gradually filled in by them. A woman in my section, waiting for the show to start, took in the blankness and shouted: "Kanye, man, you make no sense, Kanye!"

The audience within earshot, as if reading her mind, laughed knowingly.

Not often do you go to a concert and find yourself inside an art project.

Granted, Kanye is not the first performer to stand on a platform above an audience — it's an old trope, employed by the Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift alike. Likewise, merely name-checking Bob Fosse and Ridley Scott as influences on your ideas, as Kanye has, doesn't make them fresh. But too often a superstar on a riser starts off playing to the cheap seats and just winds up reminding us how actually removed we are from the performance. Here, by shining a light into the audience, a communal joy takes hold. In Detroit, on the floor, there was a lot of bumping and apologizing, and also noticing, suburban bros and urban hipsters, afros pulled into balls, hoodies and hijabs. From the upper decks, it looked like a mess, but inside it, there was real warmth in the potential.

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