Kanye West lets music do the talking at the United Center

Kanye West took to the air Friday at the United Center and floated just out of arm's reach of the audience on a stage that resembled a flat-bed space ship. But he wasn’t the night’s only star.

Instead, top billing was shared by a capacity audience, a madly dancing gaggle of fans who commanded the spotlights normally reserved for the headlining act.

It was West’s first concert since abruptly departing the stage in New York last Sunday because of a “family emergency.” He canceled two tour dates this week to be with his wife, Kim Kardashian, who was robbed at gunpoint in Paris. She was unharmed and reportedly back home in Los Angeles on Friday.

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West, normally a performer who speaks his mind from the stage, sometimes at great length, stopped only to briefly acknowledge the city where he spent most of his childhood and learned his craft. “It’s good to be home,” he said. Mostly, he let his music do the talking.

He rode in on a platform with a self-contained light show, beaming down on the audience. It moved across the arena, sometimes tipping forward while West remained safely tethered to its center. A second more elaborate grid of lights ran the length of the arena’s ceiling, and frequently illuminated the fans while West performed beneath a single burnt-orange spotlight or sometimes in darkness. During “Fade,” which blended a sample of the '70s band Rare Earth with a rubbery bass line, West was silhouetted against a red stream of lasers as if he were one of his dancing fans.  

His last tour, in 2013, was more elaborate. It was designed like a four-part play with dancers, masked figures, a simulated volcano and iceberg, even its own cloud-filled sky projected on a video screen. The current show is more minimalist but also more inclusive. It loosely tied in with one of the themes on his most recent album, “The Life of Pablo.” West has hinted that one of his reference points for the album’s gospel inflections was the biblical figure St. Paul, who was transformed into a prophet from a persecutor when blinded by God’s light on the road to Damascus.

West brought his own blinding light to the show. So was this his version of a sci-fi road to Damascus, with the audience as a surrogate Pablo? It likely didn’t matter to his fans, who were there to revel in a decade-plus of hits. West briskly delivered them, packing more than 30 songs into about 100 minutes.

He rapped or sang over a mix of canned rhythms and contributions from a small band arrayed at one end of the arena. He clustered his songs to suit a particular vibe: angry, introspective, celebratory.

West punched the sky as he slammed through a remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” the tribal thump of “Black Skinhead” and the bounce of “N----- in Paris.” Later, he strung together a series of more introspective tracks, including “Wolves” and the forlorn “Heartless,” before ramping back up with “I Love Kanye.”

“I love the old Kanye,” he rapped, but the fans didn’t differentiate between eras – they were ready to party and sing along with all of it.

The final rush merged dance floor beats and gospel accents, and the light show suggested a little of both — the white light of a church, the mirror ball of a disco. On the closing “Ultralight Beam,” West sang, “This is a God dream.” The stage descended to the floor and the rapper silently exited, ceding the light to his audience one final time.

greg@gregkot.com

Kanye West set list Friday at the United Center:

  1. Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1
  2. Pt. 2
  3. Famous
  4. Pop Style (Drake cover)
  5. THat Part(ScHoolboy Q cover)
  6. Facts
  7. Mercy
  8. I Don't Like (G.O.O.D. Music cover)
  9. All Day
  10. Black Skinhead
  11. N----- in Paris (Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
  12. Can't Tell Me Nothing
  13. Power
  14. Blood on the Leaves
  15. Freestyle 4
  16. New Slaves
  17. Jesus Walks
  18. Flashing Lights
  19. Highlights
  20. Feedback
  21. Wolves
  22. Heartless
  23. Runaway
  24. Only One
  25. I Love Kanye
  26. Waves
  27. Touch the Sky
  28. All of the Lights
  29. Good Life
  30. Stronger
  31. Fade
  32. Ultralight Beam

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