Twenty songs deep into Kanye West’s appearance onstage at the Meadows Music Festival, when the first few lines of his chart-topper “Heartless” reverberated through the crowd, the song itself was nearly inaudible. With just three words out of Kanye’s mouth, “In the night,” his devoted disciples responded immediately. “I hear them talk, the coldest story ever told,” the crowd sang back.
For the twenty-first time that night, as he listened to his lyrics chanted in unison, the rapper’s stage presence leveled with his famously larger-than-life ego—only for the music to abruptly cut off. For a single, jarring moment, the crowd was offered a microcosm for Kanye’s source of power: his ability to be both godlike and vulnerable at once.
An apology echoed in the silence, the auto-tune effect used for the song still lingering in the microphone: “I’m sorry, family emergency, I have to stop the show.” The stage lights brightened and Kanye’s silhouette hurried away.
By the time an employee came onto the stage five minutes later to confirm the end of the performance, the crowd’s initial shock had subsided. Disappointment had ebbed. Instead, the finale almost felt fitting.
Though only about 40 minutes long, Kanye achieved in this performance what he always does: elevation. Submerged in red and orange smoke, highlighted by harsh overhead spotlights and poised in front of his army—who were fortified by hundreds of thousands of dollars in concert merchandise—Kanye looked like the god he claims to be. But there’s one level of connection far deeper for a fan base than blind devotion: empathy.
Kanye, currently touring in support of his seventh full-length album The Life of Pablo, is arguably at the peak of his global superstardom. He is simultaneously dominating the music and fashion industries; he’s married to the most famous woman in the world.
But his reputation continues to precede his achievements. Kanye West: grandiose, self-important and scandalous. In his own words, “I’m too black / I’m too vocal / I’m too flagrant.”
Even before the family emergency was confirmed—Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian, had been robbed at gunpoint—Twitter users were quick to react. “Typical Kanye, treat his fans like trash,” one user wrote. “So Kim Kardashian is held up at gun point in Paris & Kanye ends a show early in Queens? To do what?! Talk on the phone? Sorry, that's lame,” said another later.
These snap judgments posted online, removed from the performance itself, reacted to Kanye’s public persona. As with any celebrity, a natural tension exists between the image and the man. Kanye encourages it. The rapper often positions himself as an “other,” claiming he has more in common with Mozart or Einstein than an average 39-year-old. On TLOP, he compares his artistic process to that of Pablo Picasso’s and raps infamously about Taylor Swift’s popularity: “I made that bitch famous.”
Many of Kanye’s tour designs have reflected this braggadocio. Most notably, his 2013 Yeezus Tour featured the rapper wearing a custom-made, crystalline mask. The form-fitting piece enveloped his entire head, recalling the belief in Greek mythology that mortals cannot look directly at a god’s face without dying.
Bolstered by ego and drunk on power, Kanye owns the stage. But even in 2013, he hinted at the presence of his insecurities: while he rapped “Hold My Liquor” (“Soul mates become soulless / When he’s sober it’s over”), a demon-like figure could be seen brooding in the background of the elaborate stage design.
Kanye’s fame hinges on controversial public moments, like his “I am Shakespeare in the flesh” rant or his post-Katrina “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” television appearance. These sound bites allow him to dominate media coverage and gain exposure. But the unexpected and unceremonious end to his Meadows performance exposed the true nature of his power and influence. It highlighted the shift Kanye has made towards sharing his vulnerability with fans—in brief, but powerfully undercutting increments. And his fans are listening.
Yes, Kanye’s Greek narrative continues to take center stage. The Meadows performance began with five straight minutes of fireworks, crackling and booming over the baseline to “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” (a song which begins, despite his marital status, with lyrics alluding to sex with models). The simple fact that Kanye didn’t even come onstage until 30 minutes after his scheduled time—nearing 10 p.m. on a Sunday night and located an hour’s subway ride away from Manhattan— but not a soul abandoned their post speaks to the man’s sheer power.
Kanye played hit after hit. He had no time for the standard concert banter; he rapped two full albums’ worth of songs in just half his allotted timeframe. And there’s certainly something inherently satisfying about a performer with a massive catalogue of fan favorites, delivering them exactly the way the crowd want to hear them.
But the concert’s main takeaways weren’t the live versions of “Jesus Walks” or “Black Skinhead.” They weren’t the opening fireworks or the show’s fiery color palette.
Fans will remember when Kanye paused every couple of lines so he could hear the crowd sing instead.
They won’t remember the abrupt end of “Heartless,” but rather the way Kanye’s voice cracked during his apology.
They will remember when Kanye jumped off the stage, pushed security guards away and climbed into the audience. They will remember that right after he rapped “You should be honored by my lateness / That I would even show up to this fake shit,” he was mobbing with the crowd—out of the spotlight, out of the halo of smoke, surrounded by so many excited limbs that he wasn’t even visible on the massive screens.
These subtle moments, these acknowledgements of unity and humanness, are what make Kanye a memorable performer. He tells the world that he’s a god—but he shows fans his face.
Photos found on Tumblr.