Desperately Seeking Awesomeness: Kanye West Live At Wireless

Kanye West's onstage wafflings at this weekend's Wireless Festival have attracted the ire of press and festival crowd alike. But, argues Kyle Ellison, it's just more evidence that he wants to be loved...

Kanye West live shot by Katja Ogrin

What started as a low murmur quickly became a very definite grumble. Sighs, groans, and at least one perfectly executed tut were to follow, but now it’s unmistakably boos that can be heard like a low-flying plane over the 50,000 Wireless Festival attendees at Finsbury Park.  There are cheers mixed in too, but a few die-hard Yeezus disciples can’t restore this crowd’s patience with Kanye West. "Why can’t he just play some bloody music?," pleads one festival-going caricature stood next to me – the kind you see on ‘Glasto’ highlights reels. Face painted. Hat. A faint patter of rain adding to her distress.

Kanye started playing ‘Runaway’ nearly twenty minutes ago – his ode to douchebags from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that traditionally culminates in one of his now infamous ‘rants’. You’ve no doubt watched them before on YouTube or at least read the sensational reports, but at last this is one we can call our own. It feels like an age ago that the audience was merrily toasting to assholes, scumbags and jerk-offs, but these same words are now being repeated in sour tones, joined by their British counterparts and ripples of "get on with it you dickhead!" Disbelief mounts, but Kanye talks and talks, sporadically singing sections through Auto-Tune to at least maintain the illusion of a show.

How did we get to this point? If you’d arrived earlier you would have seen Pharrell performing on the very same stage, condensing more than a decade of party playlists into an hour of clean fun. This was your chance to bask in last year’s Sound Of The Summer™ one last time, as both ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ are dutifully recited alongside a clinical selection of solid gold pop from the Neptunes vault. You’ve heard it all before, but this is live music, pal – the real deal. Now he’s playing ‘Happy’, and we are happy, and look he’s wearing that big hat from the TV.

You can’t really fault Pharell’s performance. In Mr Men terms, the great thing about Mr Happy is that you can rely on him to be fucking happy. Mr Cheerful sticks to the script. This is the unwritten agreement of any major festival booking, ensuring that the punters who bloody love festivals can continue to do so and return next year in their droves. Perhaps with a new pair of wellington boots, but the music, the atmosphere and the Tuborg will all be very much unchanged.

As I stand in the drizzle listening to Kanye talk about his dreams, then, forgive me for hanging on his every word. The grubby tabloid headlines may read ‘meltdown’ or ‘egotistical rant’ but the truth is much more innocent, even sweet-natured. "How many people tonight think they are fucking awesome?," he asks, as though it’s a perfectly ordinary question. For Kanye, it’s exactly that. Because underneath all the talk of Nike shoes, leather jogging pants and Le Corbusier lamps, all he ever really wanted is to be awesome – and for you to be awesome too. He is desperately seeking awesomeness at all times, and his ego is a necessary quality in pursuit of a more awesome world. West may look like the rap game Kendo Nagasaki, head-to-toe in stonewashed denim with a series of bejewelled masks covering his entire face, but right now he’s the most sensible man in Finsbury Park. The boos are a mere background nuisance, something he’s grown accustomed to, like the flicker of the paparazzi flash.

They weren’t booing earlier as he arrived on stage to the cyberpunk stomp of ‘Black Skinhead’ – smartphones raised frantically to the sky, filming the smartphones ahead. "I’ve been a menace for the longest / But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted," the crowd chants along, his ‘rants’ much better received when you can dance to them. A GOOD Music trio of ‘Mercy’, ‘Clique’ and Chief Keef’s ‘I Don’t Like’ are met with a similar frenzy early on, even if the low-end doesn’t quite hit you hard enough in the chest. That’s to be expected. Those songs are made for the club and the car, converted to outdoor event rap as a casualty of supply and demand.

The intensity of Kanye’s performance more than makes up for the setting. The staging is relatively simple, stripped of the theatrics of the Yeezus tour on which Jesus Christ himself even made a brief appearance. No such high-profile guests appear here, with just two standard side-screens and a towering central column to frame the action. The display flits between a serene waterfall that reaches high into the heavens, an ominous coloured block of apocalyptic red and live footage of the stage as Kanye hops excitedly from foot to foot, ready to pounce. By the end of the opener he’s thrust himself onto the floor, but moments later he’s playing conductor for an orchestra of thrown up arms.

Part of the reason why he is so captivating to watch is that nobody likes Kanye West’s music as much as Kanye West. He’ll play moody when it’s appropriate, such as during the high drama racial politics of ‘New Slaves’, but a secret part of him would rather be down here with the plebs, watching himself perform. Even onstage he can’t take his eyes off of himself, catching a glimpse of the screens and pausing midway through ‘Good Life’ to direct the camerawork. During ‘All Of The Lights’ he loses his composure completely and it’s joyous to watch, his voice playing catch up with the beat as he bounces giddily around the stage. "I’m going to play something real underground now," he jokes in the song’s introduction, aware of having pushed some fans to their limit.

In these moments the tension of ‘Runaway’ is relieved, helped on its way by the setlist that veers suddenly towards older crowd-pleasing cuts. ‘Jesus Walks’, ‘All Falls Down’ and ‘Touch The Sky’ are played in succession, serving as a reminder that being a Kanye West fan wasn’t always this much effort. ‘Bound 2’ teases at the same idea, withholding all the elements of a perfect pop song behind a thin layer of transparent glass – tormenting you through its icy, imperfect arrangement. Even so, Charlie Wilson’s hook lingers into the night, echoing through the exits on the slow walk back to the tube.

Kanye wasn’t about to end on a love song, though – beautiful, dark and twisted though it is. ‘Blood On The Leaves’ feels far more fitting a finale for a set of such high emotion, with TNGHT’s climactic drop as cathartic as any you’ll find. The crowd will leave tonight split between those who are elated and frustrated, energised and exhausted – but for one final song all of this blurs into insignificance. Whatever the atmosphere before this point, for at at least six minutes we all feel fucking awesome. Kanye’s wish is granted; we’ll dissect how he did it in the morning.

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