Is there a lonelier job than that of being Kanye West? Of course not. The pressures of the highest office are nothing compared with the awesome stress of being the self-styled “voice of this generation”. All those envelope-pushing ideas crying out for release from the Kanye cranium! All those haters failing to appreciate his genius!
At the Hammersmith Apollo, the unbearable loneliness of the superstar rapper manifested itself in West’s favourite pose: frozen still, looking up at the ceiling, jaw clenched, neck muscles straining, thought bubble above his head: “If Pope Benedict thinks his life is tough he should try being me.” This was solipsism as exhibitionism, a kind of intensely self-absorbed yet public display of egotism. Naturally no one else shared the stage with him.
The show was the second of three in London. They were announced at the last minute, and follow an appearance in Abu Dhabi. The maestro of “luxury rap” appears to have turned himself into the performing equivalent of a pop-up boutique. Except Kanye isn’t feeling the love for luxury rap any more. The previous night’s show found him denouncing “business people” and corporate sponsorship. “Since when was making art about getting rich?” the millionaire rapper railed.
There was no repeat of the outburst on Sunday. But the show was designed to depict West as a heroically striving solo artist, not the private-jetsetter of his Watch the Throne album with Jay-Z. The rapper stood on a sloping white stage, backed by images of frozen Arctic landscapes. The wintry theme was set by “Cold”, while a bereft pair of tracks from his break-up album 808s & Heartbreak saw fake snow cascade over the audience. Through the blizzard it seemed as if Kanye were rapping on a blue run in Verbier, but his outfit – an unfastened white straitjacket and yeti mask – suggested a less luxurious, stranger set of associations.
Upbeat tracks such as “Good Life” were performed in front of images of dawn. But West’s intense, unyielding vocals didn’t project enjoyment. The Arctic imagery, a pure white contrast with Kanye’s black skin, neatly illustrated his ambivalence about the world of elite white privilege, as simultaneously desirable and deathly. It also emphasised his hubristic sense of aloneness. “Top of the world, baby,” he declared in the final song, “Touch the Sky”, before letting loose a scream. It’s hard being so special; that’s what makes West such a fascinating but ultimately unsympathetic performer.