Kanye West insisted that he gets a bigger kick out of his bad reviews than his good ones. In which case, he should look away now, because I'm all about the shock and awe after his performance at Le Zénith in Paris last night. West has been doing a few of these surprise club dates around Europe, but nothing about the ninety-minute show felt like it was on the fly. In fact, it played like a piece of musical theater as tightly conceptualized as Bowie's Isolar tours, with West solo against a huge screen and his musicians tucked to the side, anonymity guaranteed by mummy-like wrapping. The screens played images of nature at its most elemental: boiling clouds, raging blizzards, titanic waves, frozen wastelands. When West was poised at the pinnacle of the canted stage, nature surging all around him, it was like he, too, had become a force of nature. And that sure was the way his relentlessly intense performance played.
But it's always been part of West's irresistibly twisted allure that the peaks of public triumphalism have been balanced by depths of private anguish. The balance clearly shifts. King Crimson already sang about a "21st Century Schizoid Man." All West had to do was lift the sample. He performed last night in a straitjacket, and sang "Say You Will," the most agonized song from 808s & Heartbreak, with arms bound and head encased in a beaked mask of white feathers. The outfit could have been West's comment on the inescapable lunacy of fame, though he is, of course, a perfectly willing participant. But when "snow" fell from Le Zénith's ceiling, heavy enough to blanket the audience, there was a moment when they looked like refugees. And that mask made West look more sacrifice than bird of prey.
The show revolved around his long, free-form verbal riffing. He'd bring the music down to a drumbeat or a piano chord while he fixated on a phrase or a train of thought, lost in a tortured internal dialogue. "Hendrix, Morrison, James Brown," West named his improvisational influences later. "Nothing recent." During a long vamp through "Clique," he reeled off some other names by way of context: Picasso, Michelangelo, Basquiat, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs: fiercely original thinkers all, and none of them particularly troubled by conventional mores. If that's the company West feels he'll keep for posterity, I certainly wouldn't contradict him. Genius smooths the rough edges of ego.
West's foray into fashion was always colored for me by the thought that it might distract him from making music (and if he had designed clothes as well as he does that, it probably would have). "Fashion" reared its head twice last night, in the forms of a crystal Margiela mask (the covered face as an ongoing motif in West's life and art is yet one more thing that demands obsessive analysis) and what I think was a shout-out against designers who won't lend clothes to his girlfriend. (You'd imagine she might have enough money to buy them by this point. I'll never quite grasp why the people who can most afford everything seem to be the ones who most want stuff for free.) But on another level, the entire evening was as designed and immaculately realized as a great fashion collection and/or show. So in the end, Kanye actually realized his ambitions. And his focus is firmly back on music, specifically on the album he has been recording in Paris. Though he concedes two new preoccupations: "furniture and pornography." Two more designs for living that offer endless possibilities to enthrall and appall.