We arrive at Indianapolis’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse at about 6:30 PM to get in line, having driven up from St. Louis earlier in the day. Even though we’ve had tickets since the TIDAL pre-sale and aren’t worried about our seats, we want to make sure there’s plenty of time to stop by the merchandise table. The line is already astronomically long, and it is filled with thousands of millennials. An hour goes by and the line has moved very minimally, and there is an increasing ominousness about the evening. I overhear someone say they think Travis Scott will be the opener.
At about 8 PM, when the concert was originally supposed to start, the line collectively dissolves into a formless flood of bodies, and we move forward to see that the security guards are still not letting people in. They are calling for more metal detectors. People begin to get antsy, and the woman next to me says that she wishes she had gone to see the Dixie Chicks instead, who were playing the same night. I decide to let the unknown take over, and I am no longer anxious. The doors open at about 8:30 and two of us take our seats, the other two following shortly thereafter and reporting that merchandise is only available to V.I.P. ticketholders. We have a beer.
The stadium begins to take on the aura of a 1980s sci-fi film as we realize there is no stage and that the room is slowly filling with mist, heavy drone music emitting from the speakers on the floor. We are confused about where Kanye West will be performing, and then I realize that he is going to perform on the long rectangular structure hanging from the ceiling and hovering about 30 feet or so from the floor. It is black and filled with unlit lights. There is a single stand in its center that looks to hold a laptop and an MPC. The floor continues to fill up with people who took the last-minute opportunity to exchange their tickets for GA floor seats. They are confused about where to stand, some of them pushing up against where the stage should be, others becoming hip to the plan and standing around the sides of the structure.
Two of the people in my party leave to get beer and I start thinking about the experience. I think about how, in a way, we are at the center of the world, that the eyes of culture are on this event, and I wonder whether I am actually having a new experience. In a world where the subjectivity of the individual is constantly in question and experience is so thoroughly dominated by the culture industry that unmediated activity is inconceivable, I often wonder whether it’s actually possible to have new experiences. I am not sure whether the concert qualifies at this point, but I do categorize it as momentarily incomprehensible, which I think is an important part of meaningful aesthetic experience.
The drone music feels great to me, and my excitement turns to calm as I realize that I trust Kanye. I feel like I know he is going to do something amazing. I think about the sense of drama and suspense he has already created in the room, without even being in it. I’ve seen hundreds of concerts in my life, and this is never something I’ve felt before. My friend points out that the beginning of a concert is usually a void of feelings, where one projects whatever excitement or cynicism they have into the space of the upcoming show.
But this is different. This is the opposite. Kanye West is in control, and he is guiding us. And I let him.
At around 9:30, every light in the house goes out, and it becomes almost pitch black but for the pointillistic array of cell phone screens. I expect the lights to turn back on, but they stay off. It is a beautiful moment of pure confusion. Suddenly, I see that he has appeared on the scaffold-stage, crouching alone in the center of one of the structure’s tangents, a perfectly square outgrowth. We realize that he is going to perform suspended above the crowd on this stage.
The lights turn on, and I am enveloped by feelings of well-being, excitement, and wonder. He performs “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” and then when it finishes, he performs it again, followed by “Pt. 2.” The square that he is standing on is gliding above the crowd, tilting at different angles, a single tether preventing him from sliding over the edge and being consumed by the masses. Sometimes he sits on the edge of the square, and at one point he lays down on it. He is very energetic, and it is obvious he’s been waiting for this moment like a muscular and trophied horse whose race gate has finally opened. He continues the set, which is well-rounded and strong on B-sides, covers, and contributed verses for other musicians’ songs. He does Drake’s “Pop Style” and ScHoolboy Q’s “THat Part.” He covers Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like.” The rest of the set is otherwise heavy on Pablo and Yeezus tracks, but also features many of his great songs from earlier records. There is a point at which the lights go off and he performs in the dark, suspended above an illuminated audience, which I find quite poetic.
About two-thirds through the concert, the lights go out and there is an instrumental interlude as he climbs from the square onto the larger stage structure, standing in front of the laptop and MPC. The opening piano notes of “Runaway” begin, and people begin to go really insane. He controls the Rick James sample (“Look at ya!”) from the MPC. It really looks and feels like he is performing on a spaceship now. When the song ends, he goes into a lengthy oration about NIKE, Adidas, family, growth, and other things. He says that it’s OK to believe in yourself and to have an opinion. He says “down with the corny corporate shit.” I actually find this combination of the brutally honest “Runaway” and the following speech to be quite moving. This is the moment when I realize that this concert is something truly special. I feel like I am temporarily plugged into a force or vibration that is very powerful and unmediated, and even though I know that, on some level, dialectically, it is still tied to the conditions that permit this kind of music and culture to exist in the first place, I almost let myself believe that the moment transcends the limitations of Spirit that would otherwise apply. I want to feel something, and I let myself do it.
Not everyone is as engaged as me during Kanye’s speech. A guy a few rows in front of us is opening and closing every app on his phone, eventually settling on Pokémon Go. One of the girls behind us is asking her friend whether Jared texted back. The guy directly in front of us emerges triumphantly after spending 30 minutes bent over the ground rolling a blunt. Everyone is trying to fill the void that this extremely rare moment is apparently not filling. I think about experience again and wonder whether such a thing is possible. This will remain my favorite moment of the show.
He continues with his set. “All of the Lights” is overwhelming and sounds great acoustically, while “30 Hours” somehow feels intimate and confessional despite the massive scale of the evening. My friends and I cheer when he mentions St. Louis and quotes Nelly. My friend and bandmate turns to me and asks if I can imagine how insane it would be to see Oneohtrix Point Never in this venue, with this kind of crowd. I can’t. Kanye returns to the flying square for “Fade.” I email my editor and tell him that the show is unbelievable and that I want to review it for the website and he responds immediately and with encouragement.
As Kanye gets toward the end of his set, there are moments when the fog is so overwhelming that it actually obfuscates the floor and makes everything seem like a horror movie, as if he is suspended over a misty bottomless pit. In a sense, he is. He finishes “Fade” and another electronic instrumental comes on, and then vocalists sing in the style of the beginning of “Wolves,” which he had performed earlier. Fog consumes the entire room. Everything goes pitch black again. The house lights come on, and Kanye appears to have disappeared from the square as mysteriously as he had appeared earlier. People begin to leave, but some stay to see if anything else will happen. After about five minutes, it becomes clear that the show is over. But as the fog clears, I can see that Kanye is still sitting on the edge of the square, as if he is overseeing everyone’s exit. In this lonely moment, he seems transcendental to me. The square lowers to the ground, and he unhooks himself and goes backstage. It is perhaps the most graceful exit I’ve seen from a concert stage.
The lights go on, and we are all too fucked up to talk. We spend some time walking around downtown Indianapolis looking for a bar. We settle on the same pub we had gone to before the show. We sit down and order a round of beers, and my friend asks whether Kanye just reinvented the concert. I am not sure whether he did, but it might have been something new.