At the end of Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark concert at Target Center last night; after Kanye’s spaceship triumphantly returned to earth (yeah, literally); after he did all the hits and publicly eulogized his mother; after he brought out Lupe Fiasco to duet on a searing version of “Touch the Sky”; after the greatest arena rap concert that’s ever been performed; the crowd was treated to a bizarre encore: From the lip of the stage, in front of his orchestra pit, Kanye went on a stunning, nearly twenty-minute rant against the media.
He told his 10,000 fans that after witnessing what they had just witnessed, go out and read the reviews, and watch the coverage, and be skeptical of the haters. “I’m just screaming at the refs,” Kanye preached, over the last strains of the orchestra. “Why are they always pointing out my ego and talking about how ‘he’s so crazy’ instead of talking about how the crowd felt when they first heard ‘Stronger,’ instead of pointing out how you all sang along to and were uplifted by ‘The Good Life’?”
Defiant, Kanye chastised the media for not being able to understand ironic self-deprecation. “Yeah, I got an ego!” he said. “Ever since my momma died, I decided I’m not going to hide my greatness anymore. I am the best. I am Michael Jordan.” He then put the world on notice that he will not be deterred from achieving the stature of Greatest of All Time. “Watch out, Madonna. Watch out, Elvis. Watch out, Tupac. Watch out, U2. Watch out, Radiohead.”
He didn’t play another song. But nobody left. Everybody stood there, paralyzed, and listened to what he had to say. Then the lights went up. Kanye was gone.
It was the 9/11 of encores.
People were bewildered. Filing out, looking at each other, confused, trying to somehow shape it into at least the first stages of articulation: What did we just see?
Well, that’s what the media is here for, kids. And I’m no hater—I’m going to tell you what we all saw, objectively, to the best of my abilities:
We just saw a Great American.
This was the last stop of the Glow in the Dark Tour in America, and now Kanye’s headed to Europe. His message will resonate there too, because it is a quintessentially American one that works everywhere in the Western world. It is the message of the heroic individual’s pursuit of freedom, couched in Judeo-Christian terminology. It can be penitent, but it’s always resolute. As Kanye put it: “Wait ‘til I get my money right/Then you can’t tell me nothin’, right?”
Kanye’s first song, “Good Morning,” acknowledged the responsibility that comes with martyring yourself to commercial success. After Lupe and N.E.R.D. and Rihanna had opened up, playing on the front eighth of the stage in front of a gigantic black curtain, after forty-five minutes of setting up, the building went dark. A huge, fifteen-foot-by-twenty-foot computer monitor went on and a feminized robot voice prodded, “Wake Up, Mr. West.” Kanye was lying on the keyboard, curled up in the fetal position on the corner of a huge laptop computer, sitting in a fogged-out moonscape. He shook off grogginess, stood up in his sci-fi Kanye Bespin battle gear, and as morning broke on a gigantic screen behind him, he rapped about his mission.
Good morning, look at the valedictorian
Scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean
Scared to face the world, complacent career student
Some people graduate, but we still stupid
They tell you read this, eat this, don’t look around
Just peep this, preach us, teach us, Jesus
Okay, look up now, they done stole your streetness
After all of that, you receive this
I’m serious about this (even if Kanye is only half-serious). Yes, Kanye has a painfully obvious Christ complex and he’s fixated on brand names. But why should that disqualify him from being a great American? Yes, his message is sometimes conflicted for a pop star’s: In some songs, he actually scourges himself and others for pursuing soulless commercialism, and on others he raps, “I’m like the fly Malcolm X/buy any jeans necessary.” But his College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation album cycle, which he performed seemingly in its entirety last night, can’t be parsed as easily as he "hates authority and loves designer jeans but he’s actually guilty about it because he’s a Christian.”
The crowd last night was at least eighty percent white, and probably mostly between eighteen and twenty-five. This particular generation and class has never been more down with the message of hip-hop--self-improvement, both artistically and materially—hell, even morally—through commercial success. They sang along to every word of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” a song about earning enough money to become completely independent and asserting your individuality.
That’s the American dream, right? They waved their hands up in the sky during “The Good Life,” which is about overcoming adversity, overcoming the haters, and getting on TV. Just like most Hollywood movies or American literature, Kanye’s message is about aspiration, it’s ambitious. It’s a fresher “Yes, We Can!” with an even stronger broadside against the conformity machine. Yes, there are moments of self-doubt and spiritual recrimination along the hero’s way—but those moments are to be overcome too.
This is how much of a great American Kanye West is: On his first album, he rapped about wanting to fly away from his job at the Gap on a spaceship.
And now he has one.