When I tell Chinese people that Kanye West is one of my favorite musicians, they consistently have no idea whom I’m talking about. Considering that one of my preconceived notions about most conversations I have is that people know and ostensibly love Kanye, and therefore he is a safe subject to discuss (which I do, often), it’s always a blow to have this common ground taken away from me. Nonetheless, in addition to the swarms of ex-pats who rolled up to the biggest musical event in Beijing hip hop history last night (including a bunch of mysterious high-school age Americans – are there really that many embassy kids?), there were enough Chinese people to pack the Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium, which was conveniently small enough that my nosebleed seats were a lot better than my nosebleed seats from when I saw Kanye at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

In fact, the whole affair was decidedly Chinese. To get into the stadium we had to walk down an aisle lined on either side by soldiers, and the show itself had a bunch of weird regulations. By all appearances, they didn’t let the extremely limited number of people on the floor stand or dance at all until the last two songs, which both must have made those seats a ripoff and kind of killed the energy for everybody else. The most glaring issue, though, was that the sound was absurdly low. I could barely hear Kanye on many of the songs, and it often took me 20 or 30 seconds to even figure out what he was performing because the only audible part was the bass drums. Presumably there was some kind of government presence stepping in and making sure that it wasn’t too loud, since Glow In The Dark was one of the best-mixed concerts I’ve ever seen.

Regardless, Kanye is a hell of a performer. This was billed as part of the Glow In The Dark Tour, but it was not the same space opera show, which makes sense because flying that set to China would have been extremely expensive. Due to this, and probably due to the fact that China isn’t as well acquainted with Kanye as American audiences, Kanye was surprisingly loose onstage. Glow In The Dark was, in many ways, the pinnacle of Kanye’s rise to superstardom. It was carefully controlled down to every last lighting cue, scripted line, and random Journey cover. Following Kanye’s control-freak aesthetic, it was, more importantly, laced with a desperate desire to prove that he deserved his role as a pop icon, and it succeeded admirably. The only problem with that show is that it lacked some of spontaneity that live shows are supposed to have, and, while it perfectly recreated or enhanced album versions of songs, it was a little too perfect. Last night was still carefully scripted, but Kanye seemed like he had nothing left to prove and could be comfortable just doing his thing onstage.

It was fucking great. In addition his sprawling live version of “Good Life” and the emotionally dense “Hey Mama” performance, Kanye also mixed up his aesthetic on a few other songs, taking advantage of his great live band, who appeared onstage with him, albeit all wearing quasi-Daft Punk space visors. The highlights included “Heard ‘Em Say,” which he delivered over an arrangement so spare that it was basically just a bass drum for the whole song, and “I Wonder,” which Kanye ended by playing a pretty lengthy keyboard solo, which was about the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. Also, people may claim that Kanye can’t rap, but instead of ending the show with a 15-minute monologue about his ego, like on Glow In The Dark, he wisely assumed that the significance would be lost on a Chinese crowd, so he led a freestyle sing-a-long about hoping we had had a good time. Then it turned into an actual two and a half minute freestyle, which was the best I’ve ever heard him flow, and definitely put a few live freestyles I’ve seen to shame. It was so exciting to see ‘Ye blacking out like that, since I’ve always assumed (with the record on my side) that he couldn’t freestyle particularly well. After the freestyle, the show ended with a great drawn-out version of “Stronger,” which was the only song that really made the crowd go wild. He also dropped in about three lines from “Love Lockdown” in the middle of this, which made me realize that, for all my skepticism about that song, it seems pretty well-suited for Kanye’s live show. I was really disappointed that he didn’t do more from 808s, since I was kind of hoping for an exclusive debut of something new, and I at least wanted to hear something from it in a live context. On the other hand, he sang Estelle’s “American Boy” in addition to doing his verse, which was cool. Inexplicably, the band still covered “Don’t Stop Believing,” even though it had no role in the plot of the show. As it turns out, that song is not as reliable of a sing-a-long in China as in America. Anyway, it was a fun set, but I was disappointed he pieced out so quickly, and he didn’t do “Jesus Walks” or “We Don’t Care,” which seemed like kind of glaring omissions.

When Kanye left the stage before his last salvo of “Touch the Sky,” his freestyle, and “Stronger/Love Lockdown,” I looked at my friend and we both mentioned how appropriate “Love Lockdown” would be at that point. Between that and watching Kanye wear a gold jacket with bright red pants, which was a look that did not work that well for him, I realized that it’s kind of exciting that he’s reached a point where he doesn’t care what people think about him. When the first tracks from Graduation dropped, we were all pretty skeptical about Kanye’s new aesthetic, but he pulled it off pretty well, and he made insane amounts of money. Kanye makes what he does work, and even if it doesn’t, I can admire the fact that he’s evolving artistically, which is more than most artists can say. Seeing him so comfortable on stage last night was much more endearing and refreshing than seeing him roaming the moon landscape desperate for approval. A Kanye who is not so desperate to prove that he’s the best may not be as consistently good, but I can see him being very interesting. Oddly enough, I see a lot of similarities between Kanye right now and Prince, specifically the Artist Formerly Known as Prince phase, which is another situation where an artist delivered a hearty “fuck you” to the world and made the music they wanted to make. If this all ends with Kanye playing a pharoanic symbol-shaped guitar, I probably will not complain. So we may shit on 808s and Heartbreak, but at least Kanye can reliably always provoke a discussion around here. That’s really what the show last night showed.

Also, when we left we ran into a bunch of Chinese guys who were wearing the most absurd clothing from this group of Chinese streetwear brands, especially one called RMBZ (the Chinese currency is the RMB), which stands for Root of Money BoyZ. It was tight, so I’m going to go ahead and link to their website, because this brand needs to blow up. Unfortunately, their website doesn’t have much information, and it’s unclear where you can buy these clothes (they told us to go to their website), but damn, RMBZ knows what’s up.

Oh, the other weird thing was that the show ended at 9:30. What’s up with China?

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