"I just wanna feel liberated!" That's what Kanye West was singing as he floated over the crowd at Washington's Verizon Center on Thursday night.

Perhaps your jaw was too slack to properly sing along.

Instead of prowling an earthbound stage, West hovered above the general admission crowd on a mobile platform that looked as if it had been plucked out of a Donkey Kong cartridge and plunged into a Ridley Scott movie.

Along with smoke, light and sound, the air quickly filled with metaphors about faith, class, power, celebrity, democracy, neoliberal angst and existential alienation.


Even West's safety harness seemed to be telling us something meaningful. Tethered to the deck of his craft, he was half deity, half detainee.

Kanye West spent the show suspended above the audience, performing on a stage that moved around the arena. Photo / Getty Images
Kanye West spent the show suspended above the audience, performing on a stage that moved around the arena. Photo / Getty Images

Those kinds of contradictions have made West a national fascination for the past decade, as well as a new type of stadium-ruling pop star. He's an auteur with an unprecedented command of spectacle, but onstage, he completely rejects the discipline of his virtuoso heroes - Prince, Michael Jackson and Beyoncé among them.

It makes for some whiplashing thrills. Yes, West can transform a drab basketball stadium into science fiction, but he's prone to annihilating the momentum of his performances with his lack of impulse control.

How long before this becomes the new normal at starry mega-concerts across the land? West's entire career has bloomed parallel to our 21st century media metabolism, and his cultural influence continues to feel incalculable. He first launched himself toward the heavens during the reality television boom, rapping as if he'd gotten hooked on truth serum - and then he married the most famous reality star alive. Instead of prioritising his art over his celebrity, he did that cool Warholian trick of weaving the two strands into one rope.

But there have always been big mysteries at play. Right now, it's this one: After dropping his weakest album, West somehow remains pop music's centripetal force.

Released in February, The Life of Pablo was West's seventh solo studio album, and his first without an aesthetic center. Scattered and uneven, the songs themselves didn't sound finished, probably because they weren't. In the weeks that followed, West tinkered with the mixes, releasing updated versions that challenged the static nature of recorded music (a good idea) while diminishing the authority of his vision (a bad idea).

Still, West's worst idea on Pablo was renewing his feud with Taylor Swift seven long years after interrupting her acceptance speech at an MTV awards show. Such petty lyrical grudge-holding doesn't jibe with the rapper's futurism, and it has all but voided his post-Katrina declaration, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Let's not forget that this was the most significant moment of protest from a pop star after 9/11, and that the message clearly got through. Bush later cited West's criticism as the lowest low of his presidency.

West's politics still bring a tremendous gravity to his verses, so it's a pity when he frontloads the pages of his lyric book with rotten celebrity beef. On Thursday, the most indelible gut-punch came during the noisy thud of Feedback when West rapped, "Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us/Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us." Those last five syllables seemed to go sour in his mouth.

The rest of the evening illustrated the maniac breadth of his songbook, thematically and sonically - from the bass tremors of Mercy, to the gospel euphoria of Ultralight Beam, to the prankish pop of Gold Digger, and to the piano balladry of Runaway during which he sang the night's most confessional line, "I always find something wrong."

And in those rare moments when he can't find something wrong, West likes to make something wrong.

"I have to be selfish for a second," he announced after abruptly interrupting "Power," just as the room was about to go nuclear. "I have to say that today, I needed to hear these songs . . . . I needed to hear me today!"

He went on to explain that the launch of his new fashion line in New York the previous afternoon hadn't been received as warmly as he had hoped - the latest instance in a career spent turning obstacles into fuel. Apparently, talking it out would be more cathartic than blasting through one of the most electrifying hits of our young century.

Obviously, West's hallmark whining can grate. But if you tease out the underlying arguments from his angriest talk and hold them up to the light, he becomes a more sympathetic figure. His neediness feels like an intense desire for connection.

His self-obsession becomes a messy quest for self-knowledge. His narcissism is an attempt to self-manufacture the love required to survive the cruelty of existence. West reminds us that self-lovers can be self-haters, too - they refuse to be satisfied by this world, which includes themselves. As superstars go, he's easier to identify with than to worship.

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And through all of that blistering bass and dizzying blab pumping from the speakers, a counter intuitive truth began to emerge on Thursday night: A Kanye West concert isn't only about Kanye West.

On the underbelly of his life raft, there were lights designed to shine on the audience below - and that giddy, roving crowd followed West back and forth across the floor all night, dancing with complete abandon.

Up above, a beautiful egomaniac was proving that he still understood pop's most basic truism: Music only really exists in the bodies and minds of those listening to it.