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What Kanye West Can Teach Us About Fame

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Kanye West is flying. Or rather, he's leashed to a platform that is slowly soaring through Toronto's Air Canada Centre above a massive arena-sized mosh pit.

It is a spectacular and intimate piece of staging for West's Saint Pablo tour, one that simultaneously positions Kanye above the masses while also bringing them right up close to him, maybe closer than previously achieved at any concert of this size ever.

In typical multilayered Kanye fashion, it acts as both a stage and a symbol of celebrity in the social media age.

Hands up, hands up

A photo posted by su (@lifeofsu) on

It honestly feels a little strange attending a Kanye West concert in 2016, even for someone who has been to all of his tours, including the not-yet-famous rapper's "College Dropout" jaunt a dozen years ago when he brought along a huge live band led by also not-yet-famous pianist John Legend.

West has performed micro-concerts here in Toronto over the past while, sparking a controversy over his Pan Am Games gig and a couple cameos at Drake's OVO Fest, but lately it feels like Kanye, much like his wife Kim Kardashian West, is most famous for being famous.

Well, that and for pulling stunts like his song "Famous" in which he trolled us all with that line about making his bête blonde Taylor Swift famous with his "Imma let you finish" award show interruption.

Like most of his outrageous statements, it had an element of truth. Swift is, of course, a talented singer and songwriter who was already a country music superstar with an eye on the pop charts at that point. But it at the very least accelerated her crossover and became a signature part of her biography.

And it still comes up all the time six years later, including in West's four-minute speech at this past weekend's VMAs (during which he also predicted that, unlike Swift, his video for "Famous" would lose to Beyonce, which it did).

His MTV speech also reminded viewers that he called Taylor to get her OK for the song lyrics, a fact that she denied until Kim posted the audio and broke the Internet (again). But alongside bringing up the violence wracking Chicago right now, the key part was that he closed his speech by saying "now I'm going to play you a piece of my art."

That's really what gets lost in the discussion about Kanye, battered about by comment section racism, clickbait outrage and his own admitted douchebaggery.

But even the latter, the part that most people cite in their often grotesquely over-the-top dislike of the man, has been fodder for his art. One of the highlights of Saint Pablo (or any show where he performs it) is "Runaway," the song that arrived with a ballerina-filled short film in 2010.

Look, I miss the old Kanye, too, but mostly because that Kanye didn't distract us from the music.

It's quite a thing to watch 20,000 or so people raising their overpriced beers to the sky and singing en masse: "Let's have a toast for the douchebags / Let's have a toast for the assholes / Let's have a toast for the scumbags / Every one of them that I know / Let's have a toast to the jerkoffs / That'll never take work off / Baby, I got a plan / Run away fast as you can."

He revisited the theme with even more self-awareness last night during "I Love Kanye," an a capella song off his latest album "The Life of Pablo" which mocks his egotism ("I love you like Kanye loves Kanye") and our entitlement: "I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye / The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye / I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye."

Look, I miss the old Kanye, too, but mostly because that Kanye didn't distract us from the music. I'm going to compare him to the Beatles right now, and I'm honestly not trolling the haters.

Not only has the former art-school student left behind a similar streak of excellent albums that is almost otherwise unparalleled, he has continued to ramp up his artistic experimentation despite presumed label pressure to coast along on his popularity. Just compare Kanye's late-period work to that of his mentor Jay-Z, which explains why West concerts attract a much younger crowd.)

This experimentation continued earlier this year with the in-process release of "The Life of Pablo" which was uploaded to Tidal in an unfinished state and completed in real-time, and now on this tour, which stripped back the craziness of the Yeezus tour, with its mountain, monster and indoor snowfall.

But the focus wasn't now just on Kanye, despite the lack of a live band, back-up singers or special guests, despite the collab-heavy new album. (When he performed "FML," the Weeknd's voice was the backing track, and same for Kanye's performance of his Drake duet "Pop Style.")

The floating stage also operated as a spotlight on his fans, shining down on the general-admission crowd and turning them into the show's signature visual. They knew it too, scrambling to be under the stage so those of us in the stands could see them bounce and rap along even if they couldn't see Kanye.

He was literally sharing the spotlight.

Again, everything Kanye does has subtext to it, even his off-the-cuff rants. We weren't treated to one of those like the opening show in Indianapolis, which featured a 20-minute speech about sneakers and positivity during "Runaway," so the music itself acted like a 90-minute defense of Kanye, the artist.

The 37-song setlist began with "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" and ended with "Ultralight Beam," both new, gospel-fuelled tracks. In between he dug deep into his back catalogue, bouncing from early singles "All Falls Down" and "Gold Digger" to mid-period anthems "Power" and "Stronger" to industrial rockers "Black Skinhead" and "All Day" to autotune ballads "Heartless" and "Only One."

The Saint Pablo tour is Kanye's 2016 manifesto -- a demonstration of his creative evolution and artistic import, a reminder that celebrity isn't why he's famous, and just a chance for West to fly above his fans while we all sing "this is a God dream / this is everything."

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