Kanye West's '808s & Heartbreaks' Hollywood Bowl Performance Shows a Side of the Rapper We Don't Like to Think
By Alex Ungerman
Despite all of the talking we know Kanye West can do, the rapper was all show and no tell during the moving Hollywood Bowl performance of his 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak.
The lonely, experimental album -- released in the wake of West's mother's death, and the ending of an engagement to then-fiancee, Alexis Phifer, after a six-year on-and-off relationship -- was an incredibly thoughtful choice to explore in such detail at the Los Angeles venue, a privilege the 38-year-old artist clearly did not take lightly. The entire spectacle, from the orchestra and the performance artists to the monolithic transforming staircase and even the fireworks -- which were used in such pointed, specific ways -- were handled with care.
The word we kept using throughout the show was deliberate.
Aesthetically, the performance was nothing like the original 808s and Heartbreak creative direction (Think: teddy bear in a gray suit with a paper mache heart lapel). Instead, it was closer to what we'd expect from West's most recent project, Yeezus, yet the tone didn't feel out of place. You also didn't have to have an intimate knowledge of 808s to feel deeply involved and taken in by the movement of the show.
West featured guest performers during the night, but not with the playful, reckless abandon that Taylor Swift showed throughout her 1989 World Tour. These cameos were delivered with purpose. Young Jeezy delivered a verse for "Amazing," British artist, Mr. Hudson, delivered his hook for "Paranoid," and actress Zoe Kravitz stood at the back of the Bowl, perched like an onlooking statuesque figure. If you aren’t one of Kim Kardashian’s millions of Instagram followers, you probably wouldn’t have even realized that you saw Zoe on stage until Kanye’s wife made that reveal on social media.
But the most prominent feature of the night was Kid Cudi, who lends his voice to several songs on 808s and was a key creative figure in the making of the album. Given the somewhat rocky nature of the two artist's relationship in recent years -- in 2013, Cudi parted ways from West's G.O.O.D. Music label to go in a new creative direction -- his inclusion in so much of the performance revealed how deeply the collaborators cared about the original music and its portrayal both on and off stage.
In a particularly moving moment that served as the emotional turning point of the show, West sat on the stage's stairs, heartbreakingly moaning along to "Coldest Winter" while a group of women in white gathered around a still black woman lying down on a table-like structure at the front of the stage. Noted as "Mother Procession" in a setlist posted to Instagram by a fan, the moment seems referential to West's mother, Donda West, who died from heart disease in 2007 after suffering "multiple post-operative factors" from plastic surgery. This became especially clear when, in sunny Los Angeles, snow fell on the Hollywood Bowl stage to highlight the desolate sense of West's loss.
Notably absent, probably to the dismay of some, was a lengthy, off the cuff rant from the top of West's head, nor a mention of his potential presidential run in 2020. At one point, the rapper did instruct the tech staff and orchestra to cut down to only the piano before apologizing to the audience for a mistake (that we didn't notice) in the most Kanye way possible: He called the show "the best dress rehearsal ever."
Those who attended could have told you very early in the show that there was no trademark vulgar tirade coming -- it simply wasn't what West came to the Hollywood Bowl to do.
"I just want you to have a good time tonight," he told the audience, who over the course of the performance transformed from passionate supporters to studious observers of the carefully crafted show.
That was no clearer than at the tail end of the show, which featured a breathtakingly melancholy delivery of "Pinocchio Story," where the rapper acted out being shot multiple times on stage.
Everything West wanted to say, about heartbreak, his mother, the struggle for the artist to have an opinion, and the public and media's reduction of the celebrity to a puppet, he said it through performance. No additional words were needed.
There is no shortage of people eager to disregard West as an arrogant man without anything of real value to offer. To be fair, a lot of this is due to West's own undoing. What the 808s performance at the Hollywood Bowl showcased, however, is that beneath the bravado, and God complex, there is a lonely artist with a true, creative voice struggling to communicate with the world.
Please don't mistake this for the very bro-ish 'his production value is like, sick, dude,' interpretations of West that you'll often hear from a good chunk of his most vocal aggrandizers. (Trust us, those people were standing in the row behind us, and almost ruined the entire experience). Our point is that if you braved the horrific Hollywood Bowl traffic Friday night, only for West's show to start more than an hour late, and decided against using the restroom, or braving the long lines for water and/or absurdly priced beer, once the lights went down and the concert finally began, you were never going to take that restroom break or grab that beverage, and you never wanted to.
After West brought out all the performers and orchestra to take a bow, you saw that genuine smile on the rapper's face that you so rarely get to see. And while some calls for an encore began, the mass of the audience seemed to instinctively know that there would be none, as West, Cudi and everyone else involved had already given all they had to give.
The last thing we saw while we began making our way down the steps and out to the windy Hollywood Bowl path to the parking lot was Cudi running off the stage, jumping up and down with his hand up in the air like an expression of total, childhood bliss.