Kanye West: 2011

Kanye West: 2011
Kanye West's 2011 performance at the Marcus Amphitheater

Over the last decade Milwaukee has come a long way toward overcoming its old inferiority complex. We’re proud of the good thing we’ve got going on here, and with local pride as high as it’s been in at least a generation, we no longer feel the need to constantly compare ourselves to neighboring cities. Nonetheless, it feels good to have our egos stroked every now and then, and in 2011 the city got major bragging rights when Kanye West, at that time arguably the biggest, most important, most controversial rapper in the world, announced his only American tour date for that summer: a headlining gig at Summerfest’s Marcus Amphitheater.

Why get so excited about one show? Some context is important. At the time, Kanye had been off the road for a couple years following his Taylor Swift gaff at the MTV Music Awards, which permanently cemented his reputation as one of pop music’s great villains (even President Obama called him “a jackass”). He canceled what would have been a blockbuster joint tour with Lady Gaga and went into exile to record his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a self-hating magnum opus about the corrosive nature of celebrity. If felt like one of the most significant artistic statements of the era, and publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Pitchfork hailed it as their consensus pick for the best record of 2010.

Yet, save for shows at South by Southwest and Coachella and a smattering of overseas dates, Kanye never toured behind the record. New York never got a Dark Twisted Fantasy show, nor did Los Angeles or even Chicago (and that’s Kanye’s hometown), but Milwaukee did. Is it petty to feel proud about that? Because some six years later, I still feel proud about that.

The show was every bit the spectacle audiences could have hoped. Throughout the set, West was periodically accompanied by a flock of 20 interpretive dancers, who jumped and flailed away in front of an Apollonian backdrop. He had a band, too, and he was joined for a few songs by opener Kid Cudi, but by and large he kept the focus on himself as he delivered one of the most purely physical rap shows I’ve ever seen. When he wasn’t working the crowd by running himself breathless, he was falling to his knees, as if pleading for atonement. For Kanye during that time, concerts were a kind of public self-flagellation.

A few years later, on his even-better sixth album Yeezus, Kanye would stop trying to redeem himself and just run with the premise that he’d become a permanently corrupted, narcissistic  monster. In 2011, though, he was still fighting to clear his name. He peppered his show with a rant denouncing those who "make it seem like if you say something you believe in that you are a bad person," and thanked "anybody out there who ever had to defend me."

In the concert's closing stretch, West put his fleet of ballerinas to work with a run of high-production showstoppers that each would have made a spectacular finale on their own—"All of the Lights," "Stronger," "Runaway," "Lost in the World"—but he closed it on a small note, with a tribute to his recently deceased mother, "Hey Mama." "This show and every show before and after this is dedicated to one person," he said, and when the song finished he remained frozen onstage, hanging his head in his hand, shielding his eyes from the crowd. He ended the show like he spent so much of it, alone and on his knees. It’s one of the last times we’d ever see Kanye West quite so humbled.

Author: Evan Rytlewski
Evan Rytlewski

Evan Rytlewski has been the music editor for the Shepherd Express since 2006. His writing appears regularly on Pitchfork and the A.V. Club, and he can be heard most Wednesdays at noon as the co-host of WMSE’s culture talk show The Disclaimer. Follow him on Twitter at @evanryt.