How To Make Sense Of A Spectacle: Ye Takes ‘VULTURES’ To Paris

Reflections on the impact of his listening party...

The so-called ‘greatest concert film of all time’ hurtled back into the zeitgeist last year when Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense got a shiny-new remastered release by Hollywood’s ‘it’ studio A24. Here, on a wet, miserable night in Paris, I can’t help but think: “I wonder what David Byrne would make of all this.”

Without a huge amount of warning, and barely any promotion, a Carnival has arrived in town, led by a man who himself was no stranger to obscenely broad shoulder-pads, but who otherwise has few obvious cultural links to the Talking Heads frontman. Conceptual and eccentric yes – but I’m sure Byrne would never dream of doing 90 minutes without a microphone.

Tonight though, in the same city that in 2011 inspired the ringmaster of this circus to create one of the most enduring hip-hop tracks of the last two decades, Kanye West – undoubtedly the most controversial, maligned and yet still one of the most fiercely followed figures in popular culture – is about to showcase his latest creation. A kind of performance. A kind of performance art. But definitely not just a listening party. 

A sea of camera-phone flashes steadily lights the stands.and an enormous white circular structure floats in the centre of the vast room. Aus Taylor, the man responsible for the much-discussed ‘VULTURES 1’ artwork and Ye’s right hand for the visual execution of the show, can be seen scampering from cameraman to soundguy, stage front to stage West. A celebrated visual artist in his own right, Aus is charged with his biggest task to date: turning the insight of Kanye’s mind into something that fills arenas around the world.

The UFO-like structure is, in fact, a 360-degree projector screen. Its mere presence, would itself have an engrossing spectacle at first sight but is betrayed by the fact that everyone in attendance has seen what was about to happen from all angles, a hundred times before. Such is the level of intrigue around this new, deconstructed version of an album tour, that fan-footage from all angles – on-stage, backstage and excitedly following Playboi Carti to his car – has dominated our feeds since the first ‘listening party’ came to pass in New York earlier this month.

That is, of course, if you’re not one of the millions of social media users that decided to try and ‘cleanse’ your feed of anything Ye related the last time he embarked one of his many ill-advised flights of demagogic fancy. Even if you are, you would be hard pressed to have total immunity from the barrage of clips coming out of the ‘VULTURES’ experiences in NYC, Milan, Bologna and now Paris. Most gigs don’t create this kind of impression. Even recent mega-shows by Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift or Beyoncé got their deserved flowers, yet failed to inspire such fierce debate online.

Where those god-tier artists fly through painstakingly choreographed extravaganzas, never skipping a beat or fumbling a lyric, Kanye doesn’t say a word. Ironic as this may seem for a man whose words have so often landed him in the hottest of choppy waters, here he doesn’t need to. Nike gloves and black Air Force 1s in the face of a multi-million pound lawsuit? Is that really Carti wearing a Slipknot-inspired pinocchio-faced gimp suit? He knew that the conversation would be created not from what he presents, but from the things that go on in the shadows. This was anything but accidental. 

Always a master in conducting anticipation, the tension heightens as a thick blanket of smoke from all corners of the stadium unfurls across the naked concrete floor. It’s all part of the act, even if he’s over an hour late. “There’s never really been a start or ending to it. It’s like… The music is the visuals. The visuals is the clothes. The clothes are the shoes,” explains Aus Taylor, when we sit for lunch the following day at Paris’ plush, crowded Soho House, still trying to make sense of what I’d witnessed, and what Aus had been working on intensively for the last two years. “It’s all like one symphony, one orchestra.”

It was the use of darkness that so-gripped the imagination. We see artists – clad in textured compositions of black and grey and mostly masked – but we wouldn’t hear them. Where fans would usually sing-along in awe-struck admiration, we instead are challenged by Ye to just listen to the new album in the same way that he was listening to it: Blasting from all sides, approaching a level near to – but never quite reaching – the emphatic size and scale he has dreamed of for all of his work since the seminal ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.’ Everything was a recording, and everything was recorded.

We don’t see his face until ‘KING’ the closing track on ‘VULTURES 1’ erupts with the opening refrain “‘Crazy, bipolar, antisemite.’ And I’m still the King.” At which point he takes off his blacked-out hockey mask, rolls up his balaclava and stares with burning-eyes down one of the four-cameras capturing and projecting his every move. The song is the realest Ye gets on ‘VULTURES 1’ by a long shot, and is the one moment in the performance that he really really wants us all to pay close attention to.

Whether echoing the opinion of non-believers, or making an admission of his own being, the directness with which this entire non-performance was presented is something I’ve never seen before. “The thought headlines was my kryptonite” comes the next line – the word kryptonite squeezed so uncomfortably into the bar that it feels as though it could explode at any time.

What happened in the 90 or so minutes between his delayed opening gambit, and this closing refrain before the encore, can hardly be explained. Not because of its complexity, but because its barefaced simplicity would make a track-by-track sound far more boring than it was in reality. The sound guy played the album, pretty much in order but for a few tracks (much to the chagrin of Ozzy Osbourne and Donna Summer among others) that feature uncleared samples keeping them absent from streaming platforms. Engaging in some kind of psychic call-and-response ritual, Ye and co-conspirator Ty Dolla $ign (who seems most comfortable as the feature, never the main event) move liked avatars between a central spotlight and vast swathes of smokey darkness shrouding the arena floor. 

We all cheer when North West triumphantly waves along to her hook on ‘TALKING’ (co-produced by James Blake, a man who has long seemed to cherish his cozy spot on the moral high ground) and does the same when Bump J, Quavo, Rich the Kid and Freddie Gibbs all made the most of their allotted time to dance in the limelight. The crowd start to mimic the chanting of Inter Milan’s Ultras as heard on ‘CARNIVAL’ a good hour before the show started, and reprise their passion to an even greater degree when the album’s breakout hit is actually played.

According to ZLYAH, an as-yet largely unknown contributor to join the pantheon of emerging talents that have lent their talents to Kanye’s creations, so struck was Ye by the commitment the inhabitants of Inter’s Curva Nord showed to their team, that he had to find a way to incorporate them into the record. “My first meeting with Ye was at the Genoa-Inter game back in October 2023,” Zlyah recalls to me via a Whatsapp voice note as I head bleary-eyed to the confusing hellscape of Paris Orly Airport. “He was so fascinated by the way they filled the entire stadium, that he would do anything to recreate that atmosphere in his live show.”

These Ultras – common football parlance for a select group of only the most die-hard, committed followers of the world’s most historic teams – find furiosity in the depths of their loyalty. The word ‘fan’ doesn’t begin to describe the way their team is wrapped up in their personal identity – and this sense echoes around the area. “Look at this. We’re in Europe, this isn’t even America,” reflects Aus Taylor, reflecting on the fervent hospitality of the ‘VULTURES’ teams’ host cities to date “To me that shows you that love is real. And the hate is a narrative.” Loving Ye isn’t something these (mostly) young men do, it’s part of who they are, and this is by design. 

West has never for one second wanted to be ‘just’ a musical genius. He has always seen himself as more of a deific Superman, put on the Earth to fulfil one divine purpose. “He’s not motivated by money,” echoes Taylor. “I’ve seen him lose it all to say a sentence… I truly believe it’s in his blood. It’s just… it’s his purpose.” At one point, in the summer of 2022, it felt like we’d lost Kanye to the God Complex altogether, just for him to return – somewhat triumphantly – by doing what he does best. Creating freely, conducting a rag-tag orchestra of immensely talented young artists, creatives and designers to bring one of his indefatigable multi-faceted visions to life.

His modus operandi is a cycle of creation and destruction, and it has been this way for a while. When his mother died, so too did the immortal Kanye. This incarnation of Ye is one of the many rebirths and reinventions of a man who is both fatally flawed and terminally creative. It’s why the ‘VULTURES’ project feels so distant from an album roll-out, and so distinct from a listening experience. 

In the age of algorithm-shaped preferences and emergent A.I. pop-stars, Kanye West creates like it’s a mutation in his human DNA. It’s his superpower, but is also killing him from the inside. Tom Garland, Cultural Critic and founder of the SOTA (State of the ART) newsletter describes West as “a mirror to our own contradictions, highlighting our capacity to compartmentalise and, rightly or wrongly, separate the art from the artist. To forgive and forget in anticipation of his next cultural milestone.”

‘VULTURES 1’ is a travelling carnival that reflects not the man’s soul, but the scale of his ambition and the complex, troubled waters of his humanity. It’s the uniquely Kanye quality of aspiring for something greater than could ever truly be achieved, is both his greatest strength and the cause of his most glaring – and shamefully public – weaknesses.

Headlines aren’t Ye’s kryptonite, they’re the prescription painkillers he’s hooked on. Here, in the French capital, playing to his base and delighting with an encore of hits from ‘N**as in Paris’ to ‘Bound 2’, it feels more like a victorious escape from some kind of facility, rather than a derailed train that’s heading right for one.

It’s the reason why at various points in his storied career Ye has taken on the entire fashion industry, hitched his wagon to the biggest (and most loud-mouthed) underdog in political history and, to the anguish of all of his less indoctrinated fans, engaged in dangerous and harmful rhetoric about an entire faith.

Yet to ignore this fact, is to ignore the millions of loyal followers who each seem to always have the most rose-tinted of sunglasses to match whatever new Yeezy uniform is required of them each year. More Batman than Superman perhaps, ‘VULTURES 1’ is about darkness and this choice is anything but aesthetic, with Moses Zay Fofana, one of the stylists employed to bring consistency to the entire cast of the show, explaining “I don’t even see black as a colour anymore, it’s a lifestyle.”

Perhaps Ye’s acolytes simply don’t care about words, and don’t engage in hero worship like generations past. Maybe they don’t mind separating the art from the artist when it means they can really feel what it means to be part of a truly original, unique moment in culture. 

Or maybe they all collectively agreed to stop making sense of it a long time ago. 

Words: Robbie Russell
Photography: Ahmed Idries

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