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Review: Kanye delivers but keeps his distance

On his second performance in Abu Dhabi, the rapper superstar was as cold as his icy theme

  • Rapper Kanye West performs live in concert at the du Arena on Yas Island Abu Dhabi in the United Arab EmiratesImage Credit:
  • Rapper Kanye West performs live in concert at the du Arena on Yas Island Abu Dhabi in the United Arab EmiratesImage Credit:
  • The crowd during rapper Kanye West live performance in concert at the du Arena on Yas Island Abu Dhabi in the Image Credit:

With projections of icebergs, wintry scenes and “snow” cannons, Kanye West’s concert in Abu Dhabi on Thursday night had the not-to-subtle theme of Cold As Ice. That’s an apt description of the rapper’s demeanour too.

I’m not looking for a pantomime when I go to a concert — the audience interaction fall-backs of “now just the ladies sing-along” are cheesy. But a little acknowledgement that the audience — who have paid to see an artist, let’s not forget — are present is nice. It’s one of the things Madonna neglected to do. Her concert has, for this reporter at least, become the benchmark for what a performer shouldn’t do: bury yourself in an operatic, conceptual show and fail to explain it to the crowd. That’s not far from what West did with his concert, which was less rap show, more performance art.

He’s known for his conceptual approach to rap — remember the nine-minute video for ‘Runaway’ featuring a model as a phoenix who falls from the sky, then falls in love with him? Gin and juice, he ain’t, and his poetic rhymes are truly addictive. The stage show reflected the fact that his songs are on a different level— the stage was slanted up at the back and was covered in white, like a vortex that spat him out. Onto that vast white surface were projected videos of icebergs, a freezing ocean, a forest snowstorm and later, sunsets: this is what would happen if West ran The Discovery Channel. And he’s running it alone.

Apart from a small band just off stage, West was alone, wandering around the large, empty state like he was lost in the forest or adrift at sea.

He hit the stage with ‘Cold’, the hit from last year in which he revealed his love for Kim Kardashian, with Foreigner’s 80s hit ‘Cold As Ice’ woven in, wearing an all-white suit so the video projections covered him too. But it was on his hit ‘Heartless’ that the theme truly hit home — as cannons spewed out imitation snow (foam and white confetti), for a truly immersive experience, as the lyrics to the tale of unrequited love rang out: “the coldest story ever told”.

Oh, and West was by this point wearing a strait jacket and a mask made of feathers. The response by the smallish crowd — for the first time at a du Arena concert, I could get to the front of the general admission area even arriving at 9pm — was positive , with many appearing to know every lyric, but restrained. That was until ‘All Of The Lights’, when West came out of his introspection to scold the audience for not singing a line from the song loudly enough. It was like he’d given us an electric shock. He’s speaking to us? Wow!

Heading backstage, he emerged with his face again covered, this time by a mask of large crystals, for his take on Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, and a slightly underwhelming ‘Runaway’. A keyboard was carried out to him by a scurrying lackey, and he only had to hit that melancholy opening note for us to know what was coming. Sadly the live version didn’t add much to the album favourite.

West is a great performer — he raps perfectly, creates eye-popping scenery, and has the hits to do a set hours long — but because he keeps himself emotionally distant from the audience, his show could never be as memorable as it deserves to be.