Kanye West wore several intimidating, face-obscuring masks during his headlining set at the Budweiser Made in America festival on Sunday, but underneath each of them, he told fans, was a good guy.
“People say that I’m a bad person,” West said through a red patterned mask that covered his entire face, soon adding: "I’m up here trying to be creative. I’m not trying to hurt anyone, and I’m not going to let anyone hurt me.”
West proved he's not only famous enough to lead about 34,000 fans through a hit parade of singles, but also bold enough to do so in jewel-studded facial gear while thrashing around alone onstage -- and to go beyond the 11 p.m. time limit set for Made in America's debut in increasingly densely populated downtown L.A. (A representative for Mayor Eric Garcetti's office confirmed Monday that Live Nation would pick up the tab for extra costs such as police overtime but would not be fined for the closing set, which ran until about 11:30 p.m.)
West was practically on the steps of City Hall and just a block away from police headquarters, and though he didn't explicitly address the deaths of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner and others at the center of the debate about government violence against young men of color, there was some powerful symbolism in an African American artist performing at the official seat of power.
Singing in front of bright monochrome screens that turned him into a prowling shadow, West united the crowd. Opening with hard, noisy cuts like “Black Skinhead,” “Mercy” and a slice of his “I Don’t Like” remix, West asserted right from the start that he wasn’t going to hold his fire just because he could practically see the mayor’s office from the stage.
"Society is set up to control you," he said. "I'm keeping it real in an unreal situation."
His earlier singles -- “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down” -- turned the mood brighter, and finally hit that shared joy that all good festivals aim for. “Touch the Sky” and a regal, jubilant take on “All of the Lights” were two moments when the festival felt like it lived up to the Grand Park setting.
West closed out with an encore of “Blood on the Leaves,” the second time he played it Sunday night. It’s a divisive track. Many have noted the incongruity between its sample of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” and lyrics about groupies gunning for babies to get rich.
But when West returned to it, he used its militaristic trumpets to stir the crowd into mosh pits. “We could have been somebody,” he yelled, over and over again, jumping and screaming onstage like a punk singer. To watch him play that song in this space, to this crowd -- leave it to West to make self-doubt seem triumphant.
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