About 40 minutes into his set on Friday night and with the sour smell of sulfur from pyrotechnics hanging heavy in the air, Kanye West brought the mood down in Atlantic City's Ovation Hall following his performance of "Monster" with an interlude. Softly singing "I'm going home," and with his voice arriving with a familiar Auto-tune effect, West walked toward center stage, where he stood alone. The lights dimmed as a sketch of a familiar beat took shape. "I'm going home," West sang. The backing track formed. "I'm going home…" Then the foundation song moved to the front and Phil Collins' recorded voice drifted into auditorium. West sang along, "I can feel it coming in the air tonight…"
The Phil Collins sing-along was just one of several bizarre moments during West's sold-out performance at the 5,500-seat amphitheater at the shiny new Revel Casino, the first of a two-night residency that also marked the first solo concert from the iconic chart-topping rapper/producer in over a year (he last appeared on stage alone at Coachella 2011). Others included a lengthy story about lonely Friday nights in New York and the inspiration for "808 & Heartbreak's" "Say You Will" that included the punchline "You got your pride, you don't want to keep texting… [Then you] let dick take over your pride," an unexpected snippet from Queen's "We Will Rock You" and an extended play of "Chariots of Fire," and a thank you to fans that quickly spiraled into a self-congratulatory escapade punctuated by such bursts as "As a man I'm imperfect, but my music is!" and "I make perfect music! This is the best you'll ever get!" At one point, West even joyously collapsed center stage in what one could only assume to be the ecstasy of his own greatness.
In addition to these moments, and a barrage of career-spanning hits, West's performance featured a ballet troupe of some 20 dancers, an ornate backdrop designed to look like a classical European relief sculpture, onstage accompaniment by producers Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean, a crane-like elevated platform that looked a bit like a jet-powered tone arm that carried West over the stage, one guest MC (Pusha T, for a performance of the pair's recent G.O.O.D. Music single, "New God Flow"), one costume change and, according to the information projected onto the stage backdrop, three acts.
With only three new songs in the set - "New God Flow," "Mercy" and "Cold" (formerly known as "Theraflu") - this was Kanye West, the revue, which was perhaps fitting given the stage. And the nearly two-hour set was certainly an overwhelming display of might - the production felt elaborate for the size of the room and just two shows, and West too was apparently pushing himself to the limit, not only musically in his exploration of the depths of his formidable catalog, but also physically. At one point, he apologized for being "parched" as he'd just flown in from Paris that day. Still, the overall impression was that West didn't quite know what to do with so much material, and after several months on the road in the U.S. and Europe with Jay-Z for the Watch the Throne Tour, a stage to once again claim as his own.
To his credit, West didn't back away from the challenge and once again shot for high art. Unfortunately, on Friday night, he landed in a murky middle ground somewhere between big-budget blockbuster extravaganza and boutique art house one-man show that left many concertgoers happy, if a bit confused. When he gathered everyone in the production - the dancers, the producers, the DJ - onstage as the clock neared midnight for the cast group hug and bow that's a staple of a theater show, the room only returned lukewarm applause as West and company walked off the stage. As the lights went up, the crowd didn't call for an encore, it simply filed out, subdued and headed to the casino floor.