In Defense of Kanye West's Billboard Music Awards Performance
"Great artistry is about eliciting a reaction," writes Billboard's news director.
How did Kanye West show up the 17 other performers who took the stage at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards? By barely being visible during his four-and-a-half-minute closing slot, veiled by a heavy fog of smoke that took most of the song “All Day” to dissipate and the sort of lighted sparks you’d expect to find on a birthday cake.
On television and live at MGM Grand’s Grand Garden Arena, the rapper could hardly be seen for a good minute of his performance, prompting many to wonder if the plume was intentional or a mistake. Similarly, the number of curse words in his two-song set (‘Ye segued into “Black Skinhead”) necessitated so much bleeping (in the form of muted bursts), that others took to social media asking whether his microphone was broken.
News flash: As in all things Kanye, his creativity comes with a purpose -- in the interest of offering an artistic alternative to convention. Just a few months back, for example, he performed his new song “Wolves” at the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary show, all while lying on his back. And while the rapper’s name as a headliner was certain to draw eyeballs to the BBMAs, he’s really only obligated minimally to conform to a program's tone, visual or otherwise. You'd be hard-pressed to find a TV booker for any awards show who would turn down a Kanye appearance on the grounds of his unpredictability, because it’s exactly that which entices potential viewers to tune in.
So did Kanye intend to stay in the dark? Assumedly yes, as an artistic statement to a track that boasts (“And you ain't gettin' money 'less you got eight figures”), warns (“I don’t let 'em talk to me no kind of way / Uh, they better watch what they say to me") and prays (“For that Jesus piece, man, I've been saved”), even as it cycles through 44 mentions of the N-word. Also consider this: perhaps the intention was to take the focus away from the celebrity of Kanye -- the person we associate with the Kardashian clan and insulting Taylor Swift -- and encourage an audience to listen rather than gawk.
Indeed, it seemed the sight of Kendall and Kylie Jenner incited an audible round of boos, which didn't fade during ‘Ye’s moment on stage. And being among the audience for the performance, it’s true that something in his chosen delivery felt like a disconnect. But when it involves the arts, boos do sometimes come with the territory. Just last week at the Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant’s latest, Sea of Trees, was greeted with a chorus of French-accented jeer. Two decades ago, Pulp Fiction was booed at the same confab, and before that, Taxi Driver.
What did the BBMAs audience expect? Classics like “Golddigger” and “Heartless” are exactly that -- classics. Kanye West has always been a creature of reinvention and evolution. His start in the music business dates back almost 20 years, and he’s long been a provocateur. He’s a husband and father now as well as a world traveler. And his more recent material from Yeezus, as well as what he’s released from his forthcoming album Swish, is as forward sounding as it comes, at times bordering on just plain strange.
Great artistry is about eliciting a reaction, and Kanye West has never lacked for that. It’s why, as a rapper, he’s really become one of our greatest rock stars -- fog machine and all.
Shirley Halperin is Billboard's news director.