Kanye West's 'Yeezus' Tour: Five Years Later
It all kicked off in Seattle on October 19, 2013.
It’s been five years since Kanye West hit the road in support of his 2013 album, Yeezus. Producer Mike Dean told fans via Reddit that a tour was imminent after the release of Yeezus; the album was not only a commercial success, debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart, but was met with critical praise. After its release, The Washington Post praised West as "a visionary who's managed to tweak the serial rhythms that dictate so much of our pop culture diet”; calling Yeezus "churlish and peculiarly magnetic." And the tour was nothing short of a live experience that embodied the visionary-spirited and magnetic album.
The Yeezus tour spanned 23 cities across North America and was presented by AEG Live; it was West's first major road-show since the 2011 Watch The Throne tour with JAY-Z, the highest grossing tour in hip-hop history—and his first solo tour since the critically acclaimed Glow In The Dark tour in 2008.
Canceled shows, postponed tour dates, rants, and lighting issues were the buzz-phrases that dominated coverage of the tour but the production and set design reigned supreme. The tour began in Seattle and was two hours filled with performances of 27 songs with a mountain and a cameo from Jesus. Then, rap's newest star Kendrick Lamar opened with a 40-minute set and performed a number of songs from good kid, m.A.A.d. City, along with a live band.
Throughout the tour, West performed all of Yeezus, “Power,” "All of the Lights," “Lost In The World,” and “Runaway” off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the somber-electronic tracks “Street Lights,” “Heartless,” and “Coldest Winter” from 808s & Heartbreak while giving fans older classics like "Stronger," "Through the Wire," "Jesus Walks," "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," "Flashing Lights,” and "Good Life."
The focal point of the show was a 50-foot high mountain, that molded into a volcano, called Mount Yeezus, by some. Above it, hovered a circular projection screen. There was a secondary stage at the foot of the mountain, one that elevated up to the main stage, shaped like a triangle; a concept seen later during the Saint Pablo tour.
The extravagant stage design was created, in part, by Es Devlin, famed stage and costume designer, who is also responsible for those giant LED cubes that Kanye and Jay-Z stood on during the Watch The Tour tour.
“The first thing to say about Yeezus, compared to the other projects, is that Kanye is obviously evolving as an artist every day,” Es Devlin told Noisey in 2014. “For Yeezus, Kanye and I had been talking about mountains, and we did a thing for the BET awards in 2006 that included a volcano he stood on. We had been talking about mountains since 2005 and icebergs for the past two years, and during all of ‘Watch The Throne’ we talked about icebergs and mountains.” Along with Es, New York-based design firm Family worked with Virgil Abloh, Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft, and Kanye himself in putting together the design.
For his first solo tour in five years, Kanye also reconnected with his long-time controllerist, Laura Escudé. The artist and music programmer/controllerist, worked on Jay Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne tour and played the strings on the duo’s track, "Made in America."
“It was the first time I had worked on a show that had worked a design that was so out of the box with so many moving pieces, and people and characters," she says. "We worked really hard to make the music fit the show and for the show to have a narrative and a story.”
Midway through the tour, West added a whole new set of friends to the lineup. At his November dates at the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, A Tribe Called Quest opened the show with what was billed as their "final performances as a group."
Fans who followed the tour were shocked night after night when after performing “Runaway,” West would appear in a priest-like robe on the stage's mountain and offer a “stream-of-consciousness” speech, his Sermon on the Mount; fitting for his messianic-themed shows.
The man on the mountain, the Margiela masks, seemingly naked dancers, and other characters and elements were the talk of the tour. "Beyond the music, the elaborate set design was particularly awe-inspiring," Pigeons & Planes wrote in 2015.
But what did it all mean? What was the inspiration behind the famed Yeezus tour?
Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his cult movie The Holy Mountain were important touchstones for the theatrical set design that included five stages; Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching and Finding, and12 female dancers that some called disciples along with other religious overtones. At one point during the show, Kanye even brought out a Jesus impersonator.
And when I say 'I am a god' it’s because I believe that God is inside all of us. I want you to believe that you can do and be anything. Yeezus is that sonic cocaine to get a nigga hyped up! Yeezus is that espresso. Yeezus is the new type of drug, high off life, high off confidence, high off self-esteem, high off believing that you can really live your motherfucking dreams, that’s that Yeezus.
In a guest appearance on San Francisco radio station Wild 94.9, West discussed the themes. “One of the things that I wanted to really get across with that message is that you can have a relationship with Jesus, that you can talk to Jesus," he said. "In the same way that someone might have ‘Jesus is my homeboy,’ that is the way I would express it.”
Jodorowsky's film is centered around a Messiah-like figure who wanders through bizarre scenarios riddled with religious imagery, similar to the loose plot of the Yeezus tour. The man meets a guide, as well as seven influential people, and all nine embark on a journey seeking “The Holy Mountain.” There are various aspects of the show that are influenced from the film, including the stage: the choreographed installation of nude women, masks, and inclusion of a holy figure, Jesus.
Two years after the tour concluded, Elon Rutberg—one of Kanye’s creative directors—took to Twitter to explain some other inspirations behind the tour. “Yeezus tour narrative was a pure splicing together of Dante's Inferno and the story of King David in the bible,” he tweeted.
Following, Rutberg explained with screenshots of excerpts from the book Dante’s Inferno offering an alternative to “The Holy Mountain” inspiration.
Those 53 tour dates fueled with an immaculate set design weren't without hiccups. Initially, the November 1 Anaheim tour stop was postponed and rescheduled until December 13. Later, on October 30, 2013 while on the road to Vancouver, a truck carrying custom-made video screens and equipment for the show was involved in a car crash which damaged the equipment beyond repair.
Two weeks later, the tour commenced again in Philadelphia but all missed dates, besides Chicago and Detroit, were canceled. In January 2014, Kanye added nine new dates to the tour and the following month, he announced an Australian leg of the Yeezus Tour. However, in early April the dates were postponed until September; West used the coming month to finish his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo.
Despite the delays, the tour hit No. 2 on the year's highest grossing runs making $25 million across 18 dates, but its impact didn’t stop there. Calling Yeezus a concert sells the experience short. It wasn’t just hours of live music but a theatrical production, one that was cinematic and operatic in its structure. The Margiela masks, elaborate stage design, narrative arc and more combined the worlds of visual and performing arts.
It was "strange, extravagant and epic all rolled into one," Escudé says. “I still don’t know of another show that I’ve been involved in or seen that has as much meaning or tells such a story. The show involved so many people from different walks of life and was able to pull in so many people night after night. Yes there are shows with lots of lights and videos and they sound amazing and the bands great, but to me, there hasn't been that element of artistry I felt when we were working on the Yeezus tour."
As collaborator and Family co-director Oana Stanescu told W Magazine in 2013, "I think it’s how Kanye pushes himself. If he didn’t have this belief that he could do major things and have a global impact, he would just go close himself off in a room."