When Saturday Night Live threw itself a 40th birthday party last year, they asked Kanye West to help celebrate. The iconoclastic rapper’s relationship with the sketch show of record has been contentious — consider "Fuck SNL and the whole cast / tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass," from 2010’s "Power" — but it’s led to some of his most memorable public moments. "Runaway" might not have a place in the contemporary musical canon without its stark, blinding staging and cadre of ballet dancers, and "Wolves" haunted fans for a full year after West, Sia, and Vic Mensa crawled around in contact lenses as part of SNL 40.
He made his seventh appearance on the show’s stage last night to promote his new album The Life of Pablo, and he didn’t let the moment go to waste. After wrapping up album opener "Ultralight Beam," West announced the album’s availability on his website and on Tidal, the culmination of a three-day period where it seemed like the album could drop on the public’s heads at any moment. (It made its debut at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, where West showed off his newest clothing collection and singlehandedly restored the cachet of the humble aux cord.) The final stage of its rollout was anything but seamless: the announcement was delivered with a near-unintelligible bark, and there was a half-hour delay while the album was delivered for streaming and download. (Calling it frustrating is an understatement.)
He brought a murderer's row of guests
The performance was still compelling, of course. He trotted out a murderer’s row of guests — Young Thug, The-Dream, A$AP Bari, and R&B singers Kelly Price and El DeBarge — for "Highlights," summery and percolating despite an iffy SNL mix. West & co. were cast in cool blues, posing and lurching in front of a column of pixelated light. When he returned near the show’s end to perform album opener "Ultralight Beam" with an even larger group, he reached a new level of intensity. His processed, mumbled gospel music came to life in the hands of a full choir before he ceded the stage to The-Dream and Chance the Rapper, and he was glowing and grinning stage right while the latter delivered a typically buoyant, crafty verse. When gospel veteran Kirk Franklin emerged near the song’s end to deliver a sermon, West laid on the floor to receive it. It made for a striking, suggestive image, the acknowledged sinner tiptoeing towards redemption with a little help from his friends.
West's career is defined by live moments
West’s career is defined by live moments, and it already feels a little like his new album is better suited to the spontaneity of performance than the sterile environment of a streaming service or media player. His first major brush with public scrutiny sprung from his criticism of George W. Bush during a live Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005; his relationship with Taylor Swift has unfolded live on two separate VMA stages; Twitter is his social media platform of choice, the vehicle for his raw, unfiltered screeds. (Some of them are more distasteful than others.) The Life of Pablo’s rollout was unpredictable, messy, and thrilling, and it’s fitting that the album finally entered the world on the back of a show that prides itself on those qualities. All that’s pending is judgment of the music contained within.