8:12 p.m.: We arrive in Buffalo. Jack bought a pass online that lets us park in a clearing under a bridge. A sign bolted to a cement support lists the rates — $75 daily maximum. It’s dark and we’re in a half-awake state from driving on Western New York backroads into fading light.
8:19 p.m.: We walk to the First Niagara Center. Downtown Buffalo looks scrubbed clean. Concrete plazas and tall, pretty corporate buildings flank the wide streets. We get on a line that stretches around the corner of the arena. Actually, we first try to get in through side doors before a security guard yells at us and closes them.
8:22 p.m.: The Kanye cult-of-personality is already buzzing. “No one but Kanye would have a line this long,” friends tell each other. Except many concerts do, and some have longer, like European EDM concerts and Middle America metal festivals. It becomes a theme during the night: No one but Kanye could do this or that. Kanye as catalyst, Kanye as ultimate creator.
8:45 p.m.: At 8:35 I told Jack I would start keeping track of how long we waited on line. Ten minutes later, some black-suited security manager makes a decision to re-open the gates and the crowd surges forward. One neon-vested guard with a crew cut stands inside the first glass doors to collect bottles. People happily give them up after getting drunk during the wait. A K9 officer lets concert-goers pet his German Shepherd — a drug sniffer-cum-therapy dog, I guess. Crowds stress me out, and combined with the gin I mixed into Cherry Pepsi earlier, I feel like I’m either going to evaporate out of my body or lose my mind.
8:59 p.m.: Kanye West’s universe is a sci-fi dystopia. The First Niagara Center is an underground arena where the masses watch battle royales and techno-chariot races. Dim, metallic orange lighting and bass-boosted ambient music make the whole room feel like hell.
Kanye isn’t late exactly. The tickets say 8 pm, but don’t specify if that means doors or start time. The waiting feels like part of the show. I stare at the thousands filing in and feel very small and safe, like a cog snugged tight in a gleaming machine. Sitting in the nosebleeds and staring into a dark arena while a smoke machine occasionally ups the haziness, I am feeling hyper-aware. We’re one row from the top and the people behind us will soon to prove to love screaming “FUCKIN’ KANYE” throughout the show.
9:35 p.m.: The sci-fi paranoia is hitting other people, too. I talk for a while with Julia about dystopias and all of the strange feelings welling up as we wait. She thinks of Black Mirror, the British TV series that exaggerates parts of society (celebrity culture, mass media, etc.) to imagine horrifying futures. I think of The Island, a movie that does the same thing with the medical industry, starring soft-spoken Ewan McGregor. Maybe it’s the death arena atmosphere, or the nosebleeds, or the overwhelming hugeness of the event, but I feel none of the self-consciousness that usually sets in before shows. The fear of being secretly marked as a poser that I dread at punk shows is gone. Anyone can be a Kanye fan.
9:41 p.m.: A “Seven Nation Army” chant spreads through the crowd. Every smoke machine check gets a cheer. People must have heard about the suspended stage that Kanye debuted in Indianapolis, because concert-goers in the general admission section lie on the floor, staring up at the matte black rigs. From above we try to guess which are lights and which make up the stage.
9:51 p.m.: The lights shut off. Three tiers up, everyone stands. Before we see Kanye we hear Pastor T.L. Barrett and his choir. The “ooooohs” that mark the threshold between the introduction and the rest of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” sound superhuman.
9:52 p.m.: I know to expect it, but seeing Kanye on his suspended stage still kicks an adrenaline rush. I earlier asked Jack what Kanye looked live, and he said shorter. On the stage he looks powerful, but not physically so. He stands above the fray as the crowd moshes to Desiigner’s “Panda,” sampled in “Pt. 2.” A cable extends from beneath Kanye’s jacket, securing him to a hook in the stage’s center. He never slips, but the cable is a reminder: He’s in danger of plummeting.
Throughout the show, the stage emphasizes Kanye’s roles. He’s an energetic mogul, leaping and bouncing during bangers like “Mercy,” “All Of The Lights” and “Don’t Like.1.” He’s a regretful truth teller, slowly pacing the stage during “Real Friends.” He lowers the stage and lies on his belly, extending his hand and forearm to a mob of fans who clamor for his touch.
Bold gestures become Kanye’s preferred way of interacting with the crowd. He rarely banters, except when he tells the crowd, “It’s a great year to be a Kanye fan” as the intro to “Wolves” plays.
The concert lacks a clear progression. Kanye plays strands of The Life of Pablo songs in a row, but cuts tracks short and restarts songs without explanation. Older hits like “Jesus Walks” and “Flashing Lights” jut out against an emotional core of “Only One” and “Runaway.”
I lose my sense of time for hours at a time. Kanye reportedly split his Indianapolis show between the suspended stage and a second platform. He remains on the stage for the whole night in Buffalo, occasionally shouting out to DJs who work in almost complete darkness and rarely break between songs.
11:50 p.m.: Kanye ends with the beginning of The Life of Pablo. A white spotlight shines down on to the floor. One fan stands in the light. A few others join him. Then, as a young girl prays in the introduction to “Ultralight Beam,” more fans cram into the circle. In the end, however, the light is meant for Kanye. He kneels with his arms at his sides as the stage slowly drifts towards the light at the other end of the arena. He finally enters the light as the gospel outro reverberates through the hall, filling it with massive harmonies before letting the silence grow. Kanye sways in and out of the light, redeemed, but not completely.
11:58 p.m.: There’s no catharsis. Kanye’s stage descends to the ground. The crowd’s cheers grow; hopefully he’ll play a few songs from the ground. Maybe he’ll break the barrier and walk into the mass. But an assistant unhooks Kanye’s cable and he walks out of the arena through a side tunnel. The lights turn on. No one cheers for an encore because no one expects one. The crowd dissipates and sadness sets in. While I ride down the escalators, I try to suppress the thought that it was, after all, just a concert. A concert by a person whom I’ve never met, but whom my friends and I think a lot about. A concert of songs I love watched with close friends in an otherworldly environment. But still just a concert. In the end, the temporariness of it all really gets to me.
12:05 a.m.: My phone battery’s plummeting but I post a picture on Instagram before I fall asleep in the car. I choose one of Kanye sitting cross-legged on the stage while he sings “Only One.” One of his hands rests on his ankles and he holds the mic up to his mouth with the other. The photo isn’t of Kanye himself, but of the massive screen on one end of the floor that played live footage during the show. Sometimes on stage he paused to stare at the screen, quietly gazing at himself in the midst of thousands.
12:17 a.m.: Raymond puts on a CD his parents played when he was growing up. All of the text on the CD is in Chinese so no one knows anything about the music or who made it. The music’s devoid of distinguishing features. Flute, trumpet, guitar, bass, piano, drums — all possibly played on a keyboard — play simple songs. It’s the opposite of Kanye’s complex web of references and sample, but it’s fascinating and makes us all happy. No one really talks about the show. We talk about whose phone to use for directions and debate stopping for McDonald’s. I fall asleep for two hours.
Shay Collins is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]