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Kanye West: Master of Spectacle

Last Updated: October 22, 2021
Taking stock of one of the most unpredictable, yet somehow most calculated public figures on earth ahead of the release of Donda

Back in 2016, Kanye West either had the most telling Freudian slip of his career or the single vainest moment in the life of one of the most narcissistic entertainers in history.

“Our life is walking performance art,” he told Vanity Fair of his and wife Kim Kardashian’s omnipresence in the wake of the controversial music video for his fittingly titled track “Famous.”

If taken at his word – as either accidentally pompous or fully intentionally – then every time we see Kanye, it’s an elaborate exhibit. Another stroke of artistry and expression from perhaps the most hailed artist in any medium of the 21st century, a genius who has invited worldwide droves of both fans and haters into his process.

That would explain the one-man spectacle that is Kanye West. His every appearance in our consciousness, a momentous occasion.

For better or worse.

His latest work, the rollout for his 10th solo album, Donda, might just be his next masterpiece. Kanye has yet to say a word in his latest return to the public sphere, simply existing as a masked avatar, flanked in his insatiably sought-after pieces of clothing from both Gap and Adidas. He has previewed music – first to two of the most foremost social media stars of the day, Kevin Durant and Justin Laboy, then to a select crowd in Las Vegas – all while maintaining mystery.

Then, he unveiled it to the public, even in its unfinished and evolving state, in a live stream and in front of thousands at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. 

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It would be a disservice to limit Kanye simply to one form of expression. That notion would surely would be maddening to the man. But it does seem to be true of the public-facing version of his work that the visual experience of his art has begun to outweigh the other senses in the equation.

While some attendees complained of smoke machines drowning Kanye out in his latest performance, it may just be that this was the point.

Kanye covered the Atlanta Falcons’ home field in a blanket of white and pranced around the “stage” as a fleck of red, silent and pacing. Blasting his silhouette onto stationary backdrops is nothing new to Kanye, nor is playing with perspective to make himself either massive or minuscule (or both at once).

But he has never pulled this trick off to this scope. A stadium full of people came to see a loud, gigantic public figure – only to be greeted with a diminutive mute. 

Kanye West at the Donda listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, July 22 (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group)

What it all ultimately means is left up to the audience. Maybe he’s minimizing himself to just let the music speak. Maybe he’s presenting imagery so grandiose the music is secondary. Maybe it’s neither, and he simply didn’t have time to put together a proper stage design, and just wanted to get a fit off. You never know with Kanye, who is somehow both unpredictable and one of the most calculated public figures in existence. 

What is obvious is Kanye West has mastered the art of the spectacle. Every time he shows up, it simply matters. It forces his audience – the world – to consider all possibilities. And if the last decade of Kanye has been an elaborate Andy Kaufman-esque piece of performance art, it’s been an unmatched journey. A living, breathing piece of constantly evolving art full of blemishes and splotches of brilliance that are unmatched in their ability to invoke a feeling, either for good or for ill.

Or maybe it’s all a copout for a man unhinged, unfocused, and unrepentant.

Or maybe that’s a conundrum we’re always meant to consider each time.

Or… Who knows? But no matter what, the next development is set to be unveiled with the now-rescheduled release of Donda on August 6.

Subject to change, of course.