Exposed: Why Kanye West Ends His Albums in Front of Crowds
As someone who runs a Kanye West podcast, I felt really dumb when I just realized this for the first time: Kanye ends Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in front of crowds of people.
But once I realized this? Well, again, as someone who runs a Kanye West podcast, it all instantly made sense to me.
As we note on our show, Kanye's albums are stories, just like any book or movie is telling a story—there's an introduction to a character, there's inciting action, there's a climax, and there's a conclusion. And that conclusion always finds the character evaluating his surroundings, and setting up the character for the next story Kanye will write.
Late Registration is the first album where Kanye feels jaded by celebrity. While he's young and ambitious and ready to take on the world on College Dropout, the realities of fame settle in on Late Registration—there are gold diggers, there is addiction, there is guilt from wearing blood diamonds, there are people who want nothing but your autograph. Thus, throughout the story, we see Kanye returning home to the people who encouraged the College Dropout version of himself to push forward. This creates a tension: Being at home humbles you, but becoming a massive celebrity means moving away from home and conquering the world.
This leads into Graduation, where Kanye chooses to move away from home. And, of course, celebrity ain't all it's cracked up to be. While he's hailed as a champion in Chicago, he's just another celebrity out in the real world. He takes drugs, has lots of girls, gets chased by the paparazzi—in general, he leads a very empty life. Which is why he returns home at the end of the story. During Homecoming, you can literally hear crowds of people in the production. And at the end of the song, Kanye sings:
Every interview I'm representin' you, makin' you proud
Reach for the stars, so if you fall, you land on a cloud
Jump in the crowd, spark your lighters, wave 'em around
If you don't know by now, I'm talkin' 'bout Chi-Town
After moving away from his city, he hopes to come home at the end and restart that connection he held with her for so many years. But he doesn't quite get the conclusion he's hoping for:
I'm comin' home again
Do you think about me now and then?
Do you think about me now and then?
'Cause I'm comin' home again
Instead of being confident about his renewed relationship with Chicago, all Kanye can do is wonder if the people in the crowd even think about him while he's out in the world. This mentality leads into the final track, Big Brother, which starts with Kanye saying "stadium status," establishing that he's still in front of a crowd of people. As Kanye pours out his heart and soul about ruining the relationship with his mentor JAY-Z, you can sense Kanye still trying to connect with that same Chicago crowd, ironically asking them a telling question:
If you feel the way I feel why don't you wave your hands?
Removed from his city and removed from his big brother, Kanye is alienated and alone heading into his saddest, most introspective album up to that point in his career: 808s & Heartbreak. On Late Registration, he learned about the emptiness of fame; on Graduation, he lost his home, his mentor; and in between Graduation and 808s, he lost his mother. So on 808s, we see all those threads combining for a new storyline where Kanye tries to find his place in the world all on his own. On top of his inability to find his better half, the "romances" explored on each song highlight his broken relationship with fame, his detachment from home, his life without his mother.
And what better way to highlight this solidarity than with a concert? What is supposed to be a fun time for fans turns into a hellscape for Kanye:
There is no clothes that I could buy
That could turn, back in time
There is no vacation spot I could fly
That could bring back, a piece of real life
Real life, what does it feel like?
I ask you tonight, I ask you tonight
What does it feel like, I ask you tonight
To live a real life
Exposed, alone, angry, sad, Kanye practically begs for the people in the crowd to listen to him, yet all they do is scream over him, worship him like the celebrity he always thought he wanted to become. The spotlight is on him, yet nobody hears what he is saying.
We then, of course, get his masterpiece album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After the Taylor Swift incident, Kanye loses many of his most diehard of fans, leaving him in a strange realm. What "America" is to many, "America" to Kanye became an unrecognizable environment. Fame turned his back on him; his childhood relationship with Chicago had been lost; his mother was in Heaven; the media vilified him; fans weren't listening to him. And because of all of that, Kanye "commits suicide" in Power:
Now this will be a beautiful death
I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go
I’m letting everything go
This metaphorical suicide launches Kanye into the "fantasy" of the album, where celebrity is dark and romance is twisted. Kanye is constantly trying to build himself up and find a partner to escape the celebrity fantasy he's thrust himself into, yet is constantly ruining the relationships around him.
Except one relationship that exposes itself at the end: Kim Kardashian.
Famously, Kanye West wrote the Lost in the World verse for Kim:
You're my devil, you're my angel
You're my heaven, you're my hell
You're my now, you're my forever
You're my freedom, you're my jail
You're my lies, you're my truth
You're my war, you're my truce
You're my questions, you're my proof
You're my stress and you're my masseuse
Ma-ma-se, ma-ma-se, ma-ma-ku-sa
Lost in this plastic life
Let's break out of this fake-ass party
Turn this into a classic night
If we die in each others arms
Still get laid in the afterlife
After all of the missed connections Kanye has explored on pretty much every single song with a romantic angle up to this point in his career, this is the first moment where a woman represents an escape from the dark, twisted fantasy that has been "celebrity" up to this point in his career. Instead of his hellscape he cannot overcome, America then becomes an environment he must shape himself—and with the right woman in his life, he feels he could do just that.
This all leads into Who Will Survive in America—a song that samples Gil-Scott Heron's Comment #1, which is a song Heron performs live in a small club. Through Heron's words, Kanye seeks to start a revolution as opposed to feeling defeated by celebrity:
Us living as we do upside-down
And the new word to have is revolution
People don't even want to hear the preacher spill or spiel
Because God's whole card has been thoroughly piqued
And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey
Whereas Heron is exploring race relations in the 70s, Kanye's exploration is more universal: Heron was fed up with white college students forcing their way into the black revolution, turning America "upside down" into an unrecognizable environment; Kanye is fed up with the America he was sold and seeks to inspire others to follow his lead.
And just like Heron, Kanye is starting his revolution at Ground Zero. One of the biggest rappers of all time, Kanye feels nonetheless small and alienated in this America, and this tiny club where Heron performs Comment #1 captures that. Kanye has been a celebrity for years, but this moment is where he finally realizes he can shape celebrity into what he wants it to be, as opposed to carrying out the fantasy he was sold. And this revelation isn't grand and amplified, but instead internal and personal. Thus, we find Kanye not trying to reconnect with a large Chicago crowd, or trying to find comfort with his fans after losing his mother, but instead realizing the fight starts from within—an understanding that is met with meek applause.