Back in 2008, Kanye West headlined the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., and he made headlines for showing up hours late, not performing until 4:30 a.m. A massive backlash unsurprisingly ensued, and Kanye unsurprisingly retailiated with one of his classic ALL CAPS blog posts, blaming Pearl Jam (who'd played before him) and festival organizers for the incident and claiming, "This is the most offended I've ever been… this is the maddest I ever will be."
[Photos: Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 2014]
Six years later, as Kanye returned to the festival to play the main stage this Friday night, he proved that while some things change, other things stay the same. This year, he was punctual (arriving an acceptable, within-grace-period eight minutes past his advertised set time). However, he seemed as angry as ever. Apparently parenthood (Kanye's daughter, North West, celebrates her first birthday this Sunday, on Father's Day) or his recent marriage to Kim Kardashian (who was reportedly backstage at Bonnaroo) hasn't mellowed the man very much.
Hitting the What Stage wearing a Hannibal Lechter/Hellraiser-esque full face mask (which he kept on for the first 20 minutes of his set), Kanye opened with the intense, heavy-breathing Yeezus track "Black Skinhead." This was soon followed by "the realest s--- I ever wrote," Yeezus's even more ferocious "New Slaves." But the most aggressive moments came between songs, when Kanye went off on his famous rants.
Many of his barbs were aimed at the press, specifically journalists who'd covered the Bonnaroo 2008 incident and had allegedly distorted the facts. At first it didn't seem like Kanye would address that scandal at all, but he finally did about an hour into his set — interrupting, perhaps not coincidentally, the song "Heartless" to say: "I did Bonnaroo six months after my mom passed. Pearl Jam went on three hours long. Where the press at? You gonna write about all these motherf---ers putting their hands in the air?"
The latter comment was a dare, of sorts, for journalists to write about the overwhelmingly positive response that Kanye was supposedly receiving from Bonnaroo-goers this time around. But of course, as is the case with most Kanye concerts, the crowd response was actually mixed.
While thousands of fans went wild for Kanye's show — particularly during the second half, when he loosened up and played high-energy jams like "Touch the Sky," "Good Life," "All of the Lights," and "All Falls Down" — others were alienated by the moodier first half of the concert and left early. Some spectators even booed. However, the booing was mainly a reaction to Kanye's many momentum-killing interruptions, since he grindingly halted several songs, including the Daft Punk-sampling crowd-pleaser "Stronger," to go off on other rants.
(WARNING: THE CLIP BELOW CONTAINS PROFANITY, OF COURSE)
"When I'm in the studio or doing an interview or making a T-shirt, I give everything I got. And when I talk that s---, it's so you can talk that s---. If you're fan of me, then you're fan of your motherf---ing self," Kanye rambled at one point. "I promise you as I stand here, 37 years old, this is only the beginning. I ain't concerned about anyone who's living. I ain't going after no one on the radio. I'm going after Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Shakespeare."
Kanye also claimed that Oprah Winfrey once told him corporations are scared of him "because I tell kids the truth"; he declared himself the "number-one rock star on the planet"; and he again blasted the media, saying, "Look how they try to make me look. They try to make me look crazy. But I don't see them performing for 90,000 people right now."
And he had a point. Kanye's set may have been uneven and polarizing, and sometimes he did seem a little crazy, but he was also fascinating and entertaining. And it seemed like most of those 90,000 people agreed with the slogan printed on one Bonnaroo attendee's own homemade T-shirt: "I Forgive Kanye."
And maybe one day, Kanye can forgive the press. Or at least forgive Pearl Jam.
Kanye wasn't the only newsmaker of the day. In fact, Sam Smith, fresh off his star-making Saturday Night Live appearance and just a few days ahead of his debut album's release, may have been the festival weekend's overall breakout artist so far. In a surprisingly early (2:15 p.m.) timeslot in the packed, spilling-over Other Tent, the London crooner played his first-ever U.S. festival and had fans chanting his name before he'd even warbled a single glorious note. His entire set was a triumph, filled with his signature soaring vocals that have fans and critics alike declaring him the male Adele, but highlights included an unexpected cover of Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know?" (which, interestingly, electro duo MS MR also covered at Bonnaroo) and his hit originally recorded with British house music darlings Disclosure, "Latch." Nearly 12 hours later, Sam returned to the same tent, which was now even more packed, for Disclosure's late-night set, to reprise that song.
Petite R&B powerhouse Janelle Monae was another standout, wowing What Stage spectators with her graphic, black-and-white, mod/sci-fi stage; her 10-piece band; her funky dance moves (she even moonwalked at one point); and her stellar show-woman-ship. She made a grand entrance by wheeling onto the stage in a straitjacket (which she later traded for a James Brown-style cape); she ended the show by jumping offstage and riding piggyback through the audience; and she never let her energy flag for a moment in between. She truly was, to quote one of her hits, an Electric Lady.
The early evening brought two staple festival bands who've long worked the 'Chella/'Roo/'Palooza circuit. Preppy college-rockers Vampire Weekend had the entire field skanking and bopping along to the Afropop beats of "A-Punk," "Oxford Comma," "Unbelievers," and "Cousins," and Gallic indie-poppers Phoenix kept the party going with an upbeat set that included a trifecta of delightful tracks off their underrated 2000 debut ("Too Young," "If I Ever Feel Better," "Funky Squaredance"). Amusingly, within minutes of Phoenix's concert ending on the Which Stage, they were spotted racing over to the What Stage's V.I.P. section to catch Kanye's first number.
Friday wrapped up with an embarrassment of musical riches: sludge-metal quartet Mastodon in This Tent; the above-mentioned Disclosure in the Other Tent; a "Superjam" featuring Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Ben Folds, Chaka Khan, Taj Mahal, and other all-stars in That Tent; and, on the Which Stage, hip-hop legend Ice Cube. When the latter performed his classic "It Was a Good Day," there couldn't have been a more fitting, feelgood anthem to sum up day two of Bonnaroo 2014. Surely even Kanye at his surliest would agree with that.