Looking back to Kanye West’s very first nationwide tour, it’s incredible to see how much has changed.
It was 2004, and back then a good hip-hop show meant seeing your favorite artist perform their set without any major sound difficulties. The big-budget spectacles West pioneered existed only in dreams. In the years that followed, his live performance evolved from performing in front of a backdrop of Chicago’s skyline to ascending a literal mountain constructed on stage.
Over five headline tours and multiple spot performances, Kanye has transformed the expectations for a hip-hop. After the Yeezus tour of 2013, the New York Post raved that the show was more than just a concert, saying, “It’s an extravaganza of music and theater… an unmissable spectacle.”
Kanye has developed the live performance to be immersive and experiential, pairing with fashion designers, artists, and engineers to create shows that redefine the concert experience—even architecture magazines have marveled at Kanye’s work.
So as Ye prepares for the Saint Pablo Tour—his first in three years—we look back at the tours that came before: the looks, the designers, the opening acts, the artistry, and the drama.
Related: Kanye West By The Numbers
The College Dropout Tour
Length: March 16—May 5, 2004
Set designer: Unknown
Supporting acts: Dilated Peoples, John Legend, GLC
Baggy jeans, striped polos and a college vibe were the defining elements of Kanye West’s very first headline tour, in 2004.
Well before West was sending his own models down the runway of New York Fashion week, he and his crew were rocking matching Ralph Lauren polos emblazoned with the mascot of his debut album and tour—the College Dropout bear.
The tour spanned 34 dates, from March to May that year, and a 26-year-old West leaned in to the collegiate theme. Not only did it kick off at Virginia Tech, it hit a number of college towns across the states—from Pace University in New York to George Washington University in DC, ending with three shows at House of Blues in West’s hometown, Chicago.
The tour started just months after the official release of West’s first album, which shot to #2 and sold almost 500,000 copies in its first week, and was opened by Dilated Peoples, featured John Legend and GLC, and had A-Trak as tour DJ.
A-Trak’s video from the tour describes the vibe: “There were lots of chicken wings, lots of shoes and lots of laughter,” he says. The footage, from more than a decade ago, shows how excited the artists were to fly on a G4 private jet to some of the locations.
Onstage, Kanye paced in front of seven slim LED-screens, and some footage has the Chicago cityscape as his background. While the tour is lo-fi compared to his modern-day setups, the venues were packed with people, and when West asked his crowd to “scream so loud when the music come on you can’t even hear it,” they did just that.
English musician Tom Wiseman, from hip hop group Community League, says one of his “greatest show experiences” came from seeing the tour stop in the U.K.
“When The College Dropout tour came to town for one night only back in 2004, it was a magical affair that went down as one of the best in the year that was soundtracked by the irrepressible Mr. West,” he recalls. “When Kanye launched into ‘Slow Jamz’ only to have the entire crowd sing the words back to him—his mic held loosely at his side, the expression of wonder on his face, it was priceless.”
The Touch The Sky Tour
Screenshot via YouTube
Length: October 12—December 11, 2005
Set designer: Esmeralda Devlin
Opening acts: Fantasia and Keyshia Cole
Ye’s second tour started off with a few hiccups. He was making changes right down to the last minute.
As the story goes, West scrapped the Touch the Sky Tour’s entire lighting plan just two weeks before the opening show in Miami. According to Mark Beaumont’s book Kanye West: God and Monster, the tour was completely redone by new tour designer Es Devlin just a fortnight before opening night, and soon after Kanye was heard yelling “I’m not excited about going on tour! All y’all have is moving lights!” to his former designer.
And then, just days before Ye was meant to start touring, opening act Common announced he couldn’t make it—he’d just landed an acting role. This left West with Fantasia and Keyshia Cole for his opening acts.
In the end, the stage show was accompanied by a glamorous six-piece string section and featured live video of the show projected behind the stage. West kneeled by a hospital bed to sing “Roses”—about his grandmother’s illness—and later collapsed in front of a screen scrolling negative reviews behind him. The star changed four times and wore designer blazers, pants, and dark designer sunglasses.
Chicago fan and music writer Tre G describes the show he saw at the Breslin Center in Michigan as the “greatest thing [he] had ever seen at the time.” Not only was it the first concert he had ever attended, Tre still remembers being blown away by the lighting and visuals. “You could tell Kanye was all about production, even in his early years,” he says. “I remember vividly one part of the show, Kanye displayed on the screen what critics and magazines were saying about him at the time.”
And the performance itself didn’t disappoint.
“I went HAM when he performed ‘Get ‘Em High.’ It’s still one my favorites,” he says.
Despite calling him an “only average rapper,” a Rolling Stone reviewer admitted that, unlike many other hip-hop hits, some of West’s songs were better live. Mark Beaumont described the Touch the Sky tour as Kanye “stepping out onto the tour big leagues.” He played the Thompson-Bowling Arena in Knoxville, the Mizzou Arena in Columbia, and two nights at the theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Speaking to an MTV reporter on opening night about his earlier setbacks , West was typically brash.
“F— that!” West said backstage shortly before showtime. “We not gonna wait for 10 shows from now, we gonna touch the sky tonight.”
And so it was.
The Glow in the Dark Tour
Length: April 16, 2008—December 7, 2008
Set designer: Esmeralda Devlin
Opening acts: N.E.R.D., Lupe Fiasco, Rihanna
Kanye’s first world tour also included his first truly extraordinary stage.
The Glow In The Dark Tour crammed in more than 50 arena and festival shows in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. before heading to Mexico and then across the Pacific, via South America, to the Far East and Europe.
The concept pitted Kanye as a the pilot of a spaceship hitting a meteor storm, landing on a desolate planet of dry ice, and trying to find his way home through tracks from The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak.
With design again done by Es Devlin, in collaboration with Martin Phillips and John McGuire, the stage was transformed into a barren series of landscapes—one resembling a giant moon—and fantastical glow-in-the-dark features: a giant, glowing-eyed monster and a robot moved within the haze, women shimmered in gold paint for the track “Gold Digger,” and stunning multi-colored light sequences lit up the often smoke-filled stage.
Ye himself wore sci-fi themed threads, glow-in-the-dark accessories, his signature stunna shades, and gloves.
The performance was a visual feast, “an attempt to push hip-hop into the arena rock league,” Mark Beaumont argued in his book Kanye West: God and Monster. It was even immortalized in the book of photography Glow in the Dark by Nabil Elderkin.
But again, the show was not without its hiccups. In Sacramento, Ye accidentally called the city Seattle, before quickly apologizing. At Bonnaroo, fans chanted “Kanye sucks” after a change in scheduling had West come on stage at 4:25 A.M.—almost two hours after he was meant to start.
Plus, Ye self-funded the tour after the original sponsor, Best Buy, pulled out, according to sources. But his hard work paid off, and the tour ended up a success, grossing $300 million.
The Fame Kills Tour
Set designer: N/A
Opening acts: N/A
In 2009, Lady Gaga and Kanye West announced their joint Fame Kills tour, which was due to kick off in Phoenix in November and keep the stars touring through to the new year.
The tour sounded like it was all set, with Gaga going on air to describe the creative process for the tour: how she and Kanye had designed a stage that would traverse the entire arena.
She explained that Kanye would represent “the fame,” and she would represent “home and humble beginnings,” and the two artists would be aiming to reach each other from either ends of the stage.
In early October, however, the show was cancelled, with little reason given. Some speculated that it was related to negative publicity surrounding West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech that month, and it would two more years before Kanye announced another tour.
The Watch the Throne Tour
Image via Wikipedia
Length: October 29, 2011—June 22, 2012
Set designers: Esmeralda Devlin, Kanye West, DONDA, Bruce Rodgers, Nick Whitehouse, John McGuire, Geodezik
Opening acts: None
The result: the incredible Watch the Throne tour featured the two performers perched on massive video cubes showing sharks, Rottweilers, crows, and tigers in a sea of darkness punctuated only by cellphone lights and piercing lasers.
As the pair played “Otis,” a giant American flag lit up the backdrop.
Devlin used hundreds of laser beams to create a myriad of different frames to this alternate world of geometric shapes, cascading light, wild animals, and its stars: Kanye West and Jay Z. The two lived up to the hype, and then some. Their habit of playing the smash hit “N****s in Paris” eight, nine, 10, or 12 times in a row quickly become the stuff of legend.
Partnering with Givenchy, for the most part, Yeezy dressed in slick black: t-shirts, leather pants and a big gold chain.
The tour grossed $47 million in 2012, in addition to the $48 million it earned in 2011, Bloomberg reported, and in the summer of 2012, Kanye West launched his own design company, DONDA, focused on “content, product, and experience.”
The Yeezus Tour
Image via Wikipedia
Length: October 19, 2013—December 23, 2013
Set designer: DONDA and Esmeralda Devlin
Opening acts: Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, Travi$ Scott, and Pusha T
Kanye’s last tour was his most ambitious and daring yet.
Featuring a man-made mountain, diamond encrusted masks, and a catwalk, it was this tour that had the New York Post reviewer praising “an extravaganza of music and theater that gives the world windows into [West’s] erratic persona.”
This visual feast was created through collaboration between set designer Es Devlin, West’s design company DONDA, fashion house Maison Margiela, artist Vanessa Beecroft, and more. This was the tour burned into memory through those full-face masks. This was the tour where Ye staged the reincarnation of Jesus and delivered sermons on the state of the world.
Super-fan Matt Nein, 20, saw the show three times as it toured the States: once in Philly, once at Penn State, and once in Atlantic City, calling it “the pinnacle of rap shows.”
“Kanye and his crew did things that pushed the envelope artistically and haven’t been done before,” he explains, pointing out that as a rap fan, many shows he’s seen have turned on an artist rapping over their own voice, with a posse standing behind them onstage.
“Whether it was using an Xbox to track Kanye’s movements during ‘Black Skinhead’ or making it snow in the arena during ‘Coldest Winter,’ Kanye made sure to do things that people wouldn’t expect.”
The Yeezus stage set and concept—featuring a giant mountain that occasionally turned into a volcano—was described by reviewers as “half biblical allegory and half motivational seminar”.
It kicked off on Oct. 19 in Seattle, and Kanye opened with “On Sight” in a custom-made Margiela mask that obscured his whole face. West worked closely with Maison Margiela to curate the show, and his wardrobe for the Tour was composed of 10 couture pieces, 20 ready-to-wear pieces, and an exclusive pair of sneakers, as well as the famous masks.
Onstage, Devlin had constructed a mountain, which was sometimes wreathed in flames, sometimes covered with women in long white dresses. At times it would split in two halves, or become a volcano. There was an iceberg, 12 nude-nylon clad dancers, and a catwalk, alluding back to the fashion show created with Margiela.
The speeches also became a key part of the Yeezus show. “Through the Yeezus tour the sermons came thick, fast, and very very long,” Mark Beaumont writes.
But the show wasn’t bulletproof. The tour was postponed for 18 days when one of the trucks holding part of the 60-foot LED screen was in a car crash, and the equipment damaged beyond repair. Several shows were postponed or cancelled while the gear was rebuilt.
But as always, the show went on, with Rolling Stone calling it “truly electrifying.”
The Saint Pablo Tour
Image via Tidal
Length: August 25—November 1
Set designer: DONDA SURROUND
Opening acts: TBD
Last month, West announced The Saint Pablo Tour, his first North American tour in three years.
While very few clues to what fans can expect have been announced yet, more collaboration with visual artists, à la West’s “Famous” video, could be forthcoming.
The tour will visit nearly 40 cities across the U.S. and Canada—mainly playing arenas—including dates in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, Detroit, Washington DC, Miami, and more.
More from Pigeons & Planes