When it was announced that Kanye West would be headlining Bonnaroo 2014, the question marks and exclamation points came in equal measure. That's bad-ass! But wasn't there drama the last time he played the festival? Yeezus is the best! Yeezus makes for an incredible live show, but how's that going to work in a festival setting? He's been touring behind Yeezus a ton already! Will we hear anything new at Bonnaroo? The verdict was that Kanye would be making a triumphant return to Bonnaroo; we just had no idea how that was going to go, from the set list to the rants and raves in between songs to the landscape of his stage. And honestly? We had no idea if this was going to end with Kanye and Bonnaroo coming to blows over a major performance again.
Dramatic, elaborate, cinematic—these are all adjectives that were thrown around when it came to putting Kanye's massive production behind Yeezus into words in 2013 an 2014. (Jack White described it as "more punk, more in-your-face" than anything he'd ever seen.) As the stage isn't merely just a platform to prance on for Kanye, his live show needed a compact makeover, one that didn't require a zillion hours of construction time and lighting tests for 2014's festival season. He tested this post-Yeezus creation at the X-Games, where it was noted that the dark, angular, industrial look of Yeezus was retained and scaled down, with giant monitors and LCD displays illuminated with cascading waterfalls, passing clouds or a uniform wash of blood red. The giant Pride Rock-esque structure that took up a hefty portion of any given arena he headlined was replaced with a few rocks near the stage. Yeezus needed to think smaller and succeeded, and it did so just in time for Bonnaroo. (Vampire Weekend, who held Bonnaroo's main stage before Kanye, weren't exactly going to get all "Kwassa Kwassa" around a bunch of apocalyptic, mountainous formations in order to accommodate Yeezus' set requirements, especially when their own spread involves floor-to-ceiling floral background and a giant mirror.)
The thing about all of this is that Kanye, truthfully, doesn't need the theatrics or the fantastic set, and that's what was so great about what he brought to Bonnaroo. From the jump, the crowd of 90,000 was bombarded with a force to be reckoned with, and no sense was safe: the glare of the crimson backdrop made a menacing silhouette of Kanye and his band; the depth of the bass and drum beat was so intense your ribs shook and your eardrums were left begging to be protected via earplugs. "Black Skinhead," "I Don't Like," "Clique"—Kanye was hard and merciless, throwing punches through verses and towering down over the crowd via the giant screen behind him, his masked face blown out and billboard-sized. Even when Kanye wasn't standing center stage and commanding the entire festival's attention, that looming likeness—a few stories tall, mimicking his every move—kept the crowd entranced and aware of his undeniable presence.
Thankfully, the diatribes from his previous bouts of touring weren't omitted from his Bonnaroo set, and Kanye went off on a number of topics with major hits of his for touchstones. Before launching into "New Slaves," Kanye introduced it as the "realest sh-t [he] ever wrote" and riffed on industry politics before the beat drop: "After ten years of being in the game, seeing so many doors open in front of me, seeing so many doors close, it's all I can say—I ain't give a f—k about being on the radio, I ain't give a f—k about making a hit song … Try and f--k with me." "Stronger" was held up momentarily so he could throw all of his lungpower behind a tirade about being the "NUMBER ONE MOTHERF—KING ROCK STAR ON THE PLANET" and how Bonnaroo patrons in 2008 scrawled "F—k Kanye" all over the Porta Potties. Before "Run this Town" got going, Kanye softened up, taking ten minutes to wax poetic on his inspirations and why he compares himself to the likes of Mozart, Shakespeare and Howard Hughes while crooning about how he'll "never play the Super Bowl" at least five times in a row.
Zany deep thought detours and seismic mood shifts aside, Kanye's ability to bounce between hard and soft, dark and light just demonstrates his genius at work. "Blood on the Leaves" made for a gorgeous conclusion, and despite the fact that he certainly didn't let sleeping dogs lie in regards to that whole 2008 Bonnaroo Glow In The Dark debacle, Kanye's Bonnaroo performance was satisfying and exactly what a main stage headlining set could only hope to be. It shook up a hugely successful formula, reframed a handful of songs fans not only knew by heart, but had likely seen previously, and offered up the unbridled thoughts of the artist at work. He may have spoken his mind with no shred of self-restraint at the festival's expense, but a killer show was borne from that, and we—and Bonnaroo—wouldn't want it any other way.