NYE concert reassures that life is indeed dope
THE SANTA CLARA
January 7, 2016
Before “The Big One,” San Francisco’s New Year’s Eve concert, I was drinking White Russians when my favorite black American, Kanye West, released a new song, “Facts.” On the Soundcloud freebie, Kanye preludes with a vintage soul sample, then raps over the “Jumpman” beat from Drake and Future’s joint album, biting the Canadian mega-star’s flow so hard you can see the teeth marks.
He name checks Steve Harvey and Bill Cosby for forgetting names, blasts Nike’s business practices and shouts out the popularity of his very thick wife’s very popular emoji app.
But like a plate of cucumber finger sandwiches, it fails to satisfy and only whets the palate for something more substantial, namely the forthcoming album, “Swish,” that Kanye has been poking his head out of the kitchen to say “any minute now,” for like, two years.
The release emblematizes our culture’s shift in attention. In 2015, Kendrick released the most important work, but Drake has dominated the national conversation for a duration never seen before by a guy who sort-of sings fast over drums. Drake perfected the throwaway surprise release. His double-tap to Meek Mill, “Back 2 Back,” got a Grammy nod.
“Facts” doesn’t possess the same gravity. I’m sure most everyone heard it, but I doubt it enters regular rotation for a lot of listeners. It lands Kanye—at the very highest—third in the current hip-hop power rankings. But it isn’t incompetent. It’s more a reminder of Kanye’s longevity. Kanye had a quiet year, but his new shoes did massive and immediate sales and readers elected him GQ’s most stylish man of 2015. He’s still half of modernity’s foremost power couple behind Barack and Michelle.
Regardless, “Facts” made me a bit melancholy. Kanye became Kanye by pushing rap into new directions. He borrowed from fringe movements that needed his co-sign to become predominant—soul sampling, moody auto-tune and gritty aggression all flourished further once their seed dropped from the Yeezy tree.
But this song isn’t that. Kanye sounds behind the times, an unfamiliar place for him. The track is the sonic equivalent of Kobe chucking a three from Steph Curry’s range. “Facts” reveals the inevitable truth that each trip around that gargantuan nuclear ball of ever-combusting hydrogen and helium makes us older, slower and less cool.
San Francisco fills me with this same feeling. In most places on this planet, I feel like I’m in the upper quadrant of coolness, if only for my youth. But in San Francisco, I feel like the freshman in headgear who sits down at the senior cool table—awed, but painfully aware of my inferior hippiness. My illusion of being a special snowflake melts.
These feelings were doubled inside the hallowed, gigantic Bill Graham Auditorium during this major concert. Most everyone rocked a look that was both retro and futuristic, scruffy and polished, meticulous and effortless. Perfect pompadours sat above regal beards and swishy bangs matched the sways of vintage dresses.
I saw popsicle leotards, sienna Carhartt overalls and vests bedazzled with totem pole patterns. I smelled B.O. and upscale perfume. I wrangled with wobbly couples with similar hair lengths as they cut across dance floors with the fervor of Manifest Destiny.
I entered the hangar-sized main ballroom to the sounds of Tycho. The group blends electro and analog influences in their sprawling instrumentals that explore catchy themes at a leisurely pace until they have been thoroughly excavated. Cyborg drums chug below layered guitar licks that land with the easy natural rhythms of wind chimes. Their tranquil compositions should replace all elevator muzak.
Then came the headliners, the Flaming Lips. The psychedelic rockers were fronted by their salt-and-pepper mop-headed lead singer, Wayne Coyne. He wore an 8 foot-tall metallic wizard gown that dripped colors in sync with an overhanging canopy of shimmering jellyfish tentacles. Rainbows undulated to match the band’s signature nasally buzzes, alien organ wah-wahs and dizzyingly infectious drums.
The crowd bathed in black light as crisp lasers cut through the fragrant haze and criss-crossed above our heads. Waves of oily colors lapped across the backing screen. Giant Baby and Butterfly King mascots oscillated obediently.
After a couple tracks, Coyne unzipped the gown, displaying three pink bows right below his belt, and sang with delicate sincerity, pausing only to unleash blasts of confetti into the rafters during supersonic guitar and keyboard solos.
He warbled over the delicate plucks and power chords in the silly anthem, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” He channeled his inner child against the immense complexity of life on “Fight Test.”
Then, he unspooled the kick-ass, feminist-before-feminism-was-cool saga of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” Poignant pleas to the heroine laid above robotically sentient womp-womp-wahs, building to a breathless climax of momentary silence that exhaled into a bursting crescendo. The audience’s spirits rose to delirium as the last seconds of 2015 ticked away.
When January struck, Coyne necked with an exuberant gal as confetti flipped and flapped in a swirling cloud. Balloons poured from nets on the ceiling and landed on the raised hands of the audience, bouncing like drops of rain on a pond.
We celebrated because we had survived an ugly, weird year filled with demagogues and terrorists, shootings and gassings, protests and war. But rather than lament our momentary hardships, the Flaming Lips sought to put things in a broader perspective.
They cued up, “Do You Realize?” their disarmingly profound set of epiphanies—that happiness makes you cry and that we’re floating in space and all going to die. And maybe, printed on a page, these sound trite, but their highlighting of taken-for-granted mysteries resonated with a refreshing lack of cynicism.
It reassured me that being alive really is this terrific mystery that requires us all to just check in with each other every now and again to say, “You’re seeing this too, right?”
The band continued unleashing simply massive walls of sound. They shredded each instrument so fast and loud and in harmony that the sonic spectrum frayed at the edges and revealed realms I didn’t even know existed. Their combination of acid trip effects, effortlessly impressive musicianship and dreamy lyrical material is unmatched. They’re something else.
They left the stage as LOVE, written in twenty-five foot yellow letters, flashed like an alarm of abundance while strangers congratulated each other on their continued existence.
Invigorated by that healing benevolence, I mustered the energy to dance until 3 a.m. Ratatat came next and played their perfect instrumental, “Loud Pipes,” with ever-building guitar licks that drop into zig-zagging sine waves and plink-plonk breakdowns.
Then came Grammatik with their supercharged snares and crunchy kicks providing a base for huffing accordion, boisterous circus trumpets and serpentine guitar solos.
That night, when faced with the countdown towards squareness, old age and death, we danced, a tiny people, on a tiny rock passing a cosmologically insignificant point in an unthinkably large universe.
As I zipped to my friend’s apartment in a spiked-rate Lyft, I felt cool and happy and grateful for all the things that people do to make themselves and others feel cool and happy.
The next morning, I listened to the new Kanye song again. It’s not that great, but I’m glad he made it. .
Contact John Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852