Why Kanye covered Bohemian Rhapsody and why he was right
It’s been 7 days since I watched Kanye West soar one hundred feet above Glastonbury to Touch The Sky. It was a magnificent feat of literalism and my thoughts afterwards were basically just “HOLY SHIT DID YOU SEE WHEN HE GOT INTO THE CRANE? HE WAS IN A FUCKING CRANE!” Since then a hundred think-pieces about the performance have been written (and for every think-piece a hundred whiny white boy “mommy the nasty man covered a queen song” statuses), so what’s the harm in one more?
I’d been trying to figure out what Kanye would open with for weeks, with my favourite idea being the All Day synths and some giant lasers piercing the Somerset sky before falling silent, at which point Kanye quietly says; “All Day Nigger”. I had numerous complex and inventive openings like this planned out, but for someone as complex and inventive as Kanye something far more simple made much more sense. Some of his later work may have had more artistic merit, but Stronger is the track that sold the most so Stronger is the track that goes first. As with the cherry picker, sometimes Kanye thinks straightforwardly in a way others do not, and when that Daft Punk sample dropped and that incredible light structure rose up I lost my shit.
The opening salvo of tracks was something special; Stronger, POWER, Niggas in Paris, Black Skinhead, All Day. That’s a combination big enough to floor any crowd, even one with a jaw like an anvil. The last statement of intent I’ve seen like that was Outkast hitting Bestival with B.O.B. and Gasoline Dreams. The effect was similar in both cases, put the crowd on the ropes early and remind them that you have some of the biggest rap hits in history, and that you have them in abundance. Even the interruption of the festering sore of British culture that is Lee Nelson did little to disrupt Kanye, who simply finished the verse a Capella before dropping it again.
The next section of the performance divided critics, with a fantastic little Cold as Ice sample bleeding into Cold and Cruel Summer cuts such as Clique, Mercy and the I Don’t Like remix. At this point the crowd apparently became less enthused at these ‘deep cuts’, but I didn’t feel it. I was near the front in a big group of people rapping back every line so I have a biased view, but it’s laughable to suggest these were deep cuts. There aren’t many Kanye deep cuts (basically just the pre-College Dropout stuff like Improvise and ‘A Good Ass Job’ rumoured songs like Lord, Lord, Lord) but by any stretch of the imagination these were massive tracks and showed Kanye has hard rap chops. People lauded Arctic Monkeys for playing little known album tracks, so it seems a bit silly to lambaste Kanye for these singles, but people often just like to hate Kanye.
The next section returned to the bangers; New Slaves, Blood on the Leaves, Heartless, I Wonder (okay, that one was a surprise) and then FourFiveSeconds. Blood on the Leaves in particular was wonderfully executed and brought some real artistry to the performance, as did Justin Vernon taking the stage for Woods, Lost in the World and Hold My Liquor. People claimed this slowed the performance down, and it did, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t beautiful, which it was. It did mean that No Church in the Wild didn’t have its usual visceral quality because it followed the lull, but that lull was banished by Jesus Walks, Diamonds From Sierra Leone and Bound 2. The first segment was then ended perfectly with Runaway (Kanye’s masterpiece) and the wonderfully touching Only One.
The first encore had a well-documented technical problem, but honestly who gives a fuck when a minute or two later Kanye was one hundred fucking feet in the air dropping All of the Lights on a god damn crane. It was a magical moment and the crowd went insane, with the intensity carrying over to the controversial Queen cover, which despite all the online moaning by people who suddenly turned out to be the world’s biggest Queen fans, was sung back by the crowd as one. It was a great standalone act of showmanship, and was probably chosen partly to (successfully) piss off anyone who signed that petition, but things are never that easy with Kanye, so forgive me for a little bit of analysis.
The Bohemian Rhapsody verses Kanye sang with the crowd were the first two:
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality. Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see, I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy, Because I'm easy come, easy go, Little high, little low, Anyway the wind blows doesn't really matter to me, to me.
I had a dream I can buy my way to heaven, When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace.
Can’t Tell Me Nothing continues in a very self-reflective, confessional manner, showing Kanye at perhaps his most vulnerable, yet this is always juxtaposed with his arrogant tone:
I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny, and what I do? Act more stupidly, bought more jewellery, more Louis V, my momma couldn't get through to me.
The parallels are pretty clear, with each song being expressions of honesty and insecurity, albeit concealed amongst extravagance and dreams, from complex performers who put everything into their art and, furthermore, into a persona built around that art. Freddie was dealing with very personal issues during the writing of Bohemian Rhapsody, and hid these revelations beneath the flippant lyrics and an extravagant rock opera. Kanye meanwhile focuses on the decadence and extravagance in his lifestyle, one that has been openly flaunted towards black Americans by the entertainment industry, and the personal and societal problems this causes, but hides it behind the bravado and stadium production that this culture celebrates. Both tracks also seem to foreshadow tragedy for the protagonist, with Freddie claiming “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me”, whilst Kanye drops this to close it all off:
So if the devil wear Prada, Adam Eve wear Nada, I'm in between, but way more fresher. With way less effort, 'cause when you try hard, That's when you die hard. Ya homies looking like "Why God?" When they reminisce over you, my god.
That’s an example of some brilliant self-realisation that most people don’t ascribe to Kanye, highlighting knowledge of the position he holds and the consequences of his path. It’s wonderfully written and painfully honest, which leads into the next question of the cover; why didn’t he use auto-tune?
Kanye is an auto-tune pioneer. He doesn’t Adam Levine it and use auto-tune to cover deficiencies and create something sterile; Kanye uses it as an instrument in itself, as a tool to warp his voice and bring lyrics to life. He’d already employed it wonderfully in the set, particularly with Blood on the Leaves, and I can think of two reasons why he chose not to here. The first was to better engage the crowd in a sing along (which worked) and the second was because this was Kanye at his most honest. No auto-tune, no flashing lights, just a moment of reflection before the beat dropped and the bravado reappeared. The cover made sense on both an artistic and personal level; it fit the person, the place and the song that followed; it was perfect for that moment. Maybe I’m reading too much into this and being overly defensive, but fuck it, I thought it was wonderful.
The encore, the ultimate sing-a-long in Gold Digger and the equal parts lyrical and banging All Falls Down, appeared to be something nobody could complain about, but surprise, surprise; people managed to. The complaints centred around Kanye saying he was the greatest living rock star on the planet, which he qualified this by saying he might not be able to claim it in forty years, and these complaints are ridiculous, because he just is.
No one else has Kanye’s aura and complexity, Kanye’s suspense. Dave Grohl isn’t a rock star, he’s an every-man and that’s why people love him. Matt Bellamy is bearded pretention on a downward spiral. AC/DC, The Who and co. are legends, but they can’t compete with Kanye’s cultural relevance. Kanye knows this relevance will fall away one day, thus his qualifying statement, but right now he’s a cultural powerhouse and probably the most influential musician of the twenty first century. Without Kanye there’s no backpack rap (no Gambino, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa), there’s no sung RnB influenced rap (there’s no Drake without 808’s and Heartbreaks), and there’s probably no Tyler, The Creator and Odd Future either, at least not in their current forms. Without Kanye the face of rap, and a lot of pop in general, would be completely different. The fact he doesn’t hold a guitar on stage is of no relevance. Kanye’s no rock musician, but he’s the rock star. Drake is probably his closest contemporary, but he used a lint roller courtside at a basketball game which rules him out.
So there’s my argument. It wasn’t the perfect performance, it wasn’t the most Glastonbury performance, but it was never going to be. What it was however was Kanye, just Kanye on stage for over an hour and a half in front of a headline Glastonbury crowd. It had the hits, the hard stuff, the soft stuff and everything in between. It ebbed and flowed, perhaps a bit too much, but it was pure Kanye, and that mic drop was what dreams are made of.
All in all, it was just pure rock star shit.