Tales from inside the pit.
The most expensive "seats" at any arena concert are often the worst ones: the floor seats. They seem appealing in theory—they're closest to the artist, after all—yet they almost always fall short of their dream-making promise, instead eroding into a sweaty mess of people more concerned with pushing and shoving than enjoying the show; a place where you have to stretch your neck to see over an ocean of giants and hoisted-up cell phones, each more desperate than the next for that perfect Instagram post.
And yet, last night when Kanye West strapped into to his harness and took the stage at Madison Square Garden (the same place he premiered The Life of Pablo back in February), this was not the case. When his Saint Pablo Tour kicked off on August 25, footage immediately surfaced on social media of Mr. West's floating stage hovering above a mosh pit—and to people like me, two hours of getting elbowed by a bunch of teenagers didn't exactly sound appealing. But the floor was, in fact, the best place to watch the show.
That's not to say there are bad seats in the house; the floating stage design puts those in the lower levels basically at eye level with the man himself, and Kanye West is a dynamic enough performer that he could probably command a packed MSG crowd with a karaoke machine. The difference is that on the floor (where tickets for Monday night's show went for $400+ on Seat Geek) you feel like not just a viewer of the show, but an active participant in it.
Simply on a crowd-control level, the stage design—a rectangle suspended in the air that moves the length of floor and allows Kanye to engage the audience in all directions—means people weren't as inclined to constantly bulldoze their way through the crowd to get closer to the stage. By placing himself in the middle of the action and then moving along with the entire stage between songs (while Close Encounters-inspired synths buzzed through the arena), Kanye ensures that the "prime real estate" is constantly in flux. A front row spot can become a last row spot in a matter of seconds. As a result, the space never felt overcrowded, leaving ample space at the edges of the floor to chill out should one need a break from the madness, and just enough elbow room in the middle to go crazy when the time came.
The stage is built to draw attention away from West and at those on the floor.
The average age of people in the floor section was, in my guess, 16-ish, and the vast majority were male. They threw their bodies into one another while yelling lyrics at the top of their lungs in ways normally associated with hardcore shows. There was plenty of music to inspire this kind of behavior; Kanye West dedicated a large amount of his set to songs that are built to induce chaos, including "Black Skinhead," "Blood on the Leaves," and the far-too-short "Freestyle 4." Even West's more traditional hip-hop hits, like "Jesus Walks," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," and "All Day" garnered aggressive dancing and shoving. What's most interesting is not that there was a mosh pit at a rap concert, but rather where it happened. With the floating stage casting light onto the space directly below it, the main mosh pit actually formed underneath the stage. So, those looking to rage had to do it without being able to see the man they paid to see.
Kanye West is the best there is at making the conversation about himself, but the Saint Pablo Tour is not about Kanye West the man. Certainly it's about his music, but the stage is built to draw attention away from West and at those on the floor. On Monday night, he opened the show with a hoodie over his head, and for much of it, his stage was dark. The big screens set up around the arena played close-up live shots of West performing, but only through a hazy acid trip filter. Kanye West might not literally be a saint, but given the fact he stood alone on stage in front of 20,000 people for nearly two hours, this deflection of attention actually made him look humble.
West also hid his face while on stage during his Yeezus Tour in 2013 and 2014 underneath custom-made masks by Maison Margiela. But there's a big difference between standing in the dark in a hoodie and sporting a diamond-encrusted mask while underneath a spotlight. Additionally, Kanye West's Saint Pablo Tour stop in New York City on Monday did not feature a freestyled, auto-tuned motivational speech at the end of the song "Runaway." The visual cues made the people on the floor become the focus of the show for those in seats, and for those on the floor, the most interesting performance wasn't just happening above them, but in every direction.
Even celebrities, of which there were many, including Jonah Hill, Odell Beckham, Jr., and P. Diddy had nowhere to hide. Normally kept at arm's length from the public behind tinted glass and high above the crowd in box seats, people like Hill joyously stood amongst the raucous crowd, passionately rapping the words to his favorite Kanye West songs like the rest of us. Vic Mensa spent much of the night leading the mosh-pit. Perhaps most unexpected was when Diddy, one of society's most hermetically-sealed A-listers, stood in a crowded sea of bodies and rapped along to "All of the Lights," which was a beautiful hat tip from one great to another. The pit made cultural giants into faceless bodies, energies, and souls, all there simply there to bear witness to—and participate in—Kanye West's masterpiece of live performance.
The show closed with "Ultralight Beam," a hip-hop gospel track that's also the opening song on TLOP—which didn't feel like the same song without Chance The Rapper's powerful verse. It served less as musical entertainment and more as a collective exhalation for everyone making their way towards the exit. The moshing and yelling and jumping subsided, and as West hopped off the stage, the crowd cheered one last time, throwing their last bit of energy in West's direction. The spell broke as lights came up abruptly, and there would be no encore. Floor seats suck, but the floor of the Saint Pablo Tour is something different, and it's worth every penny.