All Of The Lights: A Look Into The History Of Kanye’s Immaculate Stage Designs
With news of the “dome” construction being the reason for Kanye’s absence from Coachella, I thought it would a perfect time to discuss his past stage productions. Kanye has always been known to be a visionary whether it’d be in music, fashion, or culture. If you’ve ever been to a Kanye West concert, you’d know that he does not settle and will put on a show you’ll never forget.
“The College Dropout Tour”
(March 16, 2004 – May 5, 2004)
Starting from the beginning, we have Kanye’s The College Dropout tour, following his debut album released with the same name in February 2004. Like usual Kanye fashion, this tour and release was delayed multiple times due to him perfecting his craft. As far as stage setup goes, this is his most tame, which was done by Roc-A-Fella Records. Fans were exhibited with a normal stage with a panorama of the Chicago skyline atop seven LED panels that showed a continual image. Also, accompanied on stage with him was his personal DJ, A-trak, and his setup, creating a vibe of a vintage rap show. By recent Kanye standards, this is by far one of his most modest productions, but this was still a momentous occasion to have been apart of.
“Touch The Sky Tour”
(October 12, 2005 – December 11, 2005)
This tour was named after his song, “Touch The Sky,” that is from his sophomore album, Late Registration—this was the beginning of Kanye’s more artistic approach to his live performances. On the eve of this tour, Kanye began having problems with the lighting arrangements to which he brought on Esmeralda (“Es”) Devlin—she is a stage designer extraordinaire. The set this time around was just one rectangular screen, portraying abstract visuals tied to each song. There was also the addition of a string section applying a live essence, as well as the returning DJ booth, which provided live mixing. Compared to his previous tour, this one was darker and taken more seriously.
“Glow in the Dark Tour”
(April 16, 2008 to December 7, 2008)
This tour kicked off in between the release of Graduation (2007) and 808s & Heartbreak (2008). This tour was momentous because it was Kanye’s first world tour. Instead of naming it after one of his albums or songs, Kanye chose to go for a performance based on a concept. This tour captures the new futuristic aesthetic that Kanye was going for during the time, with songs like “Stronger” and “Welcome to Heartbreak.” The production team for this venture would become a staple crew, consisting of Esmeralda Devlin, Martin Phillips, John McGuire and Kanye himself.
This tour stage trumps all of the other productions with a screen that covered the entire stage, while a smaller screen would drop in and out—whether it was for contrast or residual effects. Furthermore, the key to this production was the expert lighting and projection manipulation. In certain songs, you would see lights and visuals match the beat of the music. However, what really took the cake was the narrative of a spaceship landing on Earth being told throughout, turning the whole show into a musical theater. Interestingly enough, on his Lollapalooza date, it was reported that he forcibly postponed his show in order to get the light just right
“Watch the Throne Tour”
(October 29, 2011 to June 22, 2012)
This tour focused on and was named after Kanye’s first joint album with rap legend Jay-Z that was released in August of the same year. This tour would be the first time since “Glow in the Dark” that Kanye would be touring again. The designers for this production would include veterans Esmeralda Devlin and John McGuire, as well as newcomers Bruce Rodgers, Nick Whitehouse, and Goedezik. This would also be the premiere of Kanye’s own design company, DONDA Surround, named in honor of his late mother. The stage setup had two big screens that were used to track both artists, as well as visuals. The main attraction, however, was the two LED cubes spread across the room where they performed on top of. These cubes would change colors and show images of various animals.
“The Yeezus Tour”
(October 19, 2013 to December 23, 2013)
Following the release of his album titled Yeezus (2013), this was no doubt his biggest stage venture yet. For stage design, we have the usual Esmeralda Devlin, John McGuire and DONDA, as well as the newly added help of model and performer Vanessa Beecroft. Kanye also had help from a renowned fashion company, Maison Margiela, for costume design. Kanye revisits the use of narrative again, but this time expressing the grandiose idea of the end of the world. The layout this time around was down to every last detail. Instead of the usual squared stage, the stage was setup to look like a ridge of a mountain, while being able to act as a catwalk for him and his performers. There was also a 50ft mountain in the back that would be boarded and split apart in certain sequences. Finally, behind it all was a gigantic circular screen that projected many images, such as the moon, volcanic explosions, and the live show itself. This tour would go on to be the second highest-grossing tour of 2013, and a prime example of the success that would come from Kanye’s creative freedom.
“Saint Pablo Tour”
(August 25, 2016 to December 31, 2016)
Named after his album, The Life of Pablo (2016), this would be Kanye’s last tour until the current day. During this time, Kanye was undergoing a very “minimalistic” phase, which can be seen through his clothing and album art. Up until this point, the focus of Kanye and his team had been to build and manipulate on top of a stage. Kanye flips the script by making the stage itself the main attraction. Furthermore, by using wiring to hold the whole platform suspended, Kanye creates the first ever floating stage. Because of its minimalism, this set had little to no design except for the articular movement of the stage, as well as a laser light show. Again, Kanye does something revolutionary, creating a whole new viewing experience. Sadly, what would have been a great grossing tour ended abruptly midway through due to poor health conditions.
Kids See Ghosts, Camp Flog Gnaw
(November 11, 2018)
Although not necessarily a tour, this was the first and last time (up until this point) Kanye performed his new joint album with Kid Cudi as Kid See Ghosts. As for stage work, this would be a joint project between DONDA and Trask House (McGuire’s Company). In this last live performance, Kanye blends everything he has done thus far into one spectacle. Suspended in the air again, the duo would be placed in a see-through container lined with LED lights, matching the mood of the songs. Behind them would also be an immense screen, displaying concept art for the album done by Takashi Murakami. Periodically during the hits of certain beats, pillars of fire would also shoot out from behind them, adding an overall Cirque du Soleil feel to the entire show.
Though not nearly close to all the Kanye productions ever produced, these shows clearly show that Kanye is a visionary when it comes to a performance. He expects nothing less, only his exact idea. With every new performance, he tries to find a way to make something new and captivating for his audience. At first glance, some would think a dome in the middle of a festival would be completely absurd and over the top. However, as we have seen from each production, Kanye will always find a new way to astonish and please his audience and fans.