Kanye West’s Saint Pablo live show is coming soon to an arena near you. But for many fans his “The Life of Pablo” experience has been ongoing since even before he debuted the album to great fanfare in February at Madison Square Garden.
West is a producer of beats, albums, live shows, apparel, films and now coordinated worldwide events. This summer the most controversial man in pop culture held a series of functions in cities all across the globe that gave his fans the opportunity to congregate in their shared appreciation.
It started on July 1, when West announced via Twitter that eight cities worldwide would host screenings of his then-new, lurid and provocative “Famous” music video that night. Details were few, with the musician providing little more than a series of cross streets and times to be there.
It was a drenching Friday night in Boston, but at the corner of Huntington and Longwood Avenues, just across from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and up the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, a clutch of loyalists and otherwise curious spectators huddled under awnings to wait out the rain and see a music video already known for featuring the naked likenesses of notorious presidents, aspiring ones, tarnished celebrities, his rivals, West himself, his wife and their exes.
Even West’s detractors were in attendance for his guerilla art installation.
“I actually don’t really know if I like him that much,” said Ryan, a neighbor from nearby Evans Way who opted to identify himself only by first name — a guarded practice that would prove common at Saint Pablo’s events.
“I liked him when he first came out,” Jen, the companion who had prompted Ryan’s excursion, explained as they waited 40 minutes in the rain to see his work. “The old Kanye.”
A van appeared at the scene and hired hands went on to project the jarring 10-minute visual piece on the walls of a MassArt building.
Nels, Jason and Eric, Northeastern students and Boston natives who cited “The Life of Pablo” as the album of the year and felt they couldn’t miss the nearby event, came away impressed. They stuck around to discuss what they thought of the “Famous” piece, which visually samples “Sleep,” Vincent Desiderio’s sprawling 2008 painting, in much the same way West has historically sampled the sonics of recording artists from Chaka Khan to Daft Punk.
“It’s supposed to look messy,” argued Eric. “They’re all famous, and you’re all in bed together when you’re famous. It makes sense.”
“We just had a Kanye party for, like, a few minutes,” Jason happily noted before the crew headed out to enjoy the rest of their Friday night as college students should.
The van, which had come from projecting the film nearby to Fenway Park, would go on to repeat the video delivery stunt that night on surfaces near MIT in Cambridge, near to the Boston Commons, and in Jamaica Plain.
In late August, Kanye’s specter returned to Boston and other cities, only this time his business was commerce. Life of Pablo merchandise stores were opened worldwide over the weekend, with Boston’s branch situated in the Back Bay. By a half-hour before the Boylston Street shop Friday opening, the line had reached well around the block and flooded a nearby alleyway.
The street looked like a fashion show, with many in line sporting previously acquired Kanye threads and few dressed in anything less than their best. The long wait line would prove too much for many, but early on spirits were high. Patrick, a Boston bartender and Burlington native who has seen his all-time favorite artist West perform seven times, conceded that the design on the Pablo gear was “a little overrated,” but was still prepared to spend up to $200 on it.
The DIY aesthetic of the screen-printed Pablo concert gear, which features stylized quotations of the album, was inspired by makeshift memorials popularized in Los Angeles, and bear a decidedly different make than West’s adidas-backed, dystopian Yeezy fashion line. But for those that got into the store after a grueling wait, what mattered most was availability.
“It’s stuff that not everyone can get their hands on, so everyone wants it,” said Janery, a manager in care who works in Dorchester, after she had waited over two hours in line to gain access to the store.
John, a Philadelphia native going to school in Somerville, found the artist’s latest album cycle to have its share of rocky moments, but still found himself supporting it, and was impressed to note how many others did as well.
“I think people are attracted to Kanye in a lot of different ways, and it’s very interesting to see how everyone’s coming together,” he said while waiting. “He doesn’t have just one niche.”
Others assessed their surroundings, as well. “You can tell looking at the line, you can see the variety of his fan base. It’s something that brings people together,” said Jonathan, a Lynn native and Salem State student who had arrived with his friend Georgette at 6:30 a.m. that morning.
The inside of Pablo pop-up featured spare racks that hung gear color-schemed specifically to Boston and bearing its name lining the store, with shoppers sharing a vibe that could be favorably compared to 20-somethings in a candy shop. The apparel’s city branding was the kind of exclusive that fans could enjoy with pride as they listened to West’s recordings play throughout the shop. “Boston” was even written in the signature Pablo font on a wall, giving shoppers an optimal photo backdrop for their optimal social media opportunity.
There was a palpable sense of relief from consumers that had spent their day waiting out the chance to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothes whose greatest value would come not from the way they looked but in the statement they felt wearing them made.
In the coming days, Kanye West will hit a series of east coast cities, Boston included, for his run of concerts. Those who waited out the Pablo shopping experience will be easily recognized for the earliness of their outfits.
“All I’ve heard are great things about Kanye concerts so expect the unexpected. We’ll end up seeing,” said Stanley, a Boston resident who had snagged a “We On A Ultralight Beam” shirt to wear to the show.
“It’s one of those shows that even if you’re in a balcony seat, you know it’s going to be a lit event,” said Jonathan from Lynn.
“It feels like one big long production to me,” Northeastern student Nels said at the “Famous” viewing, back when it was all only getting started.
Here’s what will happen when Kanye West comes to your town: there will be challenging and evocative forms of expression, there will be mountains of money made on “I was there”-demarcating merchandise, and there will be a sea of believers that insist it’s all worth it.