Sunday night's three-and-a-half-hour long Saturday Night Live anniversary show was, in many ways, an exercise in convention: the resurrection of 40-year-old jokes for old time's sake, no matter how awkwardly they fit in 2015. (Thinking most particularly of Dan Aykroyd's bass-o-matic bit—who even uses blenders anymore?—which could have at least been updated for the juicing generation.) So when Kanye West's DONDA-fied performance aired—cued up by a Peter Pan-neutered Christopher Walken who couldn't pronounce his name, and an unorthodox close-up on Yeezy's visage—it was jarring like a splash of water to the face, a reminder amid all this nostalgia that we are in 2015 and some of us (Yeezy) are thinking towards the future. The minimalist goddamn future.
The first track was "Jesus Walks" under a glowing sheet, Kanye lying supine and accessorized only by a mic, an earpiece, a diamond grille, demonic contacts giving him reasonable doubt on a track about spirituality and god. He purposely sucked the air out of a song that's normally overflowing with bombast—a welcome direction for those of us who love his verses but could do without ever hearing the chorus again—and led an easy transition into "Only One," his shaky autotune ode to his mom (RIP) and daughter. The latter sounded much better live than recorded, perhaps because it's a song about imperfection that demands it. The scraggly chorus felt real and vehement, a frog in his throat, and even though Kanye's singing voice is a flawed instrument, his vulnerability made it relatable, effective. Coming around on that song, especially when it actually sounds like a lullaby to North, not just part of his art direction.
And then came "Wolves," the opening song from his forthcoming album, as first debuted last week during the fashion show for his Adidas line. It's a stunner, opening with elven-voices on production from underground dance music heroes Cashmere Cat and Sinjin Hawke, and this performance was all you'd want from a freaky track about bad influences: pop goddess Sia in her cartoonish bush wig/mask giving anguish in a note, Vic Mensa exuding sweetness in that apocalyptically holey Yeezy-Adidas sweater, Kanye doing nearly nothing but acting as the spiritual glue, and also very subtly slow-grinding, on his knees, with the floor.
Kanye can seem overbearing at times—insisting on the singularity of his fashion vision, perhaps, or if you happen to be Beck—but performances like this shift his presence into perspective. He's got to live with ardor across the board to give us this kind of performance. And honestly, it made sitting through the whole SNL broadcast worthwhile.