We look back at Kanye's disastrous Bonnaroo 2008 performance to figure out why the hell he decided to come back this weekend.
Kanye at Bonnaroo 2008, probably while getting booed.
This weekend, Kanye West is slotted to headline Bonnaroo for the second time in his career. The first time he played the fest was in 2008. Originally slated for an 8 PM time slow on the Which stage, Kanye demanded a last-minute switch to a 2 AM time slot on the festival’s main stage. To say that this ended poorly is an understatement. After delivering a delayed, truncated set that ended at nearly six in the morning, Kanye left the stage to a sea of boos, only to take to his blog a few days later and blame Bonnaroo itself for the whole debacle.
In an interview with Relix Magazine, festival promoter Rick Farman said of Kanye, “Everyone has moved on—it’s in the past. We’re happy he wants to come back to Bonnaroo and is embracing this.” There is a thing, however, and that thing is this—Kanye West doesn’t do shit halfway, and he doesn’t do shit for the shit of it. Every step he takes comes with a purpose. In order to understand why he might return to a festival that left him feeling so high and dry, it’s important to remember what happened on that fateful night. Fortunately, I was there, and I can tell you all about it.
The year was 2008. I was 19, and had just finished my freshman year of college. My friends and I had orchestrated a mass exodus from North Carolina to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, because that was the sort of thing you did if you were 19 and didn’t have anything better to do. We’d been camping within spitting distance of the main stage, close enough that the Friday night headliner Metallica drowned out my friends’ attempts to score shrooms from a corpsey-looking white dude with dreads and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Bonnaroo is not a hospitable environment: the sun wakes you up at seven in the morning by turning your tent into a sauna; everyone smells horrible because the only way to take to bathe yourself there is to pay ten bucks for a shower in a trailer; and you have to bring your own food or risk spending $80 a day on borderline carnival fare that, because of the heat, you will throw up. An eight-hour car ride to the festival is considered a quick commute, and since it’s you and a bunch of people camping in a field, there’s no place to charge your phone, and if there hypothetically were, there’s no reception because of all the people also trying to use their dying phones. On top of that, there’s an underlying tension to the actual crowd at the festival, as it’s split between normal-ass music fans and the hippies, holdovers from the era when Bonnaroo was an all-jam band affair, who make up the backbone of the fest’s attendees. It’s a tense, hermetically sealed world everyone’s sweaty and smelly and drunk and high, and the right spark can set people the fuck off.
In 2008, that spark manifested itself in the form of West, who delayed his set from 2 AM to 4:45 AM, and enraged a field full of music fans in the process.
Up until that night, the festival had been solid. M.I.A., riding high off of her second album Kala, was a highlight. My Morning Jacket had brought out Kirk Hammett of Metallica for their late-night set and Jim James spent the second half of the performance in a wizard robe, which is the exact sort of thing people to go Bonnaroo to see. Vampire Weekend played an afternoon side stage because they weren’t yet Vampire Weekend. I remember being confused that my friends wanted to see Tïesto, mainly because he sucked then and he still sucks now. But what we’d really been waiting for was Kanye. On the day Graduation came out, I bought it, along with Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass. I have no idea why, but for some reason I initially liked the Aesop Rock album more. But as the year wore on, it was Kanye’s record that stuck with me. I woke up to the intro “Good Morning” every single morning, listening to the record all the way through to “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’” as I got ready for class. This was when rap fans still considered Kanye one of the good guys, an enthusiastic everyman with an oversized ego who still meant well. At Bonnaroo, all of that changed.
My friend Russell and I were set up close to the stage for Kanye, awaiting his 2 AM set time, when the gigantic projection screen told us that Kanye’s Glow in the Dark show was going to be delayed for an hour. OK, fine. People booed the news, because sure. It sucks to get stood up and told you’re going to have to wait even longer to see the thing you wanted to see. Shit happens. It still seemed like the crowd was on his side. 2 AM turned to 3 AM. Still no Kanye. The boos were stronger now; people took to throwing bottles onstage in frustration. By 4 AM, the crowd was at a fever pitch of frustration and anger, reaching that weird state where they hadn’t given up hope and left, but were still royally pissed off they’d been duped into waiting three hours to see something they really wanted to see. When Kanye finally took the stage at 4:45 AM, he barely had a chance.
My memories of the set itself are pretty blurry. I remember “Gold Digger” was a highlight, and I remember being alternately amused and annoyed by the whole thing Kanye was doing those days where he’d have conversations with his computer. “Spaceship,” a song about working shitty retail jobs, became a song about an actual spaceship. At one point in his weird fake journey, Kanye was egged on to keep going by the speakers playing “Don’t Stop Believin’”, because this was 2008 and that sort of thing still seemed like a vaguely good idea. Kanye finished “Stronger” as the sun went up, and that was that. People were confused; he’d only played for something like an hour.
What stood out more than the music was the crowd and Kanye’s attempt to control them. Playing to a festival crowd is already a strange beast, because even if you’re a headliner, no one’s really there specifically to see you. Add to that Kanye’s insistence on presenting an already-irked crowd with a high-concept show like his Glow in the Dark tour, and it’s a wonder that they stuck with him at all. Not that he didn’t try. You could tell he was pouring himself into the songs, trying to win us back over to his side. Support would come in waves—we’d be with him for the climactic build-up of one song, and then somebody would throw a bottle at him, the dam would break, and the boos would start all over again. When the crowd realized they were getting a truncated set, they went ballistic. We hadn’t even made it to our campsite when we found a fresh “FUCK KANYE,” rendered in red spraypaint on a wall.
Before Bonnaroo, Kanye had been willing to play the part of hip-hop’s “Good Guy” in the media. When Rolling Stone depicted him facing off against 50 Cent on their September 20th, 2007 cover, the implication was clear: 50 Cent, with his scowl and furrowed brow, was hip-hop’s villain; while Kanye, staring coolly, defiant, into 50 Cent’s gaze, was the good guy. It was as if RS was trying to portray hip-hop as The Force and cast Kanye and 50 as the light and dark side. And Kanye, despite being worlds more complex than that, consented to being cast in that binary. After Bonnaroo, it seemed that he was no longer willing to play along. “LET'S BREAK DOWN THE WALLS ON THIS TRUMAN SHOW,” he said in a blog post addressing the fiasco, before breaking down what went wrong the night of the set. “PEARL JAM ENDED ONE HOUR LATE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AT THAT POINT WE'RE RACING AGAINST THE SUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he explained. Though he claimed he was typing so hard me might break his MacBook Air, you got the sense that it was Kanye himself who was threatening to burst at the seams.
In the days that followed, the Kanye who presented himself to the world looked less like the affable goofball of The College Dropout and more like the Kanye we know today, a leather-clad truth warrior who releases scathing polemics, confounds critics, and puts babies up inside Kim Kardashian’s million-dollar womb. It was as if his reception at Bonnaroo had made Kanye embrace a heel turn he’d only been teasing before. The rap game is meaningless, and after Bonnaroo 2008, Kanye stopped playing. That fall, he retreated to Hawaii to release his most difficult record, the Sad Robot masterpiece that was 808s and Heartbreak. A year later he stole the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMAs to deliver perhaps his defining moment of defiance, the “Imma let you finish!” speech.
Kanye’s return to Bonnaroo is largely a symbolic gesture—a means of asserting himself over one of the few entities that’s managed to assert itself over him. He is Luke Skywalker, facing Darth Vader again after he sliced his hand off. He is Eminem in 8 Mile, finally taking the Free World Gang down in a rap battle. He is Jerry and Elaine deciding to fuck after they broke up on Seinfeld. And, much like the heroes I’ve described above, I have no doubt he’ll succeed. This time around, he’ll be given ample time to set his stage up how he wants with no delays. He’ll probably play for hours, bring out Elton John to close with “All of the Lights,” and leave the stage by reverse-parachuting into a waiting helicopter. Don’t worry that reverse-parachuting isn’t a thing, I’m sure DONDA will invent it by this weekend.
UPDATE: Curious how the actual performance played out? Check out our photos of Kanye at Bonnaroo 2014 here.
Drew Millard could have let the dream-killers kill his self-esteem, but instead used his arrogance as steam to power his twitter account - @drewmillard