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Not all musicians are performers, but all performers love the stage. Choreographed dancers and surprise guests might have cut it ten years ago, but with technological advancements, the bar for awe-inspiring shows has been raised drastically.

From floating stages and light shows to laser beams and kinetic pyramid structures, artists like Beyonce, Kanye West, Travis Scott, and Drake are leading the charge in exuberant shows that challenge the traditional concept of a concert. Employing the talents of world-renowned event designers who have portfolios that boast creating the likes of Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Residency Shows and the MTV Video Music Awards, the playful competitiveness between artists is serious business. Luckily for music lovers, they end up reaping the rewards.

The current touring market relies on the visual experience to bolster the music. We look at stage designs that have captured the imaginations of fans across the world.

Drake: Scorpion Tour

Drake’s ‘Aubrey & Three Migos’ Tour was announced off the back of his record-breaking fifth studio album, Scorpion. The set design, created by the production company, TAIT was a high-tech, multicolored fantasy-cum-reality. “The World Market Leader in designing, constructing and delivering the finest live event solutions in the world,” TAIT’s clients include NASA, National Geographic, Beyoncé and The Olympics.

Photo: Evgeny Arkhipov: PIN–UP Online

Drake’s video stage gave fans a 360-degree view of the Toronto-rapper as he performed in the middle of the arena. As fans are treated from multiple vantage points to a landscape that at one point transforms into a basketball court, the stage is, by and large, a piece of multimedia art. Built with 288 video decks, the ever-changing visuals set the mood, from playing on the virality of “In Your Feelings” by changing the entire screen into an Instagram feed of people partaking in the Shiggy-formulated dance challenge to a gaggle of mermaids surrounding Drake as he performs unwittingly.  The introduction of 3D visuals by Willo Perron, whose previous works include concerts for Rihanna and St. Vincent, saw to the addition of a flying Ferrari— a cherry on top of an already embellished visual feast.

The concert was so good, Kanye West gave it props amidst their feuding.

Kanye West: St. Pablo Tour

If there’s anyone who has rejected the traditional concepts of stage design, it’s Kanye West. Famously, in the leadup to his Saint Pablo tour, he questioned the existence of having a stage at all.  “Why do we have to have a stage, anyway?” he asked his production team, which then spurred the dizzying and unimaginable task of creating a floating 16-by-20-foot platform.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“When we built Saint Pablo… there was an energy to life at that time,” set designer, and long-time collaborator, John McGuire remembered. “We had the Par Can… a single incandescent light bulb. One light goes on and off, and that’s it. We took that, and went with modern engineering… and new weight ratings to make a whole new experience. A lot of times it’s using the oldest technology we have with some spit of the new.” 

Photo: Hannan Hussain

The design of the stage featured an elaborate pulley and track system and the crew programmed it to hit certain “marks” in the arena. At any moment a concert-goer could have a front row seat, and be just meters away from West no matter where they were in the venue. It was a markedly refreshing take on stage design and reinvented how people experienced live music.

Travis Scott: Astroworld Tour

In 1968, Houston philanthropist and former mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz, opened amusement park AstroWorld to the public. 49 years later, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Travis Scott named a few specific AstroWorld theme park rides he was sentimental for. “It had a Dungeon Drop, Greezed Lightnin’, Superman,” he recalls. “It was a way of life – fantasies, imagination.” Before he had even finished recording Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Scott knew he wanted his third studio album to be called ASTROWORLD.

Photo: Kevin Rawls / Radio One Houston

Following the release of his album, ASTROWORLD in 2018, the Kanye West protege recreated the amusement park’s larger-than-life aesthetics bringing this concept to life. The ‘ASTROWORLD: Wish You Were Here’ tour, saw Scott riding atop a roller coaster, a Ferris Wheel, and flashy visuals. An amalgam of fantasy and fanciful pyrotechnics, the show succeeded at keeping fans on the edge of their seats.

“I don’t know why it hasn’t been done already,” he told Billboard. “I think people just don’t do shit,” he continued. “Who makes stages these days that are cool?” Scott later discussed his creative approach and said that he’s in a lane of his own and is a “master of my own imagination.

Beyonce: Coachella

Beyoncé’s groundbreaking Coachella performance in 2018 was the most talked about performance of the year. From the kinetic pyramid structure that housed 100 performers to her tribute to HBCUs, the concept for “Beyoncé Homecoming” was breathtaking. Created by STUFISH, the team behind the MTV VMAs, Lady Gaga’s Vegas Residency shows, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘On the Run II’ tour; the historic performance set a new standard for dramatics.

Photo: Raven B. Varona

Performed over two weeks, the festival was affectionately nicknamed “Beychella” for the remainder of the event— a nod to the iconic moment bestowed upon pop culture history. The 36-year-old star, who collaborated with French design house, Balmain to produce the proudly Black and positively charged costume designs were intrinsic to the performance. This collaboration peaked with Bey’s inspired Queen Nefertiti homage. The luxurious headdress embellished cape and characteristically Balmain bodice shone as a symbol of black female empowerment.

Photo: Getty

Theatrical and larger-than-life set design often takes center stage, outperforming the performer, but Beyoncé never ceases to amaze.  

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Kish Lal

Kish Lal is a pop culture critic based in New York.

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