Ads Top

At Coachella, the gospel according to Kanye West

At Coachella, the gospel according to Kanye West
The last couple of years have been among West’s most difficult. He has divided his supporters with his public support for President Donald Trump, and started firestorms with his intemperate statements about slavery and mental health, among other things. Beginning in spring 2018, he retreated to Wyoming to complete a cycle of albums for himself and others, and recalibrate emotionally. But by fall, he was back in the headlines for a disquieting meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.
In the months since, he has apparently been searching for calm. An urge toward purification has seemed to be at work in the intimate, invite-only sessions — Sunday Service, they’re called — he’s been leading in Calabasas, California, since January. Clips of the performances have trickled out into the world via social media, primarily on his wife Kim Kardashian West’s Instagram. The aesthetic is one of healing — dozens of performers dressed in all white re-imagining popular songs as quasi-religious balms.
On Sunday morning, West brought a grander-scaled version of these sessions to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for an Easter morning concert. Or convocation. Or ablution. For more than two hours, West was the captain but not the performer, the architect of a formidable and lustrous presentation, but also in many ways, just a humble congregant.
Since the beginning of his career, West has been making the case for the spiritual impulse in secular spaces. That was the underlying theme of this service — and it functioned far more like a church service than a concert — an argument the performance returned to again and again, interspersing sacred music with soul and hip-hop and even house music, declining to draw barriers between them while contending that belief could be found inside any of them.
Yes, the gospel is the stuff of church. But as the song selections at Coachella revealed, the gospel is in plain sight, too. It is there in Stevie Wonder’s “As,” which the choir howled joyously. It is there in the urgent ministrations of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (How Ever Do You Want Me).” It is there in the guttural testimony of DMX, who appeared near the end of the performance, during “Ultralight Beam,” and delivered a two-minute homily. Afterward, West appeared to be in tears (based on the livestreamed video; it was difficult to ascertain in person), with Kid Cudi and Chance the Rapper offering him comfort.
West, Chance, DMX: here were three very different proponents of the Christian impulse in hip-hop, working side by side. One of West’s least-heralded legacies is in clearing a path for artists like Chance and Kendrick Lamar, who’ve woven spiritual themes into their music without compromise. That West might fancy a churchlike setting to amplify his message makes sense. And it was apt that he could populate this moment with his spiritual children.
West and his team performed atop a hill built custom for the occasion, separated by a barricade from the many-thousand-strong crowd that showed up early to see him play. There was one plateau for the choir, dressed in matching mauve and rust sweatsuits and ponchos; a second one just above it for West, his collaborators and the band; and a final platform at the very center for whoever was leading the service at any given moment. In the background loomed the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, serving as quiet sentries.
As a performance, it was immersive and diffuse — sometimes it was thunder, sometimes it was mist. From the stunning choir, there were jolting versions of the gospel numbers “How Excellent” and “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down.” There was a jumped-up, almost Baltimore-club take on Fred Hammond’s “This Is the Day,” while a new song, the patient “Water,” never found its footing.
Midshow, singer Teyana Taylor emerged for a smooth, soothing “Never Would Have Made It,” and then descended to commune with the dancers who, for most of the show, had been casually dispersed around the hills behind the performance, but who’d gathered at the foot of the stage for an intense session of flails and stomps.
This was when West got activated, too. He followed Taylor down the hill and out into the crowd of dancers, which by that point was blending with the audience in the VIP section. It was a glorious mosh.
This is how West spent most of the morning: surrounded by others, inoculated. Sunday Service, by design, rises and falls on the power of the group. Typically, when West is onstage, he is given to speechifying, but here, he hardly spoke at all.
His hair dyed a mottled purple — matching his outfit — he mostly was content to act as an agent of others’ creativity. He rapped just twice — parts of “All Falls Down” and, at the conclusion, “Jesus Walks,” the early hit that served as the de facto foundational text of this performance. (It’s rarely been more vivid how fluidly West blends the spiritual and the gauche as during “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” when after West’s longtime collaborator Tony Williams’ stirring incantations, the rapper’s own comically explicit verse never materialized.)
West was originally intended to be one of the festival’s headliners, but Coachella organizers reportedly declined to construct a dome for his performance in the middle of the grounds, as he requested. (He last headlined the festival in 2011, and has been a surprise guest during other performers’ sets three times since then, including Saturday night, with Kid Cudi.)
This Sunday Service was only announced three weeks ago, but it was a spectacle people oriented their weekends around. Festivalgoers woke up early to get prime spots at the barricades. Members of West’s family — Kim, Kris, Kendall, Kylie, Travis and more — sat on fabric sprawled out on the ground. Justin Bieber, Jaden and Willow Smith and members of the K-pop girl group Blackpink watched the show. This was almost certainly the first (and last) time that DeRay Mckesson and Lil Pump have shared the same oxygen.
The lines at the “Church Clothes” merchandise tent, which began more than two hours before the performance, never abated. There were Jesus Walks socks for $50, Trust God T-shirts for $70, and sweatshirts and sweatpants for much more. It was a reminder that, gospel music aside, this was not in fact church.
And yet consistently, this performance privileged the power of the group over the zeal of the individual. The choir was phenomenal, even adding an interrogating air to “Jesus Walks.” And the dancers, dozens of them, moved with rigorous enthusiasm. At the end of the show, audience members were encouraged to hug their neighbors.
The only time West truly took center stage was during “Jesus Walks.” He walked around the hill while rapping, trailed by the choir, and at the song’s end, he dropped to the ground. For about a full minute, surrounded by no fewer than six camerapeople, he knelt in reverent silence.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
At Coachella, the gospel according to Kanye West At Coachella, the gospel according to Kanye West Reviewed by opeyemi on 5:54:00 am Rating: 5