Kanye West’s Sunday Service was not a traditional Kanye West concert. It was a spiritual, had-to-be-there experience fashioned like a new-age Baptist church revival.
West was not here to play his hits, or deliver anything that would have offered clear insight into the mind of one of the most polarizing figures of the last quarter-century.
Instead, what he staged outside of Coachella during the early morning of the festival’s final Sunday was a nearly two-hour celebration of the gospel and soul music that’s shaped the framework of his artistry.
Centered atop a sprawling, man-made summit near the festival’s campgrounds, West’s vision was church jam session meets performance art.
He arrived a little after 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, cloaked in purple frocks – his hair partially dyed a bright hue to match his ensemble — and took his place atop a two-tiered peak that overlooked the entirety of the grounds.
There were hundreds of singers, dancers, a full orchestra and West collaborators Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla Sign, Teyana Taylor and Chance the Rapper — all shrouded in various shades of dusty rose, some women in the choir styled with ashen blond extensions down to their ankles.
Childish Gambino, Jaden and Willow Smith, Idris Elba, Jermaine Dupri, Lizzo and the entire Kardashian clan were some of the VIPs stretched across parcels of freshly laid turf below the stage.
It was a stunning spectacle from a provocative artist who has made a career of disrupting the way we experience music in live spaces, and quite frankly the most hype-inducing set at Coachella in this post-Beyoncé year of our Lord.
What West did by centering the black church experience at a mainstream music festival is nothing short of remarkable.
The soulful harmonies of big-lunged church singers sampled and flipped on rap records have been a part of hip-hop’s DNA from the beginning. But rap fans who didn’t come up in households where the Clark Sisters and Curtis Mayfield soundtracked Easter Sunday dinners were likely unaware of these holy original texts.
At Coachella, West let the records that he turned to for salvation and sampling lead a set that saw him assume the role as a faithful servant to worship.
Pastor T.L. Barrett’s “Father Stretch My Hands,” which he heavily sampled for a track off his “The Life of Pablo” album, was gloriously sung by the choir with a slight assist from Ty Dolla. Chance the Rapper delivered a verse during a transcendent rendering of “Ultralight Beam,” and Teyana Taylor stretched out Marvin Sapp’s searing “Never Would Have Made It,” which West sampled on an album he produced for Taylor amid a creative spurt last year.
Sunday Service didn’t showcase a West the public is used to.
He barely rapped, or performed any of his music himself, even when debuting a new song titled “Water.” He largely ceded the spotlight to the choir and band as he pounded on his drum machine or got lost in the music.
DMX led the crowd in prayer. West’s daughter, North, ran to the mic to chant the “poopy-di scoop” lines of her father’s nonsensical romp “Lift Yourself” and Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” received a delirious reworking that was the euphoric highlight of the set.
He was at his own personal church and he praised and danced and cried as if not surrounded by an audience of tens of thousands and countless others watching on a live stream, many likely rubbernecking to see what unforgivable thing he might say or do.
That West ostensibly transformed Coachella into church — and a specific type of black church experience, at that — was a powerful statement on its own.
But it comes at a time when many of West’s flock have lost faith in him.
He’s one of the most prolific artists to break into pop music over the last 20 years — a rapper who has valued thoughtful expression over trends, a producer and songwriter whose work has changed the framework of hip-hop and R&B, and a businessman who’s sought to reinvent fashion and tech.
Yet the past few years have tested West, personally and professionally, in ways from which he hasn’t fully rebounded.
His wife, Kim Kardashian West, was robbed at gunpoint in Paris, and his mental health deteriorated to the point where shows became erratic and he needed to be hospitalized — a rocky patch that informed last year’s “Ye.”
And he has tested his followers, particularly his black fans, possibly past a point of disrepair.
Between the declaration of President Trump as his “brother” and the picture of West proudly wearing a Make America Great Again hat (the president signed it), the bizarre stream-of-consciousness tweets that ranged from combative to self-aggrandizing and the disastrous appearance on TMZ where he declared slavery was a “choice,” it increasingly became exasperating, not to mention depressing, to puzzle out what West was thinking or who he was becoming.
None of that was on display Sunday, however. No sermonizing, no MAGA hat, no incendiary comments. Just rapturous gospel singing and worship.
So what are we to make of Sunday Service? Was this a creative reset for an artist who’d OD’d on ego and celebrity? An elaborate set piece that teases “Yandhi,” the album he’s promised since last year but has yet to materialize?
Or was this West’s way of atoning, directly and passionately, to his core fan base that felt led astray?
Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe it’s none at all. We won’t know until West’s next move.
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