Kanye West’s latest stunt? Get this: A relatively well-run event that delivered on its billing.
At the Forum on Wednesday night — nearly a month after he blew the original release date of his new album — the rapper, singer, designer and veteran controversialist presented what he called the Jesus Is King Album & Film Experience.
Which certainly sounded straightforward enough.
If the year and a half since his alienating bromance with President Trump has led West’s fans to expect anything, though, it’s chaos. So only the most trusting of ticketholders had reason to think that what was in store Wednesday would be a playback of the new record and a screening of an accompanying IMAX concert film, both due Friday.
And yet that’s just what went down.
About the unruliest thing that happened was the long line at the VIP will-call window, which led West to grab a microphone and let folks already inside the arena know that he was pushing back the evening’s start time to allow more people time to enter.
“All right, guys, we got 15 minutes,” said his wife, Kim Kardashian West, after the rapper handed her the mike. “What do you wanna do?”
Compared to previous West listening parties — including the rowdy livestreamed spectacles he devised to introduce 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” and last year’s “Ye” — this one had the feel of a church lock-in, with fans sitting cross-legged on the floor amid a smattering of neutral-colored shrubs and bushes. (Nature sounds were piped in too as those 15 minutes ticked by, a nod perhaps to the time West and his family have been spending in Wyoming.)
The wholesome church vibe was no accident: “Jesus Is King” is West’s much-hyped excursion into gospel music, which he’s focused on lately — after dabbling in it for years — in the so-called Sunday Service performances he’s led in various locations around the country, including at the Coachella festival in April.
Skeptics have wondered whether West’s embrace of gospel is his attempt at damage control — aimed in particular at his African American audience — in the wake of his infamous 2018 interview with TMZ in which he said that slavery sounds to him like “a choice.”
Yet to witness Sunday Service (even via social media) is to encounter a musician clearly moved by both the message and the medium of gospel.
“Jesus Is King,” the 30-plus-minute IMAX film, captures a Sunday Service performance held inside James Turrell’s Roden Crater land-art project in Arizona. Directed by high-end fashion photographer Nick Knight, the film, dominated by static, single-camera gospel numbers and pretty landscape interstitials, leans more LACMA video installation than linear Netflix doc.
But the reason to see it is in fact to hear it — to lose yourself in the astonishing group singing of West’s choir, which has a power and precision made only more stirring by the arena-concert volume at which West screened the film Wednesday. The choir mostly does traditional gospel material, but the movie also has West tenderly crooning a modified version of his song “Street Lights,” from 2008’s “808s & Heartbreak,” and singing as he holds a baby that appears to be his 5-month-old son, Psalm.
There’s much more of West’s voice on the “Jesus Is King” album, which he played at the Forum from a spot on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of fans in a tightly packed circle. (Wednesday’s event, for which some tickets were given away, took place in only half of the arena, with the gigantic IMAX screen running lengthwise from one end to the other.)
On the album, West sings and raps more or less exclusively about religion — about the power of prayer and about Jesus’ ability to heal. “Tell the devil I’m going on strike,” he says in one track; in another, he describes the help he received in fighting addiction.
The music has hallmarks of West’s established production style, including sped-up soul samples and needling synth licks. But few of the songs, at least on first listen, grab you in the way his older work does. And some of his rhymes are awfully corny, none more so than those in a song about how Chick-fil-A is closed on Sunday.
A core value of gospel music is its durability, so perhaps these new songs will reveal themselves over time. As you left this perfectly harmless night at the Forum, though, you couldn’t help but miss the old Kanye who needed only a few seconds to thrill you — or to drive you mad.
Fortunately, that’s when you came upon a merchandise booth selling “Jesus Is King” sweatshirts for $170 a pop.