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At benefit concert with Drake, Kanye West serves up overdue reminder of his hitmaking genius

Side-by-side photos of two male rap stars with suit jackets and necklaces
Kanye West, left, and Drake performed at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 9.
(Gary Gershoff / WireImage; Mike Marsland / WireImage)

A benefit concert. An act of peacemaking. A rebranding exercise. A romantic Hail Mary.

These were the layered circumstances of Kanye West and Drake’s king-size performance Thursday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the long-feuding hip-hop superstars joined forces ostensibly to raise awareness of Larry Hoover’s legal situation.

The 71-year-old former leader of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, who has convictions for ordering a murder and for running a criminal enterprise, is serving multiple life sentences at a federal supermax prison in Colorado; most of his time is spent in solitary confinement, which advocates for criminal justice reform point to as a sign of a racist and dehumanizing system.

And indeed West and Drake worked to bring a bit of attention to Hoover early in the show, when Alice Marie Johnson — a prison-reform activist recently pardoned for her own crimes by former President Trump thanks in part to lobbying by West’s estranged wife, Kim Kardashian — stood beneath the Coliseum’s iconic Olympic torch to passionately argue Hoover’s case. (There also, inevitably, were pricey hoodies for sale: powder-blue Old Navy-style numbers emblazoned with the words “FREE HOOVER” in what looked like iron-on letters.)

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After that, though, Hoover seemed far from anyone’s mind as the evening’s headliners tag-teamed their way through a festive and hit-packed 90-minute set that was livestreamed on Amazon and Twitch.

A year ago, Olivia Rodrigo was a Disney actor with a knack for songwriting. Today, the 18-year-old has 2021’s top debut album and is nominated for 7 Grammys.

What exactly inspired the beef between West, who recently changed his name to Ye, and Drake — and what kept it going this past summer as each man sought to outdo the other with the noisy release of his latest album — is no longer worth getting into; that they appeared to get along so breezily here could make you wonder how deep their grievances truly ran in the first place.

Yet it was undeniably moving to hear Drake, pop’s foremost inheritor of Ye’s many structural and emotional innovations, describe what it meant to “be onstage with one of my idols while he’s running through one of the best catalogs in music.” It felt like “a dream,” he said — “something I always wanted to do.”

Drake wasn’t wrong about Ye’s catalog, parts of which have felt irretrievably distant in recent years as Ye has embraced Christianity, made polarizing political alliances and taken controversial stances on mental illness and cancel culture. Backed by his trusted producer Mike Dean, who looked to be augmenting prerecorded tracks with live playing, the rapper showcased a staggering array of all-time classics in rough chronological order, from the earnest “Jesus Walks” and the hilarious “Gold Digger” through the ecstatic “Touch the Sky” and “All of the Lights” to the swaggering “Mercy” and the thrillingly bilious “Black Skinhead.”

The presentation was simple compared to the elaborate spectacles Ye devised for the rollout of his “Donda” LP, including one where he was pointedly flanked by DaBaby and Marilyn Manson in the wake of their assorted offenses; here, he basically stalked across a raised mound on the stadium’s floor as wind machines blew smoke around him.

But the songs were so vivid — and Ye’s performance so spirited — that, at least among the tens of thousands at the Coliseum, you could almost feel him dismantling suspicions about his motives in real time. Big comeback energy, is what I’m saying.

The Houston rap mogul brokered a peace between Ye and Drake, who will perform together Thursday at the L.A. Coliseum in a benefit to free Larry Hoover.

Near the end of the first portion of the show, Ye sang Drake’s “Find Your Love” (very sweet), then did a lengthy version of “Runaway,” his tragicomic 2010 warning to any woman who might be considering falling for him, that climaxed with a flip of the song’s premise: “I need you to run right back, baby — more specifically, Kimberley,” he sang to cheers from the crowd.

Drake’s run, which began with a yearning rendition of Ye’s “24,” was less impressive, in large part because he focused on the new “Certified Lover Boy” instead of stringing together a dozen of his vintage smashes like Ye did. Though it’s rung up huge streaming numbers, the relatively low-key “CLB” — which Drake withdrew this week from Grammys competition in apparent protest of the Recording Academy’s treatment of hip-hop — hasn’t spun off the kind of ubiquitous pop hits that Drake is known for (even if its sticky melodies and gleaming textures make it one of 2021’s best headphone listens).

Perhaps Drake views the album as a cause worth continuing to fight for; perhaps, as people joked on Twitter during the concert, Ye willfully misled Drake by telling him he planned to concentrate on the moody “Donda.”

Whatever the case, a frenzy is what the people in the Coliseum wanted on a cold night in L.A., as Ye showed when he returned to the stage for several of his most dependable bangers, including “Bound 2” and his deathless 2011 hit with Jay-Z that features the N-word in the title.

After those, Ye slowed the tempo for a moment with “Come to Life,” an almost painfully vulnerable track from “Donda” about the dissolution of his and Kardashian’s relationship; he capped the song with a prayer, set over rippling piano lines, thanking God for the value of hard times. Then he pulled his old frenemy close for an exuberant finale on “Forever” that revealed one more way to think about Thursday’s gig: as an assurance from two veterans of more to come.


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