Kanye West barely performs in headlining set at Rolling Loud

Kanye West
Kanye West onstage Thursday night at the Rolling Loud California festival in Inglewood.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Whatever Kanye West was paid to headline the first night of this weekend’s Rolling Loud California festival, it was easy money.

Onstage for about an hour Thursday evening with Ty Dolla Sign — his partner on the chart-topping “Vultures 1” album released last month under the artist name ¥$ — Kanye roamed around in a black jacket and a face mask as their songs played over the festival’s sound system on a huge circular stage planted in the parking lot of Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium.

If he was rapping, you couldn’t hear it; if he was holding a microphone, you couldn’t see it.


This kind of presentation isn’t new for the controversial rapper now known as Ye, who’s introduced his last several albums with high-profile listening events held in arenas and stadiums around the country. But Kanye’s booking to mark 10 years of Rolling Loud — hip-hop’s festival of record, with wildly popular editions in cities including Miami, New York and Los Angeles — was billed (or at least was widely perceived to have been billed) as something different: his first full-scale festival performance since the apparent meltdown of his career after he made a series of antisemitic remarks in late 2022.

Kanye West
Kanye West onstage Thursday.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

You remember his claims about Jewish control of Black voices; you’ll recall that on Twitter he vowed to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” The rhetoric cost him his relationships with his record label and his booking agent and led to the end of his highly lucrative deals with Adidas, Balenciaga, the Gap and several other major companies. For a minute there, Kanye seemed cooked.

Yet the 46-year-old musician — who apologized for his comments in December in an Instagram post written in Hebrew — has been on something of a comeback tour of late. “Vultures 1” spent two weeks atop the Billboard 200 last month, becoming Kanye’s first LP to repeat at No. 1 since his and Jay-Z’s “Watch the Throne” in 2011. (He’s said a second volume of “Vultures” is due soon.) Even more impressive, perhaps, his single “Carnival” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week thanks in large part to the song’s health on streaming services like Spotify, where it’s racked up more than 191 million plays.

Kanye’s last visit to the top spot as a lead artist? “Stronger,” way back in 2007.

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His appearance at Rolling Loud — set to run through Sunday with acts including Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and the duo of Future and Metro Boomin — was positioned as the next step in that narrative: a crucial opportunity to show he can still bring it as a live act.

Maybe some other time.

Instead of the expected performance, Kanye and Ty merely delivered another listening session Thursday, milling around the stage as they played — well, as the sound system played — many of the songs from “Vultures 1.” Guests including Quavo and Freddie Gibbs joined the duo onstage to do the same; at one point, Kanye’s daughter North emerged alongside several of her friends to jump around to “Talking,” a “Vultures” track on which she appears.

Fans climb a structure to watch Kanye West perform Thursday at Rolling Loud.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

After they all left the stage, an unseen DJ played about a half-hour’s worth of old Kanye classics, including “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” “All of the Lights” and “Runaway,” as a smoke machine did its best to conceal the fact that the rapper wasn’t coming back. (“Vultures 1” has some high points, but hearing those staggering oldies really made clear how dramatically Ye’s musical skills have diminished in recent years.)

Did fans mind? Salty tweets proliferated among folks apparently watching online — the general idea was that Kanye had pulled off a scam — though those on the ground certainly seemed unbothered: New songs like “Paid,” “Back to Me” and “Keys to My Life” inspired huge reactions in the crowd of tens of thousands, including among one group of people who’d broken through a security fence to climb onto a section of stage scaffolding. During the chorus of “Carnival” the music from the stage cut out and the audience took over the song’s percussive vocal chant, drowning out the performers in the spotlight.

But then, of course, that wasn’t hard to do.