Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’ Events Get Grander, But the Music Still Sounds Unfinished

Our phones were locked in little mesh pouches so we communicated the way people did in the Dark Ages: we reenacted Vines. Last night, deep inside The Forum in Los Angeles, a group of young men formed a circle around their friend who was wearing a Florida Marlins hat –– one of the old ones –– and channeling Kanye West from a famous clip in which the rapper, drunk and determined, punctuates a series of nonsense syllables with “I’M OFF THAT GOOSE RIGHT NOW.” This was in the entryway to a men’s bathroom, down a flight of sticky stairs from nearly-deserted bars and a busy stand selling prepackaged salads. If I told you merch prices, you would think I was lying.  

This was the fourth screening/listening event West has thrown for Jesus Is King, his nascent ninth album. The interior of The Forum was cut roughly in half, with an IMAX screen perched on one side of the concert floor, the seats near and behind it roped off. The floor itself was dotted with patches of fake or transplanted tall grass and reeds, which West said were designed by the installation artist Meg Webster. They coupled with an audio track of what seemed like a single cricket chirping in identical loop to make it sound like fans were arriving at a remote summer camp. But the process of getting bodies inside the building was not a smooth one. At a certain point, Kanye took the microphone and urged everyone to be patient, then implored the sound man to “turn up the nature sound effects.” One cricket became, I don’t know, a hundred. The fake grass was rigid like the flag in the moon landing footage. 

Unlike the events in New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the L.A. edition featured one video component instead of two, and no mention of West’s plans to build prefabricated housing units modeled after Star Wars set designs. The film runs roughly thirty minutes and is dominated by scenes of his Sunday Service choir, in identical earthtone robes, running through gospel variations of standards and West’s own songs. Most of these performances take place at the Roden Crater, an ongoing project by the artist James Turrell, who purchased a volcanic crater near Flagstaff and has been converting it for many years into a naked-eye observatory. There’s also a scene where West and a small coterie of men reimagine “Street Lights,” from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. There are extended closeups of one singer’s expressive face and a deer galloping through grass. There are shards of scripture rendered in the font you might find in a futuristic arcade game. The film elicited fits of cheering and long groans; during one lull, somebody in my section shouted “Play old Kanye!” to a roar of laughs and applause.

The film finished, and was replaced on the IMAX screen by a static image of a blue vinyl record. While it seems that the album is really, finally coming this week, it’s distinctly possible that there is not a settled tracklist or final mix: there were moments when West tweaked levels and even the placement of melodies in songs in real time, and a couple of songs that were triggered briefly before being skipped. Many songs were familiar to those in the crowd who had combed through grainy videos of other listening sessions or sought out recent batches of leaked demos. 

It feels strange to refer to Jesus Is King as a gospel record; it is about a broadly digestible Christianity and has some big, ornate hooks and arrangements, but the scaffolding is a series of clumsy rap verses that, at least in style, could have been taken from last year’s ye. There’s a song where he compares his wife to Chick-fil-A because she’s “closed on Sunday” and doesn’t post selfies on Instagram on a day set aside for the Lord; there’s one where he raps –– again about Instagram –– ”I don’t even like likes.” A bold stance for a 42-year-old. “The Storm,” which featured Ty Dolla $ign and the late XXXTentacion in its leaked, demoed state, seems to have excised X. There was no trace of “New Body,” the one song from the Yandhi leaks that sounded like it might be a hit. (Nicki Minaj, who was featured on the original version, recently said in an interview that she “did a song with Kanye, that he now wants to transform into a gospel song. I done wrote three different verses chile, and I don’t know. We ain’t seeing eye to eye on it.”) The songs, which were played on a deafening sound system –– that had perhaps been calibrated for a fuller arena –– were received enthusiastically by the fans on the floor, who swarmed around Kanye, who pantomimed as they played. On the way out of The Forum, it was easy to spot more mixed reactions: the last thing I saw as I exited was a young man in a TRUST GOD shirt say, to his friends, “I mean, what the fuck?”

One of the song lyrics that I think about most often is by Marvin Gaye, on “Inner City Blues”: “Natural fact is / I can’t pay my taxes.” He sang that in 1971; by 1980 he had moved to London to hide from the IRS, as he owed them somewhere in excess of $13 million in today’s money. There is a long history of artists, especially black American artists, whose commercial success does little to stave off corporate or governmental raiders. (2Pac, perhaps the most celebrated rapper to ever live, was sprung from prison in exchange for his signature on an exploitative record contract; at the height of his fame, he was living largely off of per diem and piecemeal loans from Death Row.) In 2005, West went more than half a million dollars into debt to fund his second album; in 2013, in the press run following his abrasive Yeezus, he snapped at interviewers who suggested he work outside of the establishment and create the infrastructure for his fashion ventures from the ground up, correctly pointing out that he would likely never accumulate on his own the capital required to produce the items he imagined at prices the average person could afford. Three years ago, when he tweeted that he was $53 million in debt and asked billionaires to invest in his work, USA Today wrote that his “megalomania” had hit a new peak. Just last month, West settled a lawsuit with a publishing company that he claimed had locked him into an illegal agreement. 

This summer, Forbes ran an exceedingly kind story on West, estimating that he had made at least $150 million over the past 12 months. It is jarring to hear it argued that West is at a high point of sorts in his career, given that his last album was roundly savaged by critics and his vocal support for Donald Trump has turned off countless fans. But financially speaking, he seems to have righted the ship, thanks in large part to what is by all accounts a dreamlike partnership with Adidas. That West has somehow marshaled an apparel giant to help execute his shoe and clothing ideas, and a record company to spend (presumably) millions promoting records that sell fewer and fewer copies and spawn fewer and fewer hits, is sort of astonishing. It also cuts against an idea floated during that post-Yeezus press run: that his leverage in the non-music world was only there as long as he remained a superstar artist. He may have given himself too little credit. Though it’s been years since his work was central to rap or pop music, the spectacles he continues to create are unlike anything else produced by the major-label machinery. If only the music they serve to promote was worth hearing. 

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