The Forum in Los Angeles is lit up in fluorescent indigo. Sharp white letters run across the top of the arena, loudly advertising that “Jesus Is King.”
It does not look like the event booked this Wednesday night in Inglewood is a rap show. Instead, it looks more like a regular meeting of a megachurch, a flock gathering to hear the word of Kanye West.
In a sense, Kanye shows have always been quasi-religious experiences: to be a Yeezy acolyte has always required buying into the idea that militant self-confidence in aesthetic sensibilities and braggadocio raps were evidence of not just musical talent but the mystique of pop divinity. Tonight, Kanye digs his heels into a new era that the beleaguered star has either brilliantly happened upon or cynically summoned for redemption. Whether his turn towards the salvation of Christ is a ploy for tickets to paradise or a genuine spiritual revelation, we may never know.
What we do know is at the Jesus Is King album release event, there is a secular clamor for guest list Will Call tickets. For every ticket scanned, a phone is slipped into a magnetically sealed neoprene sock. And placing who, exactly, is the average ticket holder on this night is about as interesting as trying to locate the average owner of an Apple Watch. This is the megachurch mode of rap function and there is no rhyme or reason as to why this group of people have come to service. As I take my assigned seat, I notice the multitude. There are teens whose parents secured them VIP area seating. There are culture industry professionals who couldn’t convince a friend to tag along. There are stable and content couples who are intrigued with Kanye’s eye for the spectacular.
The energy among the ten or twelve thousand people in the venue is a mix of nervousness, excitement, and skepticism. When Kanye comes to the mic, in a blue ball cap blitzed by stage light a dozen rows to my left, there is no sermon. This is a more relaxed and cheerful Kanye—a few sheepish grins and a few dozen broken sentences promoting the night’s festivities to the crowd still half sprawled out of the doors. Then there’s a mic pass to Kim. In the absence of phones to capture her presence, the crowd breaks into a “Kim! Kim! Kim!” chant and then “Courtney! Courtney! Courtney!” and the stadium’s energy is finally set correctly.
In the fifteen minute intermission before the beginning of Kanye’s movie, I speak with a few people sitting around me. Two groups of people stand out. Kendra, Kim, Erica, and Tiffany are an engaging group of twenty-something women who tell me they’re “here for the culture” and that they came specifically to see if Kanye was alright. They give me their impression of Kanye, the man: troubled and surrounded by yes-me. I also speak with two teenagers: one named Ryan and one named Gage, who went to the same church as Kanye, led by Pastor Adam Tyson. Gage claims to have once “held Kanye’s phone” and both say Kanye was “laid-back.” When I ask them if they would have voted for Trump if they they were 18, they both enthusiastically endorse him.
The Jesus Is King film plays on a faux-IMAX projector. The film takes the form of a five-song gospel music video. Five years ago, everyone would have a dozen reasons why this was undoubtedly the work of genius. I don’t think I would watch it again, but it serves its purpose on this night: a surreal film that captures songs of praise, both tragic and beautiful, setting the tone for an album with similar ambitions.
As the film winds down and the credits roll to blue, Kanye’s section, where Ye had been holding court for over an hour, begins to slowly shift down the narrow staircase, and into the stage lights. When the movie screen begins projecting the album artwork, the crowd erupts in anticipation. When the album’s most recent Instagram snippet kicks off the listening part of the party, Ye and his team sprint to his throne and begin the electrifying thirty-odd minute main event.
The album’s current iteration naturally flows from the film that preceded it. It is nearly entirely devoted to Kanye’s understanding of Christianity, and often draws from praise, gospel, and choir music to connect the disparate sounds of his deep catalog, while inverting their original meanings. The first two songs are received well up front, and with piqued interest by the rest of the crowd. When the knifing keyboard and punchy hook of “Follow God” flips New York hardcore into a church tune, the entire crowd is invested.
A Kanye album would not be a Kanye album without Yeezy flipping a cheap punchline into an anthem, and that happens on “Closed On Sundays (Chic-Fil-A).” Another song, “On God,” cashes in on a similar trick to “Follow God,” with a novel flip of nostalgic rap tropes into narcissistic praise music. While the first half of the record is red meat, as indebted to Kanye’s first three records as it is to Jesus, it’s second is more avant, splitting the difference between Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, even including Kenny G and Clipse on its final track, “Use This Gospel.”
Kanye plays eleven songs total, and does not play “New Body,” or any track with a Nicki Minaj feature. Of the eleven songs played, I like five as much as any Kanye song I have heard. For a night, Kanye is once again at the wheel, directing his flock to dance and shout and praise Yeezus once again. For at least a brief moment in Inglewood, he reminds the faithful of what sort of heights Kanye West can still get to when he does not let his madness supplant his brilliance.