Kanye and Drake’s Onstage Reunion Was a Surreal, Historic Moment

Kanye and Drake reunited onstage at the Free Larry Hoover benefit concert in Los Angeles. We were there. Here’s what happened, and what it all means.

Kanye Drake concert Free Larry Hoover

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Kanye Drake concert Free Larry Hoover

It’s 8:30 p.m. local time outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and I have no idea what the hell is going on.

It’s dark, soggy, and cold, after a rare rainy day in Los Angeles. I’m searching for the entrance to the venue, located right outside of the University of Southern California’s campus, with hundreds of other concertgoers who are wearing a scattered variation of Certified Lover Boy and Donda merch. Because the Memorial Coliseum is so big, I end up getting lost and have to walk 15 minutes to the opposite side of the stadium to find my gate. 

During my stroll, I find myself behind a group of USC students who are talking about the show. I ask if they have any expectations going into it, and one of them promptly answers, “I just want to hear the classics.” 

Well, he probably went to sleep happy, because if Kanye West delivered anything during Thursday night’s Free Larry Hoover benefit concert, it was the classics. 

So, how did we get here? With J Prince puppeteering behind the scenes, Kanye West and Drake’s contentious relationship has seemingly been mended, one menacing finger-gun photo opp at a time. As a result, the two rap giants agreed to perform together for the first time since 2016’s OVO Fest, for a Free Larry Hoover benefit concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 9. 

As the name suggests, the purpose of the show is to help free Larry Hoover, co-founder the infamous Black Gangster Disciples Nation, who is currently serving six life sentences at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Security Facility in Florence, Colorado, for a gang-related murder in 1973 and for continuing to run the Gangster Disciples from prison in 1997. Many, including Ye, believe Hoover’s sentencing was excessive, given the nature of his crimes, and that the 71-year-old has served enough time.

Kanye has been trying to commute Hoover’s life sentence for a while now. During his infamous visit to the White House to meet with Donald Trump in 2018, Ye sought clemency for the former gang leader (among other topics). Later, Kanye connected with Hoover’s son, Larry Hoover Jr., who appeared on Donda’s “Jesus Lord” and “Jesus Lord Pt. 2,” where he left a voice note pleading for his father’s freedom. Hoover Jr. also joined Ye during the second half of his Drink Champs episode and vouched for his father.

Hoover Sr. was aware of the charity show before it took place, and while he planted the seed to help bring Ye and Drake together, according to J Prince, his son said he had some concerns about how the concert might affect him negatively, with Hoover Jr. saying, “He’s concerned that it may affect him negatively because it’s showing his influence, but his influence is positive. Him being an influential person, it just won’t disappear.”

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By the time I get to my seat inside the arena, I can tell what kind of night this is about to be. The couple sitting to my left is arguing with a group of college-aged kids about how Kanye created a blueprint for Drake, while the teens believe Ye’s new music is obsolete and he should stick to designing clothes. This back-and-forth goes on for a while, but when I interject and ask which artist each of them are most excited to watch tonight, their answers are the same. This is Kanye’s house.

The Free Larry Hoover benefit concert was billed as a Kanye West concert featuring “special guest” Drake, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. After the Sunday Service choir ushers in the show with a medley of songs, including my personal favorite, a cover of Adele’s “Easy on Me,” Ye comes out of the gate hot. He gets the stadium on his side early by opening with a gauntlet of classic songs like “All Falls Down,” “Flashing Lights,” “Gold Digger,” which I never thought I’d hear live again since he shifted to more religious music, even if he didn’t remember all of the words. Ye has great energy throughout the performance, and it looks like he’s genuinely having fun onstage. He even curses a few times! That’s a milestone. 

What ultimately makes Ye’s opening performance so special is how tangible the lyrics feel, given where Kanye is in his life right now. As he fights to restore his family, tracks like “Bound 2” and “All of the Lights” land with more potency, not to mention his touching performance of “Runaway,” where he adds a bit at the end dedicated to Kim Kardashian. Even I find myself getting emotional to hear vintage Kanye songs through a more weathered vessel.

While he performs, it’s impossible not to notice how beautiful the stage design is. Set up similarly as the Donda listening events this summer, a giant mound in the middle of the stadium acts as the centerpiece for the show. Thick fog in a variety of colors swirls around it, as if both Kanye and Drake are standing at the peak of a mountain, commanding their own gravitational pull. There is no projector or screen that shows either artist at any point during the show, so you either see them or you don’t. It’s visually stunning when you do catch a glimpse. Was it worth the reported $10 million it cost to produce? Debatable. 

After Ye put his all-time catalog on display, Drake came to test his upcoming CLB tour set on an audience that did not necessarily come to see that. Everyone came to hear the classics. Despite all of the CLB sweaters I saw, Ye primed the crowd with oldies to the point where no current Drake songs really move the needle when he tries them. Some of the people around me sit down, seemingly disinterested, when he begins to run through his go-to tracks off CLB, and the couple to my left leave midway through “Way 2 Sexy.” Surprisingly, Drake performs some songs with old subliminal Kanye disses still fully intact, and it isn’t until Ye returns to the stage that the arena really comes back to life.

🦉🤍🕊 pic.twitter.com/V7ymdrZiix

— Donda’s Place (@dondasplace) December 10, 2021

I entered this show with no expectations, yet I still somehow feel disappointed by Drake’s contribution. It feels like he came here to fulfill a contractual obligation outlined by J Prince and enforced by his finger pistols. He’s still an amazing performer, but the crowd belonged to Ye before he even touched the stage.

Seeing Drake and Kanye sharing the stage again is still special, though. They share some great moments, like Ye performing “Find Your Love,” a song he co-wrote and co-produced, with Drake gleefully cheesing from the sidelines before making his formal entrance. Drake’s rendition of “24” is also surreal and needs to hit DSPs. And the two closing the show with “Forever” in 2021 feels like it was pulled out of a ’09 time capsule against all odds. Who would have thought we’d ever make it here? 

My biggest gripe with the concert is that it barely spent any time focusing on its central figure, Larry Hoover. While the show opened with a video reenactment of Hoover’s life, narrated by criminal justice reform advocate Alice Marie Johnson, that ended up being his one shining moment. Even then, the people around me were annoyed that the show wasn’t starting on time and didn’t pay much attention to his story. Some people tried starting chants of “Larry” in different parts of the crowd, but they didn’t stick and felt misplaced. “Free Larry Hoover” merchandise was being purchased, only to be resold on the secondary market, not to advocate for him.

Will this charity concert actually lead to Larry Hoover’s freedom? It’s hard to say. If it succeeded in anything, more people know who he is now and might get invested in his case. But the Free Larry Hoover benefit concert feels more like it existed in a vacuum. It was surreal to hear so many iconic songs in one show—it’s something I’ll never forget being able to witness live—but it was a little off-putting that Kanye dedicated more songs to trying to get his wife back than amplifying Hoover’s name. Even his closing prayer didn’t acknowledge him.

As I file out of the arena, fans murmur around me about how this was the greatest concert they’ve ever been to, and “Runaway” is still reverberating through the streets as cars skid off into the night. At the Free Larry Hoover benefit concert, Kanye won, the classics won, hip-hop won, but it’s yet to be seen if Hoover did.

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