This is a part of our lives now.
Every so often, without warning, a flier for a new “Donda experience” will surface on the internet. Sometimes Kanye West will share these announcements himself, and sometimes he’ll have someone else post them for him (thanks, Justin LaBoy).
Without fail, the music world stops and pays attention each time. Some people watch in admiration; others gawk in disgust. Either way, everyone tunes in simultaneously and offers opinions, which is exactly the point.
In an era when we’re all listening to different songs on different playlists at different times, Kanye is creating must-see TV. If you’re searching for a true water cooler moment in 2022, look no further than these Donda listening events (whether you love them or hate them).
Each Donda event is livestreamed for millions of people at home, but if you don’t actually attend them in person, you’re missing out on the most fascinating and bizarre part of it all: a community is starting to take shape. Kanye-obsessed diehards are making pilgrimages to each of the cities he sets up camp in—first Atlanta, then Chicago, and now Miami.
It’s like the hypebeast version of Deadheads in the ’70s who followed the Grateful Dead on world tours, from one city to the next—except Kanye’s events aren’t planned out that far in advance. With only a few days’ notice after impromptu fliers hit Instagram, Kanye fans book tickets, flights, and hotels, and make their way to the next Donda event.
Exactly seven months ago, the first stadium Donda listening event took place in Atlanta, which I attended. Back then, no one knew what to expect (even Kanye himself). I remember walking into the stadium, unsure whether it would be an actual concert or if he would just play songs and walk around aimlessly (it was the latter). Most of us assumed the album was going to drop right after the listening session, and no one could have guessed Kanye was about to literally move into the bowels of the stadium. It all felt very spontaneous.
Oh, how times have changed. When I showed up to LoanDepot Park in Miami on Tuesday afternoon, there was much less uncertainty among the early arrivers. People carried themselves like they’d been here before—because they had. After a series of listening sessions for Kanye’s 2021 album Donda last summer, he had arrived in Florida for another event that would kick off the rollout for the sequel: Donda 2.
As I waited in line at the front gate, people shared war stories from past events. A middle-aged woman wearing a dad hat with the College Dropout bear on it talked about ditching work to fly to Atlanta last year. To her left, a teenager reminisced about taking a train to Chicago for the final Donda event. Everywhere I looked, people wore merch from previous listening sessions (plus a lot of “Free Larry Hoover” hoodies from Kanye’s recent concert with Drake). As far as I could tell, everyone seemed resigned to the fact that the event would start much later than advertised, and the album likely wouldn’t be dropping at the end of the night. That’s just not how these events work, and everyone knew it by now.
One teenager at the front of the line excitedly read from a Reddit page on his phone, relaying leaked information about the night’s performance to anyone who would listen. But besides him, people weren’t really discussing the music. Everyone was talking about the merch.
If you spend any amount of time at these things, you’ll notice there’s a large portion of people who show up with the sole intention of purchasing (and sometimes flipping) Kanye’s coveted merch. This time, there was a lot to choose from. In addition to an array of Donda 2-specific merch, there were also pieces from the much-hyped “Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga” collection. As soon as the gates opened, people sprinted across the stadium and stood in long lines, buying armfuls of shirts, hoodies, foams, and slides. And some of them didn’t even wait to leave the stadium before marking up the prices and reselling them online.
Walking around a Donda event is a funny experience, because it feels completely removed from the city it happens to be taking place in. Usually when you go to a concert in a city, local fashion sensibilities are evident. But at any Kanye event, regardless of the city, everyone just dresses like, well, Kanye. This time, at least three-quarters of those in attendance were dressed in all black. Many wore black masks that covered their heads; Gap puffers were everywhere; and, inexplicably, I saw dozens of people wearing big black boots on a dry 80-degree Miami day.
At around 10 p.m., the merch booths shut down and people were forced to direct their attention to the music. For the most part, it was a night that blurred the lines of art and reality. A decade ago, Kanye rapped about his Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and now he’s living out a dark twisted reality in arenas across the country.
For hours, everyone sat and watched a burned and tarnished version of Kanye’s childhood home in the middle of the stadium. A clear continuation of the Donda listening session in Chicago, the house represents Kanye’s origin story. But in the context of his recent Instagram posts about Kim Kardashian and their children, it also symbolizes a house divided. Midway through the show, the house even split in two, driving home that point in a very blunt way.
At the beginning of the show, the house was set ablaze, and Kanye walked on water outside (the man has always loved grandiose symbolism). Soon, the tone and lyrical direction of Donda 2 started to reveal itself. Whereas the first Donda album was predominantly influenced by religion and his late mother, Donda West, it’s clear that the fallout from Kanye’s breakup with Kim is weighing on him heavily, and it’s making its way into the music. One song includes the menacing refrain, “I put your security at risk,” and Kanye raps, “Never take the family picture off the fridge/ Never stand between a man and his kids.” Elsewhere, he seems to troll Kim by sampling her old SNL monologue: “I married the best rapper of all time. Not only that, he’s the richest Black man in America—a talented, legit genius who gave me four incredible kids.”
Watching this all play out in a stadium full of people was disorienting. A group of guys in their mid-20s jumped up and down in front of me, hollering when Kim’s voice came over the loudspeakers, seeming to delight in the chaos of Kanye’s family turmoil. And as Kanye rapped about security standing between him and his children, the majority of the crowd danced along. I heard more people yell “Skete!” than I ever want to hear again. These are the uncomfortable side effects of personal tragedy informing mainstream entertainment.
From the purple lighting to the toxic raps, the influence of Donda 2 executive producer Future was evident. There was a dark, menacing energy that lingered throughout the evening, and two of the album’s most promising songs—“Mr. Miyagi” and “Do I Look Happy?”—featured vocals from the Atlanta rapper. Other highlights included “Pablo”; the Migos- and Baby Keem-assisted “We Did It” (Keem is on a hell of a run right now); and “Louis Bags” featuring Jack Harlow.
A lot of the songs didn’t sound finished, similar to the first Donda event in Atlanta, and Kanye mumbled through several reference tracks. But what we did hear was promising. Kanye sounds more inspired as a rapper than he did in the Ye and Jesus Is King eras, and, as always, the production sounds great. Kanye seems to be in a positive creative spirit right now, emphatically dancing throughout the performance, which came as a stark contrast to some of the early Donda listening events where he stood motionless for long stretches of time. The least enjoyable parts of the album for me were the uncomfortable references to family drama, but there’s always the hope that those will get cut from the final version—Kanye is always tinkering and listening to fan feedback. If not, I guess I can just mute them on my Stem Player.
By most metrics, the Donda 2 listening portion of the event was a success. The music sounded good, and the visuals were impressive. Each listening session, Kanye has upped the ante, adding more dancers, pyrotechnics, and theatrics. The in-stadium sound at each of these events has been overwhelming and bass-heavy, to the point that it’s often difficult to make out lyrics, but the visuals have always been stunning. This time, there were hundreds of dancers, and motorcycles, plus cameos from rappers like Fivio Foreign, Pusha-T, Jack Harlow, and Playboi Carti. If there’s one thing we can count on Kanye to do, it’s put on a show.
Three-quarters of the way through the show, though, everything fell off the rails. After the preview of songs from Donda 2, the Sunday Service choir started singing and the house symbolically split in two. This is when the live performance part of the show began, as Kanye and collaborators played highlights from the first Donda album. Unfortunately, the sound was horrible—even on the livestream. After repeated technical difficulties, Kanye got so frustrated that he threw his microphone into the water, and thousands of memes about how “the sound guy is going to jail tonight” lit up Twitter. The whole thing was a mess, and it ended the show on a very sour note.
By now, Kanye has mastered the art of the listening session, but when it came time to incorporate a live performance element, his team missed the mark. Knowing Kanye’s obsessive tendencies, he’ll likely sort it out for the next one (if there is a next one), but it left a lot of people disappointed on Tuesday night in Miami.
As I walked out of LoanDepot Park a little after midnight, alongside hordes of Kanye fans who made the pilgrimage and stocked up on Yeezy Gap Balenciaga hoodies, it occurred to me how the whole experience was a fitting reflection of Kanye’s career lately. There were a lot of brilliant ideas, but they got overshadowed by haphazard execution when it actually came time to deliver them to the people. Throughout all of these Donda listening events, Kanye has shown his work, presenting his material in a warts-and-all manner that’s very raw and transparent. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s dark. Often, it’s twisted. But it’ll always make the music world stop and pay attention.