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Two weeks ago, Kanye West stood alone at the center of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. He was dressed head-to-toe in bright red wearing a shiny crimson version of his Yeezy Gap Round Jacket and his now-signature nude face covering. He stood out on the stark white stage, which appeared to be the size of a football field, as he wandered casually around its perimeter, occasionally dropping to his knees or raising a fist in the air, as a version of his 10th studio album, Donda, named after his late mother who passed away in 2007, blared through the stadium.
The official release of the album was supposed to happen two weeks ago following the first listening, but as we know, it didn’t. With more work to be done, Kanye did Kanye type things and moved into the stadium to finish the project. No resort in Hawaii this time. He was (and still may be) living in a small room with white brick walls tucked away in the tunnels of the Atlanta Falcons’ home field, and pieced together the final portions of Donda with friends. Over the past two weeks, random photos of the room surfaced on the internet, and then on Aug. 5 Apple Music posted an audio free live stream of Kanye in the bedroom. He did pushups, slept, and invited friends like Chance the Rapper and The LOX over.
The stream gave fans a glimpse into the album making process that we usually get from secondhand stories told years later. Now, it was being shown to whoever wanted to see it. And as pedestrian as certain activities were, they still felt important. They were engaging. Pulling an all-nighter fueled by sets of push ups just to fall asleep in the morning was almost like his own performance art. As bizarre as it was, it has defined the newest era of Kanye, something that seemed like it would be more challenging considering the turbulence of his past few years stained by his pro-Trump antics that have still left a sour taste in plenty of people’s mouths. Some have stuck to their guns and continued to stay away from Kanye and his music since. If the turn out in Atlanta is any indication though, there are also plenty of people ready to appreciate the art for what it is and move past it all.
Which brings us to his second listening this past Thursday night. Although this was technically our second time hearing the album, the city was buzzing with anticipation, again. The atmosphere surrounding Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday night is what I’d imagine a Sunday afternoon Falcons game feels like. The main difference, fans are dressed in Kanye West merch and expensive Adidas Yeezy sneakers instead of Matt Ryan and Calvin Ridley jerseys. Bootleg T-shirt vendors manned their corners. Cars sat bumper to bumper on every street that funnels into the massive stadium. Hundreds more fans, young and old, populated the sidewalks. Each has likely been impacted by Kanye differently. The older gentlemen in a white polo likely has an affinity for “old Kanye” from the College Dropout era. The group of high schoolers decked out in bleached T-shirts and distressed denim may call Yeezus his masterpiece. The wide scope is a testament to how long he has had this type of influence.
Kanye worked with Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director, for the second show. Kanye and Demna are close friends. They have recently been linked more frequently. Kanye attended Balenciaga’s Fall 2021 couture show in early July, where we saw the first glimpse of the all-black attire that came to define the second Donda event. And back in April, he tapped Gvasalia to make the DMX tribute T-shirts for the late rapper’s memorial service. But their friendship is nothing new. Kanye helped catapult Vetements into the mainstream by rocking its expensive, oversized hoodies back in 2016. That same year, Gvasalia was in attendance at Yeezy Season 3 to show support. Kanye is such a fan of the designer that he has even tweeted that he was “going to steal Demna from Balenciaga” five years ago. While he hasn’t contractually done so (yet anyway), the duo’s recent collaborative work shows that Kanye has finally found a way to formally work with the creative mind he admires so much.
Over the years during his tenures with both Vetements and now Balenciaga, the 40-year old designer has become known for his bizarre, envelope-pushing runway presentations. For Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2020 presentation in Paris, models strutted down a catwalk that was submerged in water. Back in 2017, he presented the Vetements Fall 2017 collection on a series of escalators instead of a runway.
Both Gvasalia and Kanye appreciate theater, spectacle, and humor, and they both approach design in an everyman way. For example, Gvasalia takes basic things we likely consider the opposite of stylish (whether that’s Crocs or a DHL uniform) and translates them into something creative, or at the very least, clever. Kanye does something similar, turning a plain rubber slide into a coveted status symbol or baggy and tattered “homeless people clothes” into a uniform for thousands.
We saw glimpses of this approach on social media a few days ago when West was spotted in the stadium’s locker room doing his finest Bowser impression, wearing a black jacket covered in spikes from Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection. The barebones bedroom that any broke creative could relate to, became something else completely different, and funny, with Kanye inside of it. For the brief period he occupied it, Kanye turned the extra room in the back of a professional football stadium into a must-see location. It’s a big contrast from his work with Vanessa Beecroft, the artist who has handled visuals for many of his fashion shows and Sunday Service events. She makes his presentations feel like paintings and focuses on bodies and color palette.
While the massive groups that would eventually surround Kanye during his Donda presentation made everything feel much more extravagant, the set itself was anything but. Before things kicked off, a circular area surrounded by barriers and spotlights sat at the center of an otherwise calm Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a re-creation of that backstage bedroom that fans saw on the livestream hours earlier. The meager setup featured a bed, set of dumbbells, miniature side table housing a candle and water bottle, black slippers, sneakers, and the aforementioned spiked jacket. Overhead was an LED ring as wide as the stadium’s open roof. Throughout the night, it rotated between images of heaven-like blue skies, dreary clouds, and flames. When West first came out to start the show, the lights were low and smoke billowed from his new temporary domain. His black outfit was highlighted by a “Donda” vest and black mask. “Donda” featuring Pusha T played as he stood idle, almost as if he was taking in the initial moment before springing into the rest of the performance. He rotated through a few different all-black ensembles as the night progressed, including that spiked leather jacket, as the Donda tracklist blasted from Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s sound system.
It wasn’t simply a shift in color palette from red to black, some new merch, and a new creative mind on board for West’s latest album preview though. The second Donda presentation came across much more complete all around, making the first showing feel like a test run. In attendance, you couldn’t help but nod your head along with the group on the floor as bass-heavy tracks like “Junya” and “Off the Grid” rang off. Tracks like “Losing My Family” felt more emotional when accompanied by the somber behavior of his stagemates. The rollercoaster of visuals was powerful. Each evoked a different feeling. And there were plenty of them.
First and foremost, there was the man himself. Stationed at the center of the chaos in his makeshift bedroom. Once again, he spoke no words. We couldn’t even see his face. Instead, his movements told the story. One moment he stood motionless. The next he was doing sets of push ups. At one point he threw a large black blanket over his head and began maneuvering around the stage area like a ghost. During songs that clearly channel his faith and grief from the loss of his mother, he would drop to his knees in weakness, look to the sky, or sit at the edge of the bed in contemplative thought. Arguably his most animated motions come during a Pop Smoke interlude. He jumps around his circle in excitement before collapsing to the ground as the beat cut off. Something this simple added a whole new dimension that was missing from the first showing. It felt more like a cohesive vision and body of work as opposed to him taking over the AUX to give us a peek at unfinished songs. There was an actual show to watch unfold this time. It demanded full attention. Pace was at times frantic. Blink and you might miss something. Phone lights constantly dotted the stands as fans captured their favorite moments on their cell phones. Loud cheers were frequent. Every fan I saw was bobbing to the music enthusiastically the whole time. There’s no questioning that they were enamored with the experience.
Kanye wasn’t alone performing this time though. Surrounding him for a majority of the performance were hundreds of people dressed in all-black, most wearing Donda vests. They emerged from tunnels at each corner of the stadium to an initial roar from the crowd early into the set. They immediately surrounded West and his circular domain in cult-like fashion. During the more eccentric tracks off the album that featured the likes of Travis Scott, Baby Keem, and Playboi Carti, they went into motion. Some ran. Others banged their heads aggressively to the beat. Others broke out in dance. At one point during Carti’s “Junya” verse, an unwelcome guest in a bright orange ensemble rushed the field in an attempt to join the crowd of druids before he was swiftly tackled by security. It appeared others made the attempt as well with a successful outcome thanks to their more appropriate all-black attire. That was the type of energy in the stadium though. People were there to get rowdy when the time called for it.
Later in the show, more people emerged from the tunnels. This time, they were dressed in all-brown outfits with the Cross/Star of David logo stamped on the back. They dropped to their knees and crawled towards the other group as “Losing My Family” played. They appeared to be begging for acceptance, pleading with God for answers. It made for one of the strongest visuals of the night. Each new wave of characters captured the crowd’s attention with its sluggish motions, almost as if they were hypnotized by West’s presence at center stage. Camera phones pivoted their way to see what they would do each time.
The energy in the arena throughout the night felt like a mix of past Kanye performances. The massive amount of people, stadium status, and new music soundtracking, it all felt reminiscent of 2016’s Yeezy Season 3 show in Madison Square Garden. All it was missing was a new collection of clothing. While this could have been an opportune time to showcase the long-awaited Yeezy Gap collection, nothing of the sort happened aside from a new Round Jacket release online as the night concluded. The energy brought by the large group during tracks like “Praise God” and “Off the Grid” reminded me of the “Saint Pablo” tour, which saw West performing his set on a stage situated above a constantly moshing group of his most loyal supporters. The fans in the stands at Mercedes-Benz stadium were just as amped up. The brief pauses between songs were filled with cheers, one of the most audible being a, “Let’s go Ye! I love you Ye,” from a closeby fan overhead. Select moments, like the appearance of Kid Cudi’s signature hums for instance, elicited the same type of rumbling from the crowd.
But the lasting image that tops all the rest came towards the end of the performance. As Vory’s vocals from early standout “No Child Left Behind” rang out from the speakers and the tracks’s bass line vibrated throughout the arena, West ascended into the sky attached to cables almost as if to symbolize he is being raised up closer to his mother Donda in heaven. He remained floating for the duration of the song, body limp, surrounded by beams of light that shot up miles into the sky out of the opened roof of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium before he was lowered back down to earth. Many fans quickly compared it to an image that was used on various promo material for the Yeezus tour. Upon touching down he was met with a loud roar from the crowd as the lights went dark. Some fans even began to chant, “Donda! Donda! Donda!” and “Yeezus! Yeezus! Yeezus!”
“My boy Ye did his thing, like he always do. The music sounds crazy. The mixing sounds crazy. He levitated tonight. It’s magic,” Quavo tells Complex following the conclusion of the event. “And he’s speaking the word of God, so it makes perfect sense.”
Quavo was one of the many rappers in attendance to witness Kanye’s latest presentation firsthand. He and Chance the Rapper occupied the same VIP suite on the floor of the arena. Chance seemed particularly enthused when “Hurricane” played, a track featuring Lil Baby complete with a newly-added verse from The Weeknd. He could be seen in the section bobbing his head to the beat enthusiastically as soon as it cut on. Fellow Migos member Offset was one of the many others in their section enjoying the presentation too. Perhaps inspired by the man of the hour, he donned a camouflage face covering for the duration of the evening.
“It was a beautiful way to channel the fans and reach the fans with art,” says Offset. “It was a great show.”
Other artists in, like singer Jeremih, shared similar feelings about the visual spectacle they had just witnessed. “This was my first time checking it out. I actually missed the first one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was definitely an unforgettable experience. He really topped it off when he flew to the ceiling at the end.”
Visuals aside, the music was improved upon as well. Verses from the likes of Lil Yachty, Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, and others have been added to the mix. The LOX (Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch), who captured the attention of the hip-hop world earlier this week thanks to their legendary Verzuz showing, were given their own moment to shine. Standouts from the first playthrough are still there too, just more polished. The crowd stirred as Travis Scott and Playboi Carti’s features played. The Jay-Z verse on “Jail” was once again a crowd pleaser even though we all knew it was coming this time. A fan above my section had already memorized his verse and passionately shouted the lyrics with his arms raised in praise as they played. Many more roared in enthusiasm as Hov rapped, “this might be the return of The Throne.”
Glowing red lights that covered the entire arena during the song (and others like “I Know God Breathed on This”) further added to the energy of certain records. The interludes from the likes of Donda West and Larry Hoover Jr. that filled the spaces between were just as powerful. Everything that happened had a purpose this time. None of it seemed like filler, something you may expect from what is supposedly a 24-track album.
Despite the impressive sound and visuals, Donda once again failed to release on streaming platforms following the show. A tentative date is currently set for Aug. 13, according to the Apple pre-order. Kanye didn’t leave his fans completely empty handed though. Minutes after the lights turned on in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the latest Yeezy Gap Round Jacket was released online for pre-order. This time, it’s the same red colorway worn by Kanye during round one of his Donda experience in Atlanta, a style that will forever be synonymous with the album because of that moment from here on out.
In a way, the jacket releasing instead of an album is symbolic of where Kanye is in his career. As much as we want the music immediately, that isn’t where things start and stop with him anymore. Quite frankly, it hasn’t been for quite some time. He has lucrative footwear and apparel deals with Adidas and Gap, respectively. He tapped one of the most popular designers to oversee his album presentation. He created a new uniform to match the Donda era, as unconventional as a face covering and spiked jacket may be. He shouts out Japanese designer Junya Watanabe in the chorus of one of the new album’s standout records. He’s a master marketer who can make even the most ordinary feel grandiose. It’s why he has been able to fully evolve and cultivate a new world with each and every one of his 10 albums and have his fans buy into the moment and the artistic vision each and every time. It’s why he is able to pack a football stadium for a single night for what isn’t even a fully fleshed out album yet and have people tune into a soundless livestream to promote new music. And it’s why fans flocked to merch stands to pay $300 for a bulletproof vest.
Kanye West is far bigger than the music. The spectacle he gave to the world on Aug. 5 in Atlanta just further proves it.