It’s Impossible To Look Away From Kanye West’s Spectacle

His ability to summon an audience of thousands to Atlanta to hear a new album after years of turmoil is a testament to his power—even if ‘Donda’ isn't even finished.
July 23, 2021, 2:40pm
Kanye west at donda listening party
Image via Getty

If Kanye Omari West can do anything, he can summon. And even when the world doesn’t fixate on his next move, he commands the world’s attention once he tells us he’s ready to be seen. And no matter if we’ve said we’ve soured on Kanye, so many of us look, no matter what, summoned by simple typeface into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with just 72 hours’ notice to hear an album named for his mother, the late Dr. Donda West.

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Ye’s hold on his onlookers—not just fans—consistently renders him worthy of another glance, give Hell or Jesus. His fandom persists the way those of many pop stars endure, though so many onlookers can’t resist a passing glance at whatever Kanye West’s up to next, even after years of personal and professional turmoil. We ain’t finished… we devoted… and we know it!

Deeply human, gifted, legendary, struggling, misogynistic, insufferable, Kanye West spazzed on George W. Bush., ran for President, and wore the MAGA hat. He made The College Dropout, he danced in a big suit with Lil Pump. Kanye summons everything on this spectrum and more, yet he persists as the pop-rap provocateur who can say damn near anything fucked up and somehow earn a tenth life once his ninth expires—or gets taken down from TIDAL. I ask, which chance is Ye on in your heart? His transgressions are many, but is forgiveness your ministry? Either way, we in Atlanta, the city of his birth, waiting to hear Kanye play his 10th album, and something finna happen… even if it’s nothing much. We outside, and COVID is, too. It’s Thursday, so the Chick-fil-A’s open on the concourse; surely Mr. West’s pleased.

The taxonomy of a Kanye event will show you what feels like every walk of life, with varying degrees of dirt on their consciences. You’ll see the folks who made a family outing of the evening, and the kids in $80 Ye merch who spend $120 on a long-sleeve with Donda West’s childhood picture, just to put it on Grailed for five times as much. (The free foldable church fan went for $25.) There are rappers and try-hards, nerds and models, from cringe to fringe. Based on merch alone, you can see who went to which tour, and who loves Old Kanye, New Kanye, Every Kanye. Even if it’s messy, it’s still a flex to FaceTime from the Ye event, be it aux-cord regality or Sunday Service. It’s half(?) the reason why someone sits in a Ticketmaster queue and shifts their life around to hear an album no one’s even heard yet. We immerse ourselves in the rollout, basking in the potential for greatness while factoring in the likelihood that it might suck. And for Ye at age 44, even the failures lend to his mythology.

If a billionaire can do anything, it’s procrastinate. The invitation read ‘6 p.m. doors with an 8 p.m. start,’ which in reality, means a 9:50 p.m. start, right after the crowd tried to do the wave. The Donda album exists after all, its opening song crashing inward on arena speakers more fitting for game-day announcements. From what private session attendees detailed via many threads and leaks, this album sounded different last week. From the public session Thursday night, I’ll tell you… if you streamed it on Apple Music, you have a better idea of what this album’s about. I clawed to make out which features appeared—there were appearances from Travis Scott, Pusha T, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, and Roddy Ricch that were hard to make out in person—and caught spare bars and hooks otherwise. This album’s full of chanting, worship drip, new gospel with slightly more flair to the savior talk. From the echoes I caught, Baby Keem took off and Hov reappeared. I later learned Jay-Z reportedly recorded the surprise Watch the Throne reunion just hours before. But the music was electrifying the way rich-ass rap albums damn well better be, piano stabs and huge 808s booming through where the Falcons play. But for real though, how you wealthy with no backline? 

As the album played, there was Ye: draped in all red, pacing an all-white floor with white lighting, smoke machines, no staging, images of the sky and, at one point, a Red Bull stunt landing. So far, Donda rollout’s featured Ye saying nothing at all: no speeches, no press runs, and tonight, no microphone. He didn’t even show his face, opting to don a mask reminiscent of the Yeezus era, though lacking any extra adornment. The invited elite looked on from their floor section as the 100-level patrons leaned down from the section above, fanfare and flashing lights just inches from their idols. And as the album blared in its distorted glory, Ye paced around the canvas and the camera, moving along to his own music and occasionally approaching the onlookers huddling over each other to direct their admiration head-on. Dr. Donda West’s voice cut through the spectacle several times. Pop Smoke’s voice was here, but the bass drum never followed. I lost count how many times Ye fell onto his knees, his testimony inaudible and grandeur immutable. 

The generous reading of this presentation would call it an updated embodiment of his faith, in which he surrounded himself with the purity of whiteness and walked alone in confession, disarmed in full view of ravenous spectators. By removing maximalist set design, and the many bodies necessary to execute a Kanye West arena show, playing Donda, an album named for his dearly departed mother, humanizes him further as he moves toward new clarity from chaos. Yet, the physicality of this expensive exhibition straddled incompletion and intention in a way so familiar, yet so empty. When real-time editing extended his perfectionism in 2016, continuing to tinker with his seventh album after it was released on streaming services, he was leaning into his power and the future. But his Life of Pablo presentation at Madison Square Garden, this was not. On Thursday night, the zeitgeist was a rerun, and the mounted expectations that he might deliver a good album after two with diminishing returns weren’t decisively satisfied.

This shit was confusing and nothing much happened! Imagine a palpable “that’s it?” as folks shuffled out the aisles. Ms. West’s image on a church fan lends sweet sentimentality, but were we at a service? And can we enjoy this music knowing they’re working backstage to change something as we speak? As of time of this writing, the album has not yet been released, and if you buy into speculation on Twitter, it will be a while. Even as the music ended and looped around, an air of confusion spread throughout the crowd as it settled in that most people paid $40-75 to wait two hours to hear a 45-minute exercise in narcissism deluxe. His glory, our deep desire to admire someone, and holding this gathering as the COVID Delta variant runs rampant, particularly in southern states demonstrates how the beautiful and the ugly coalesce into a Hollywood mess. His now-ex Kim Kardashian was even in the audience with their four children. It’s a spectacle only Kanye can offer, as we approach two decades of his career, we can’t refuse: if he summons us for a moment, we devour the discourse.

Now, that was a choice!

Follow Michael Penn II on Twitter.