kanye west: a god, complex

In an Easter 'Sunday Service' at Coachella he seeks salvation and maybe even forgiveness in a performance that found him drawing a parallel between himself and divinity.

by Samuel Allan
24 April 2019, 10:10pm

People are tired of Kanye’s bullshit. His MAGA baiting nonsense alienated career-long fans who saw him as a genius and savior. His newfound right-wing supporters never really knew what to make of him. After a tumultuous, Trumpian 2018 that found him claiming that slavery was a choice and rebranding MAGA hats as merch, Kanye reached pariah status. All of this makes his recent decision to hold “Sunday Service,” where his music — which has always drawn on gospel, soul, and traditionally black religious music for context and character — has been distilled to its pure gospel essence, unexpected but perhaps inevitable.

These exclusive events began in January and played host to innumerable celebrities, featuring a gospel choir singing Kanye originals and religious standards alike. Two weeks ago, after having dropped out of a headlining spot at Coachella when his request for a giant dome under which to perform was denied, Kanye announced that he would indeed be playing Coachella, but instead on a man-made mountain where he would hold his Sunday Service on Easter morning.

From his beloved debut with The College Dropout, on which he cast a suspicious eye on materialism and racial politics, to his genre-busting and sometimes shockingly profane late career experiments during which he was an object of the conspicuous consumption he previously shaded, two things have proven consistent. Kanye West loves himself, and Kanye loves God. More often than not, the division between the two seems to become hazy to him. He loves to provoke, but needs to be loved. Where better to do it than in a space where it is, as always, unclear to which god the myriad voices in his work sing their praises? Kanye celebrates God. Kanye exalts Himself. Kanye asks to be washed clean.

It is, of course, nothing new. In 2004 he walked with Jesus. In 2013 he declared himself not only a god (on Yeezus), but one with no time to waste on tardy croissants. His records have always featured some element of religious music. “Ultralight Beam,” the revelatory opener of The Life of Pablo, an album he described during its harried rollout as a ‘gospel album,’ is the closest any of his studio tracks have come to pure gospel. It begins with a sample, a young girl casting the devil out of her home as her mother cheers her on. “Yes Lord.” After Kanye sings a few refrains, a choir fills in behind him. Kelly Price, an R&B singer known for her ties to Christian music provides a verse of her own. “We on an Ultralight Beam, this is a God Dream,” Kanye and the choir sing. It’s the closest he’s ever sounded to salvation. It’s worth noting that the girl and her mother sampled at the offset sued Kanye for asking permission for its use from the wrong person. It’s also worth noting that the rest of this supposed ‘gospel album’ is filled with jarring production and reckless hedonism, making it one of his most revealing works.

“Only One” was written as a love letter to his daughter North shortly after she was born, and it’s framed as a message to Kanye from his Mother in heaven. She assures him that he’s not perfect, but he’s not his mistakes. She also gently implores him to tell North, or ‘Nori,’ all about her. She tells him that a conversation with God revealed that he sent her an angel in the form of baby Kanye.

The Easter event, live-streamed on Coachella’s curated YouTube feed through a pinhole lens that frustrated some viewers, began at 9 a.m. Performers dressed in oversized purple and pink cotton ponchos marched single file through the crowd, calling to mind traditional church choirs. They arranged themselves on the mountain in a series of concentric circles and began performing improvisatory jazz and gospel standards. Kanye showed up about 30 minutes later and joined the innermost circle.

The bulk of the performance was led by Philip Cornish, a gospel singer and keyboardist. Kanye stood at the center of the circle, smiling and bobbing his head to the music, stopping only occasionally to participate in a gospel retelling of one of his originals, which were peppered in amongst hymns and R&B classics like Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do.”

This went on for about two hours. At around the 90-minute mark, Kanye decided to jump into the spotlight, performing the College Dropout classic “All Falls Down” and debuting a curiously half-baked new song called “Water.” After this, he sunk back into the fray and let his collaborators take charge.

As "Ultralight Beam" boomed from the speakers concealed beneath false grass and the choir exalted his praises, none other than DMX stood up to give a passionate, scripture quoting prayer. It was an entirely surreal moment. The choir continued to sing, and as the pinhole lens whipped around, trying to find its purple clad subject, it settled on an unexpected and wholly disarming scene. Kanye West, head down and with his friends holding onto him in a pose eerily reminiscent of a baptismal immersion, was weeping.

After a few more songs, including a particularly vicious interpretation of “Jesus Walks” that ended with Kanye on his knees, seemingly in prayer, the event ended.

Reactions were mixed, as they generally are with Kanye. Pitchfork decried it as a “sacrilegious mess,” and The Ringer cast a wary eye at Kanye’s use of a choir, pointing out that Kanye’s use of a black choir was suspicious at best, shamelessly manipulative at worst.

Yet those reactions seem to miss an essential understanding of Kanye as he exists now. He was never going to apologize or fully redeem himself. He’s never been completely likeable, never truly excusable for his antics. This, coupled with the consistently beautiful music he makes, is what makes him such a thrilling and memorable artist. He shifts paradigms, but makes sure you never forget that he’s doing it. “Soon as they like you, make them unlike you,” as he sings on “I Am A God.”

Guess who isn’t going to give a genuinely convincing “please forgive me?”

Guess who is going to demand that Coachella build a mountain for his self-aggrandizing church service?

Kanye worries that if we love him full stop, we’ll forget him. This fear has moved him closer to irrelevance than he’s ever been, but Easter morning proved that he can still be as captivating and difficult as we’ve always known him to be. He’ll never turn down a chance to turn piousness into profit or paint himself — occasionally, and quite literally — as a divine figure.

Kanye has always conflated himself with the Almighty, a move that can be taken as sheer narcissism, a winking nod to his persona, a coping mechanism, an artistic device or an unquenchable thirst for something more. Any and all will do.

kanye west
Sunday Service