Less than two hours have passed since I received confirmation that I somehow scored tickets to Kanye West’s Jesus Is King NYC listening session. You know, the album that was supposed to drop last Friday? It’s now Sunday, and this session seems to be the only guaranteed way to hear the album.
I scroll through Twitter to see if copping the free tickets was just that easy. I’m especially curious, given the vocal pushback against Kanye over the past year and a half, by a slew of his now-former fans who took issue with his seemingly newfound, conservative opinions.
But I see a frenzy on my timeline, courtesy of the unofficial Ye documentarians behind @KanyePodcast, of other people still clamoring to get tickets. Many of the passes were snapped up by scalpers, who were selling them for as much as $150 each, if not more.
It’s a shame, but it’s the name of the game. Especially for any event involving Kanye West.
After throwing on the nearest clean outfit, I hop on the train to head to the venue, United Palace, in Washington Heights; it doesn’t take long to find other people who are, too. They’re wearing Yeezys. And they can’t stop chattering.
As the stops come, one after another, more Yeezys board the subway car. Most of them are pristine, but some—the cream white and butter 350s, in particular—are just impossible to keep clean. In a lot of ways, they reflect their creator: they’re ostentatious, but in the simplest way. And, try as you might, you can’t get them back to the way they used to be once the façade has been stained. You just have to accept their current state, and press on.
An hour-plus journey later, I get off the train and follow the sea of Yeezys for the three-minute walk to the venue. Once inside the theater—30 minutes after doors open, and an hour and a half after standing in line—my phone is placed inside a locked bag and given back to me. Thankfully, I have two McDonald’s napkins and a pen in my purse to take notes.
I rush through the ornate and stately United Palace, which doubles as a non-profit cultural/performing arts center and church, and pass by merch stands. I only have time to briefly examine the set-up, but my eyes bug out of my head when I get a glimpse of what Ye is selling: Jesus Is King hoodies for $140. You read that right. One hundred and forty buckaroos.
Several failed attempts to grab a seat later, I finally find one near the back of the space, on the lower floor. No more than a minute later, the crowd collectively jumps to its feet and begins chanting “Yeezy! Yeezy!”
“All rise,” I think to myself, “for the Honorable Kanye West.”
I take a look around to get a better idea about who still counts themselves among Kanye’s diehard fans. Social media would indicate that his recent events cater mostly to white audiences. “Kanye gentrified his own fan base,” Bronx comedian Desus Nice tweeted Saturday. But here, it’s a completely mixed experience. To my immediate left is an Asian couple; to my right, two white men (who don’t clap for anything, all night). Behind me is a Hispanic couple, and in front of me are two young black women, wearing matching black-on-black Jesus Is King sweatshirts.
The event begins with a brief hello from the 42-year-old Chicago rapper, but I can’t see him because so many people are standing on their seats, trying to get a better look at the man who provided them with a soundtrack to their lives. It’s equally treacly and touching.
After greeting us, Kanye introduces two films: the first is about five minutes long, about the making of Jesus Is King. When the clip rolls, tiny silhouettes grace the wings of the dark stage. Even from the back of the venue, I can make out Saint and North West, dancing and clapping along with their father’s take on worship music. As the night progresses, North edges closer and closer to center stage, wanting to be applauded and seen just as much as Ye.
In both the short film and in an approximately 15-minute preview of the Jesus Is King IMAX documentary, Kanye places an immense focus on his choir. In a stirring moment, the singers flip his moody 808s & Heartbreak cut, “Say You Will,” into one of their signature Christ-focused covers: “Savor His Grace; it’s in His will.”
There are powerful moments aplenty, including close-ups on beautiful black women shedding tears while praising God; women who remind me of my own sister, who sings in a choir back home in Texas. But the energy in this room is conflicting. People who likely have never set foot in a black church are leaping up and “testifying” in a way that looks hauntingly familiar, but contrived. Studied. It looks like a lot of pretending.
Thankfully, I don’t have to wallow for long in my shadiness. Kanye takes his position in front of the stage, MPC at the ready, and begins the show we’ve all been waiting for.
The first track he plays, “Up From the Ashes,” bounces like a track Chance would have put on Coloring Book. “I come to You empty, free of my pride,” Ye vocalizes over gentle, minimal production. Everyone stays tame and in their seats, enjoying the moment but waiting for the next song.
The second Kanye presses play on the next track, “Follow God,” a few stans pop out of their seats, almost like synchronized jack-in-the-boxes. At this moment, Kanye tells us he needs us all to stand up. Of course, most of the audience thought that meant to storm the aisles, climb over seats, and hop onstage with Ye. I can honestly 1000% understand why this was the song that moved him to move us: driven by a soul sample, which I can’t yet put my finger on, it brings to mind Kanye’s 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z, “Otis.”
Three tracks into the album (“On God”), two things become abundantly clear: 1) Kanye did not have permission to tell his fans to break venue protocol and rush to the stage; and 2) Jesus Is King has a peculiar pattern—there’s no distinct sound that travels from one song to the next.
After security does its best to restabilize United Palace, Kanye continues to play “On God.” A vast change from the tracks before it, “On God” veers more toward electronic than gospel or hip-hop.
“Sunday,” on the other hand, is guitar-driven and brooding. On top of that, it has a witty hook: “Closed on Sunday, you like Chick-fil-A… Follow Jesus, listen now—obey.” Ye is feeling this one so he runs it back again, so his fans can get the “Chick-fil-A” line down. And they do.
A more experimental track follows “Sunday”: “Water.” It immediately reminds me of both Frank Ocean and Imogen Heap; it’s evocative, warbling, and tender, and there are countless moving parts. All I can think is: I would much rather hear this, than hear Ye rap about bleached assholes.
You might recall this tainted subject from Ye’s opening bars on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” off of 2016’s The Life of Pablo. It was particularly jarring to hear after “Ultralight Beam” at the start of the project, which Kanye explained would be “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it.”
It’s almost like Kanye is now bending over backwards to make up for his TLOP gospel album pump fake. On “Selah,” track six, the song is overpowered by organs and what sounds like irreverent yelling, but is likely just Ye’s way of worshipping. He doubles down IRL at the end, with what can only be described as a series of Howard Dean screams.
“New Body,” the only song that’s been heard by the public (via leaks), sounds downright terrible in this venue. The speakers at the front of the space and the soundstage in back, near me, just aren’t aligning. (The drums, my God, the drums.) I wait patiently for the next song, which I think Ye calls “Ugliest Nightmare”; that title is not on the latest version of the tracklist posted by Kim Kardashian West, but it seems to match up with “LA Monster”: “Everyone is saying they woke, but they sleep,” Ye raps. “Walking dead, eyes closed.”
Kanye plays one of the most moving tracks on Jesus Is King penultimately: “Hands On,” featuring revered gospel musician Fred Hammond. “Tell the devil that I’m going on strike,” Ye announces. “I been working for him my whole life.” He gets even more honest later in the song: “‘What are you hearing from the Christians?’ They’ll be the first ones to judge me. Make me feel like nobody love me.” This made it very clear, to me, that Kanye is aware of the conversations happening around him, whether he chooses to engage or not.
The final track of the night is “Use This Gospel,” featuring No Malice, Pusha-T, and Kenny G. Before Ye can play the track in full, the NYPD enters and shines its light of authority down the aisles, announcing the concert is over. We’re effectively being shut down, but Kanye pushes through and has the crowd sing and hum with him until the end. “Use this gospel for protection,” Ye advises in song. “It’s a hard road to heaven.”
To be frank, Jesus Is King doesn’t compare to hardly any of Kanye’s previous works. The one thing it does have in common, with The Life of Pablo and ye, is that Kanye is reportedly still making adjustments to the project, beyond the final countdown. The production itself could hypothetically be tinkered with endlessly, and a reported Nicki Minaj verse could pop up. But Ye’s bars feel locked into place: simple, unpretentious worship. It sounds like he’s learning how to rap all over again, complete with figurative training wheels. You know how on Showtime at the Apollo, if a kid sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” badly, the audience still can’t boo them because it’s a song about God? Same thing.
But, Kanye has retained a lot of the elements that we know and love/d him for: the explorative production, the augmented, autotuned vocals, and perhaps most of all, his enthusiasm. A lot of the things that we love about Kanye are still there. It just so happens that this time, he’s backed by a choir, singing straight to Jesus.
Kanye is trying to do something revolutionary—he’s pivoting in real time from a flippant, sex-obsessed rapper, to a focused man of God, both in purpose and on wax. This has happened before: the late Bushwick Bill, DMX, and the aforementioned No Malice are just a few MCs who turned their lives over to Christ and dedicated their careers to praising Him. But none of them have the platform, or staying power, that Kanye holds.
On the ride home after the listening session, the subway cars fill with Yeezys, yet again. About halfway to Brooklyn, a young white man startlingly yells out, “Hey! Somebody AirDrop that Kanye!” A few folks laugh, but the force field of Ye’s energy has waned by this point. The event lasted an exact hour, leading me to speculate that people were left wanting more; especially fans who are used to his bombastic, elaborate performances.
Still, Kanye’s fans on the subway genuinely describe the event as “fire” and “crazy.” At this level of fandom, they probably don’t care what the album is even about: they’re just buying into the brand of Kanye West. His stans are always going to show up. They will always buy his merch, by the bag—even if it’s connected to a religion they don’t believe in, yet.
In all fairness, Kanye is a legend. Despite his polarizing comments over the past year and a half, he has accomplished things in his roughly two-decade-long career that many would take several lifetimes to complete. He will likely never be “canceled.” His works are woven too tightly into the stitching of our musical tastes and more importantly, our memories.
I get off at my stop, happy to finally be free to think to myself about what exactly just happened, and what this might mean for Ye’s future success. As I walk out of the subway station, a lasting moment is imprinted in my brain: before sharing the album, Kanye asked the audience to praise Jesus with him. His request was met with a smattering of half-hearted applause.