Last night (July 23), it seemed as if the entire city of Atlanta gathered at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to hear what Hip-Hop’s most polarizing character, Kanye West, has cooked up for his tenth solo studio album, DONDA. It goes without saying that general public sentiment toward Yeezy has been soured significantly after several years of incoherent rambling, his entrance into Kardashianville, his stating that “slavery is a choice” and his full-throated support of MAGA miscreant Donald Trump.
None of that even takes into account the fact that the music Kanye has released during this tumultuous time period has been lackluster, to say the least. We’ve certainly seen more than one musician maintain their status as an elite artist despite their crimes, “cancelable” comments, and other egregious acts by simply releasing music that still captivates their fans’ ears. The jury is still out on whether or not Kanye’s mother can be the conduit to his musical and societal salvation but if the crowd at “The Benz” is any indication, perhaps there is a chance.
The energy that was encapsulated inside of the 71,000-person capacity venue was as electric as any I’ve ever seen in the city. It was more than just “a Kanye West concert”, there was a palpable sense of curiosity. What the hell was Kanye doing? What would his music sound like in the context of his beloved matriarch? Would there be any surprise guests?
The more intimate DONDA listening session that was held in Las Vegas last weekend provided some insight into these queries but as we’ve all learned, Kanye West is now producing albums that are never finished, even after they are released. We knew that Pusha T, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Baby Keem, and Roddy Ricch would be making appearances but it was anyone’s guess as to who else might show up with some feature bars.
As I walked into the stadium, I heard a young Yeezy fan wildly theorizing what could be in store, “I bet he brings Jay-Z out.” At the time, I mentally scoffed at the idea that Shawn Carter would lend his presence to such an event. It has been well-established via “Kill Jay-Z” from Carter’s 4:44 album and Kanye’s own tweets about reconciling with his “Big Brother” that The Throne had been fractured after a series of business and personal slights. However, as the listening session neared its end, a familiar voice blared crisply through the immaculate Mercedes-Benz Stadium sound system. It took this writer and most of the people in nearby seats a moment to realize what was happening.
The young Ye fan was right, in a sense. Jay-Z had not gassed up the G450 private plane that he bragged about on “Otis” to come to Atlanta but he had given his Roc-a-fella mentee a verse that publicly mended their rift and gave goosebumps to just about everyone in earshot.
With all due respect to the other aforementioned featured artists, particularly Lil Baby, Baby Keem, and Roddy Ricch who all turned in fantastic performances on the project, the Avenger’s Infinity War-level shock of hearing Jay-Z and Kanye West on a record together was overwhelming to heart, mind, and ear. Ye didn’t employ his typical over-the-top stage production or flashy gimmicks, he simply stood on what would be the Atlanta Falcons 50-yard line and absorbed the audience’s energy. Occasionally striking a prolonged pose or slowly circling the perimeter of the floor to see the faces of those who couldn’t see his through the opaque stocking mask that he donned.
Those who have attended album listening sessions know that the huge studio speakers and open bar have the ability to sway the opinions of those in the room. It happens all the time and thus first impressions can be misleading. As of this writing, DONDA is not currently available on streaming, and based on photos of rappers like 2 Chainz literally recording verses in Kanye’s dressing room prior to the show, there is no telling when we will be able to judge this body of work fairly and uninhibited by pomp and circumstance.
The car test will ultimately tell the truth about Mr. West’s latest musical endeavor. Until then, last night’s gathering of Yeezy parishioners can only serve as evidence that Kanye Omari West, son of Atlanta, Georgia, has impacted a lot of people’s lives in a way that very few artists have.