Three years ago, in September of 2016, I saw Kanye West perform at Madison Square Garden on his brief but brilliant Saint Pablo Tour. This was before his meltdown, the 2016 Election, his Trump support, or his other troubling antics of the last couple years.
No, at this moment Kanye was flying high on the praise of his latest, greatest album, The Life of Pablo. He was at the peak of his prowess. We knew it, and he knew it.
It was one of the greatest shows of my life. The songs, an epic 30-song set of greatest hits from his iconic discography, were loud and over the top in all the right ways. The stage production, with that spaceship-like floating platform, brought him within an arm’s length of our stretched-out hands, yet just out of reach like the God he claimed he was on Yeezus. As we looked up at the artist from the floor of MSG, Jay-Z and Beyoncé (surrounded by bodyguards of course) stood just feet behind us looking at the spectacle with the same awe we did.
I know I wasn’t alone in feeling I was witnessing the most consequential artist of our time. And in retrospect, it may go down as the high water mark of his career.
Just a month after that, I saw Kanye again, this time at the Meadows Music & Arts Festival in Queens. That was the very show where, after learning the news his wife had been taken hostage in Paris, he bolted off the stage mid-set and (understandably) didn’t return. In my mind, Kanye’s unraveling began right there with that traumatic event. But I digress.
Fast forward to this weekend, where I had the chance to see Kanye West again for the latest edition of his Sunday Service series. At lot of things have changed, and some things haven’t.
Taking place at Los Angeles’ storied Forum arena — the West Coast’s sister venue to Madison Square Garden — it felt all too similar to the first time I saw him, and yet it was different in every conceivable way.
For starters, the tickets only cost $20, a far cry from the $200-plus I paid to see him at MSG last minute. (I still had the opportunity to buy a $70 T-shirt or a $240 hoodie.)
The crowd was by and large the classic Kanye crowd of younger people in street wear and Yeezy sneakers, but you did see a smaller flock of families with kids dressed for church.
Taking place at 2 p.m., the Sunday Service Experience is very much programmed like a traditional church service—except that it started an hour late and I was able to order beer (which, of course, I did.).
Once inside, the floor of the dimly-lit arena was nearly covered in flowers, bushes and trees surrounding a circular mound in the center. Complete with sounds of flora and fauna playing over the speakers, it certainly evoked the Garden of Eden, or a Rainforest Cafe.
After some informal opening performances, which included Francis Starlite (of Francis and the Lights) noodling around on the piano and the first of three short sermons we would hear from three different pastors.
The main event began when the Sunday Service Choir (the same group credited on Jesus Is King opener “Every Hour”) flooded onto the mound.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent much time around live choirs. And I’ve certainly never seen one with over 100 members in it. Let me tell you, when all those voices start singing in union, it is astonishing. It rattles you to your core. I mean, they could read the ingredients list on a shampoo bottle and it would sound like the word of God.
Witnessing the choir dance around the mound, uniformly clad in light colored robes, was an incredible spectacle as they reinterpreted some of Kanye’s church-friendly catalog, in addition to some traditional gospel tunes and other hip-hop tracks (like A$AP Ferg’s “New Level”), backed by a super-tight live band.
It didn’t take long to realize that the choir is the star of the show, and I was all for it. It took several songs to even realize Kanye was on the stage with them. And when he did take the mic, he never stepped up to the center podium to take focus off the group as a whole.
In the middle of the set Kanye performed most of the tracks from Jesus is King, which packed a much stronger emotional punch than on record. Even his instantly-ridiculed Chick-Fil-A lyric from “Closed on Sundays” came off as genuine and moving. When he sang album crescendo, “God Is,” you could feel he was pouring his entire soul into it.
There, inside the temporary vacuum of The Forum, I could temporarily forget the Kanye who has tested my love of his music with his troubling antics and politics, perhaps because at that moment he too was cut off from the outside world and living in the moment.
As a man who has publicly endured traumas and openly struggled with mental health, Kanye seems at peace in the church that he’s built, and even if I can’t relate to his headspace or his dogma, I’m happy for that.
Going back to Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel, some of the greatest artworks of Western civilization have been gigantic monuments to God. This is Kanye’s. Whether you want to accept it as gospel or a beautiful work of art is up to your own beliefs.
I still have plenty of bones to pick with organized religion and with the complicated figure of Kanye West. The fact that he’s taking Sunday Service to Joel Osteen’s controversial megachurch doesn’t make things any less complicated. But on its own, the Sunday Service is a powerful, sincere and stunningly beautiful musical expression, and $20 well spent.