Kanye West made a low-key entrance to the United Palace theater in New York’s Washington Heights on Sunday night: his wife, two of their children, a sheepish-looking Chris Rock, and a handful of friends entered the orchestra pit from stage left, took their seats in the bottom corner, and waited for the lights to cut. West — stood in the front row invisible to most of the 3,000-strong crowd — picked up a mic and said the words “New York.” In response, everyone chanted “Yeezy.”
Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Experience — playing tonight for the third and, supposedly, final time after impromptu events in Detroit and Chicago over the weekend — is a show in three unevenly-weighted parts. From the pit, West explained that he first wanted to show a mini-documentary about the Tataouine-esque homes he’s been building in (and has recently been ordered to remove from) the Calabasas desert; he described it as “a study we’ve been doing over the last year.” He’d then roll straight into a portion of the IMAX movie he announced over the weekend before playing Jesus Is King, his ninth studio album, in full.
The short documentary was filmed and directed by Nico Ballesteros, who seems to have become West’s personal videographer over the past year. Shot between Uganda, Naoshima, and Calabasas, it has West in conversation with forward-thinking luminaries: Italian architect Claudio Silvestrin, who designed West’s old Soho apartment; light and space artist James Turrell, a primary inspiration for the domes concept; and Axel Vervoordt, West’s go-to designer. It didn't get into the meat of the hypothetical dome-living experience, instead dealing in Westian soundbites. He said that “taste is an artificial version of joy,” that “a hotel is the exact same condition as a prison,” and, when musing on a bathroom design: “That could be a toilet, a bathtub, and a shower.” At one point, West held a bible and sang directly from scripture, improvising an R&B melody.
The IMAX movie, screened immediately afterwards with little introduction, lasted about half an hour. Everything but a circle in the middle of the screen was blacked out, and it was soundtracked entirely by the Sunday Service Collective, a gospel choir that West’s been working with for his weekly religious jam sessions. There were God-fearing rewrites of West classics sung in perfect harmony, retooled versions of “Lost In The World” and “Street Lights” cut up with incantations.
What West showed of the film (he seemed to suggest this was just a sample) was visually bizarre. Moths pollinated a purple flower for a full two minutes; later, a deer galloped off in the distance. Close-ups of individual choir members lingered for full songs before cutting abruptly to the Wyoming mountains. None of this was any competition for an off-screen North West, who started out near her parents, improvising interpretive dance to the mostly a cappella choir, but inched closer to center stage with every passing minute. Her father sat to the side, rocking back and forth while wearing thick-rimmed black sunglasses and a huge grin.
The lights came up slightly and West walked to the center of the orchestra pit, where a lone MacBook was set up. Wearing all-black Yeezys, grey sweats tucked high into his white socks, and a New York-specific Sunday Service longsleeve, he said that when he brought his Sunday Service to Coachella in April, he “wasn’t quite delivered and truly saved.” With the help of the choir, a group of true believers, he “came to know the true joy of Jesus Christ.” Jesus Is King, he said, is “an expression of the gospel.”
He played the first two songs — ”Up from the Ashes” and “Follow God,” neither of which topped the gospel melodies of the short film — to a relatively awkward audience. The United Palace is ornate and grand, a confounding mix of Roman, Egyptian, Hindu, and God-knows-what-else architecture covered in gold from wall to ceiling and owned until recently by a televangelist. It was, conceptually, as perfect a venue for a Kanye West playback as he could have hoped for. But it’s an all-seater theatre, and those who’d signed up for free when the show was announced yesterday afternoon were kept to the back of the room or on the balconies.
So, West decided to invite the 300-odd people on the front half of the floor to fill out the aisles; the crowd responded by climbing the low barricades and flooding the orchestra pit. Surrounded by friends, fans, and family (I ended up between Casanova and Chris Rock), West recreated the Madison Square Garden playback for The Life of Pablo and the Wyoming party for Ye. The mammoth-sounding, Pi’erre Bourne-produced “On God” whipped the pit up. And then Kanye had to tell the crowd to get back because the pit was about to collapse under everyone’s weight.
West didn’t say much after that, opting instead to introduce each song and let the record play through. “Sunday” is a song about gathering with one’s family and eating Chick-Fil-A, replete with a squeaky shout of the fast food joint’s name at the end. “Selah,” which was supposed to be last on the record according to Kim Kardashian’s updated tracklist, now seems to slot into the middle of the record, and it stands out, with West more pointed in his delivery than he has been at any point since Yeezus. (“I ain’t mean, I’m just focused,” he spits.) “Hands On” is a collaboration with the gospel artist Fred Hammond; “L.A. Monster” has him praying to be removed from the sins of his city.
A couple of flashlights popped up at the back of the venue, and West said that the cops were coming to shut the show down — the last track might have to be performed a cappella with the help of the crowd. That didn’t turn out to be true, thankfully. “Use This Gospel” has an easily repeatable melody, something not too far from the “Power” hook, and it needed the United Palace’s speakers to come through properly. There is a Clipse feature, finally, and it works. But the night boiled down to this: Jesus Is King, Kanye West’s ninth studio album, is a gospel-rap record that doesn’t go five seconds without a Hallelujah or a prayer. And it ends with a riotous saxophone solo from Kenny G.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the short documentary was directed by Nick Knight. In fact, Nico Ballesteros was the director.