It was nearly 90 degrees in Atlanta, the sun stubbornly beating down on Mercedes Benz stadium as tens of thousands of people streamed into the venue for what was probably the biggest event the arena has seen in over a year, the listening event for Kanye West’s “Donda” (which, although it was played in full at the event, still had not officially dropped at the time of this article’s publication).
The inside of the building was a stark contrast to the summer heat, the floor covered in white with a slight fog hanging in the air, giving the appearance of an ice-skating rink. By 8 p.m., when West was scheduled to begin the session, thousands of people were seated in the arena — and millions more tuned in to Apple Music’s livestream — settling in for what was likely to be a long wait. Among them were a lucky 5,000 members of the faculty, staff and students from Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College, Morris Brown College and ITC, to whom West had donated tickets.
Considering West’s many album-release bait-and-switches in the past — he’d teased “Donda” and another album called “Yandhi” a couple of years ago — it was anyone’s guess when, or whether, the session would actually begin. While reports last weekend claimed that “Donda” had been completed, there were whispers among music execs in attendance that the project was still frantically being finished even as fans were seated in the stands. More than one person joked that 2 Chainz was in a stadium dressing room polishing his vocals, likely thanks in part to an Instagram message he’d posted earlier in the day.
Despite Atlanta’s reputation for being\ open while most of the country was closed, there was a spirit of reunion among attendees, many who were seeing each other in person for the first time since early 2020. The VIP lounges were overflowing with celebrities: Marlon Wayans, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams and “The Chi” fan favorite Jacob Latimore; Southern hip-hop veterans Goodie Mob and Organized Noize were spied waiting out the delay by the bar in the stadium’s AMG lounge. Other sightings include Killer Mike, hitmakers Jermaine Dupri and Mike Will Made It, Earthgang, J.I.D., Angela Simmons and Steve Aoki.
But the most talked about guest in attendance was likely Kim Kardashian, who was spotted with her and West’s children North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm and her sister Khloé, who were there to support him at the event. There were whispers that West’s rumored girlfriend, Irina Shayk was also in attendance, but no photos of her have emerged.
After a nearly two-hour wait, West finally emerged shortly before 10 p.m., fully prepared for the faux tundra in a red custom Yeezy x Gap puffer jacket, matching red leather pants, orange Yeezy boots and a gauzy full-face covering. He was met with cheers from the crowd who watched as he walked from a door at the edge of the stadium into the round circle of spotlight awaiting him in the center of the arena.
The arena’s ceiling dome was open as he walked out to the refrain, “We gon’ be okay… God’s got this.” Anyone who has been in a Black church could feel the influence behind the opening number, the wail of a church organ heavily treated with synth. Then a voice broke through, announcing Dr. Donda West — the album’s namesake, Kanye’s mother who passed away suddenly in 2007.
While West said nothing to the crowd during the session, his mother’s voice punched through in interludes, daring to say, as she said her son had told her to, whatever she wanted. He mostly stood, legs hip-width apart, but sometimes he squatted or stomped around, every now and then dancing within a spotlight that was sometimes a circle, sometimes a triangle and sometimes rectangular.
From the dozen or so songs Ye previewed for his Atlanta audience, “Donda” is genre-defying: Some have described it, not inaccurately, as “trap gospel.” How else would you describe a project that includes many Christian references and the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer and also features from Pusha T, Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, Baby Keem, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Roddy Ricch and Pop Smoke?
By the time Kanye reached the other big surprise of the night — a verse from his longtime friend and mentor Jay-Z, with whom he’s sparred in recent months, on the closing song, which might be called “Jail” (head here for a full report on the song) — the crowd worked into a full frenzy, shouting, “Ye! Ye! Ye!,” as he finally left the shape-shifting spotlight at the center of the floor to dance around the edges of the arena, closer to the people.
When West left the floor and the lights came on at Mercedes Benz stadium, half the crowd began milling out, as others remained in their sections, discussing whether “Donda” may or may not usher in a change for rap music. God has been part of Kanye’s music from the very beginning of his career, so perhaps it’s only natural that he’s grown from “Jesus Walks” into a full-blown gospel rapper. While the “Jesus Is King” album and his Sunday Service endeavors were initially treated by some as a gimmick to seek forgiveness for many public missteps, in the time it’s taken for him to make “Donda,” most fans seem to embrace his faith-based messaging as genuine.
HOV did the verse today!!!! At 4pm
— Young Guru (@Young_Guru) July 23, 2021
Online, many are touting “Jail” (or whatever the Jay-Z featuring song is called) as the standout from the project, spurring theorizing that West, finally lightened of his association with the Kardashians, has fully reconciled with his beloved Big Bro, fueled in part by Jay-Z ‘s own lyrics that he might have to bring about “the return of the ‘Throne,'” but not without the reminder that Ye will have to retire his red hat.
The Atlanta “Donda” listening was a full-house event, but more than a few folks on social media chided the thousands in attendance for being so quick to forget West’s past offenses. Those people might just be former fans who will never return to Kanye’s congregation. While the question remains whether the album itself will live up to the hype of the event, based on audience reactions so far, favorite tracks were “Jail,” “Pure Souls” and “Junya Watanabe,” his collaborations with Roddy Ricch and Playboi Carti.
But what’s beyond question is that with “Donda,” we definitely get a bit of the old Ye back: wildly creative, grounded in the foundation of his strongest relationships and striving to do what no other artist has done before.