It’s been a full month, and the tale of Kanye West’s ongoing “Donda” listening events continues. On Thursday night, West — or “Ye” as he legally petitioned to change his name earlier this week — rented out another gigantic venue to play what many hope (but few expect) to be the final version of his tenth studio album, “Donda.” However, instead of continuing his residency in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Arena, West went home, both literally and figuratively, by recreating his childhood house in the center of Chicago’s Soldier Field.
In many ways, the event brought back the brash, trolling Kanye of recent years: The showed opened with a song apparently titled “Jail” that, at previous events, featured a fiery verse by Jay-Z — but on Thursday, Jay’s verse was replaced with an entirely new one by DaBaby, who addressed the firestorm of criticism leveled against his recent homophobic comments. As if that weren’t enough, a few minutes later Marilyn Manson, who is accused of sexual assault or misconduct by multiple women, joined West on the “stage” — basically the porch of the house — for much of the concert. And the event ended with West staging a mock-marriage to a woman who was apparently his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Kim Kardashian West. Oh, and he also set himself on fire. Yet the show also featured heavy themes of religion and impassioned calls for prison reform. Such is the dichotomy of Kanye West.
With a capacity of 61,500, the stadium appeared full, even over a digitized Apple Music livestream (which is how Variety viewed the event). Like many things Kanye, the road back to Chicago for his third “Donda” listening event has been as confusing and complex as the album’s development. “Donda” has gone from an unfinished collection of rough raps played for a small audience in Las Vegas to three different, ever-evolving, seemingly completed albums in just over a month. From the storylines of coproducer Mike Dean getting harassed on social media to the reignition of public animosity between Drake and West, the rollout for “Donda” has nearly diluted the content that was meant to come out of it. Yet, there we were and here we are, still listening and watching.
Regardless of the circus around it, a side narrative is how lucrative the events themselves have been. According to estimates by Vice, Billboard and others, West is grossing millions in merch and ticket sales and streaming revenue from each event, although the increasingly elaborate staging — Thursday’s event also featured hundreds of dancers and three dozen-ish cars and trucks — is likely to make a significant dent in those earnings. (Not that it matters to West, who was recently declared a billionaire and has never spared expense for his art.) All for an album that, at the time of this article’s publication, has not officially been released.
Not surprisingly, considering the increasingly religious nature of West’s music, the three “Donda” events have felt evangelical in nature, although less so than his most recent album, “Jesus Is King” and his church-like “Sunday Service” events. The first one in Atlanta found West walking and stomping aimlessly walking across a white floor as the music played — occasionally running, sometimes pausing, but never really going anywhere. That was him in limbo, trying to figure out where he, and presumably the album, would go next.
The second event was a spectacle: starkly different from the first, with a flash mob circling him like a living black hole and the roof of the Mercedes Benz arena filled with halo light before Kanye rose into the sky. The show ended and climaxed with his ascent into heaven, rejoining his mother while the rapper Vory’s vocals boomed on the song “No Child Left Behind.”
This event found him crash-landed back on Earth — as shown in a video that was played during the event — returning to the place his journey began: Donda’s house in Chicago with a glowing cross above it and shrouded by fog.
There was no shortage of questions looming over the event — Would the third time be the charm and “Donda” would actually be released? Would he overhaul the album completely again? Would he finally take off his mask, symbolizing the project’s completion? — and although the answers to those questions were no, yes and yes, it also raised several others. The show started over two hours after its 10 p.m. ET call-time, with fans getting so restless that there are even videos of them jumping bombarding the vending tents to snag some coveted “Donda” merchandise being sold. For a long time, the only image we livestream viewers had was that of Donda’s house with an illuminated cross above it. “Wake up, Mr. West” could be heard being yelled by one attendee, and eventually chants of “Yeezy” erupted. Then, at 11:50 p.m., the spectacle began, with West emerging from the home with two of his children as the “Donda” interlude bellowed through the stadium.
The outrage that West deliberately set off by opening the show with appearances from an apparent homophobe and an alleged sex offender — DaBaby and Manson — tainted the experience for many, and makes an objective assessment challenging, although the intensity did level off… well, until he set himself on fire toward the end of the show, emerging from the house and walking around in a fire-resistant suit until a stagehand doused him with a red extinguisher that had been sitting next to the house for the entire evening. Throughout the show, as an army of people clad in “Donda” vests circle the replica home, with black SUVs and cruisers at their side, West was joined on the porch of the house by several artists featured on the album, from Don Tolliver to Westside Gunn, Shensea, Rooga, and even Larry Hoover Jr., whose gave an impassioned spoken-word passage on the album to free his father after decades in prison.
West made some solid additions to this version of “Donda” — including the full version to his Lauryn Hill “Doo Wop (That Thing)”-sampled song, “Believe What I Say,” that he previewed in September of last year — and added a few impressive tracks. It also sounded better sonically. But the sequencing of songs was awkward and rigid, he’d removed stellar cameos not only by Jay-Z but also the Lox, Conway the Machine, Pusha T, and a series of other artists — and even then, the album still felt unfinished. He and Mike Dean have probably been reworking it since the show ended.
Anyone who missed the trolling West — who, apart from sparring with Drake, was absent in recent weeks — now has him back. And if the merch being sold at the event is any indication of where his mind is at the moment, he still has his sights set on another presidential run, with “2024” scribed on the back of shirts. And it remains unclear whether his public embraces of Manson and DaBaby (ironically, West recently removed a DaBaby-featuring remix of one of his songs from streaming services) are sheer provocation, statements about embracing sinners, empathy with controversial figures, or all three… or none of the above.
The music and gimmicks might have changed, but the man behind the mask remains the same — and even though he finally removed that mask during the wedding scene at the end of the show, it felt like the ending to a different movie.
What does it all mean? Who knows? And what comes next is anyone’s guess. But if Thursday-into-Friday’s “Donda” event is any indication, millions will be waiting and watching.
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.