“Let’s take it back to Day 1!”
These were unexpected words from Kanye West, now legally re-named Ye, hosting a massive benefit concert Thursday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Where his most recent public spectacles have been wildly ambitious and sometimes confounding, and always focused hard on the newest work, this opening statement suggested something different: a re-connection to the music that first introduced him as an ambitious young artist to watch.
This time, Ye was looking less to provoke than to connect. So there were no divisive, outrageous guests, no Marilyn Manson or Da Baby or any other alleged villain to distract from the music (as he did in Chicago in the summer at a performance of his newest album, “Donda”). The rapper-producer would instead be sharing the night with Drake, his sometime rival/occasional collaborator, and a relationship strained through years of minor slights and insults, right up to the release of their new albums this summer.
That intermittent beef was resolved, at least for the night’s benefit for prison and sentencing reform organized in the name of 71-year-old Larry Hoover, co-founder of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples street gang, and now serving six life sentences in federal prison.
Drake was his special guest of the night, with a set of nearly a dozen songs, but in every meaningful way it was again Kanye’s moment. Reflecting his taste for stagecraft, the Coliseum presentation was both simple and epic, with a mountain-shaped stage on the stadium floor, and clouds of stage fog giving it the look of a smoldering volcano.
The duo’s two-hour concert in the round was designed as an event on a massive scale, but the moments that will last longest unfolded at a very human level: the seemingly warm rapprochement between these two leading artists; Drake performing Ye’s spiritual “24” from “Donda”; and Ye sadly calling out to his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, in the audience with their young daughter, North.
Ye’s set began with “Jesus Walks,” a song he’s performed on most tours since its original release as a defining track from his 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout.” More surprising is what followed, as Ye dove into a series of early works he hasn’t performed in years, and had the crowd erupting in real joy, bouncing to the beats and shouting his lyrics.
Then came “Gold Digger,” “Touch the Sky,” “Stronger” and “All of the Lights” — all from his early albums, when he was introduced to the pop music world as a brilliant new voice in hip-hop, an ambitious rapper, writer and producer. Yeezy himself seemed energized by the material’s inherently youthful fire and confidence.
After some years as a tabloid celebrity, with as much attention to his non-music activity as his art, resurrecting older songs that fans first embraced was like saying the original version of Kanye is still here, and maybe always has been. It also provided a bounce of momentum that carried through later, sometimes more controversial work. That included only a sampling from “Donda”: “Hurricane,” “Come To Life” and “Praise God.”
More explosive was 2013’s racially charged “Black Skinhead,” set to a pounding rock ‘n’ roll beat, bringing Ye to bended knee before leaping into the air, and raging into the mic: “I’ve been a menace for the longest / But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted!”
In most of it, the music and performance acted as a new chapter in Ye’s personal, public drama. That gave “Runaway,” from 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” new resonance of pain in light of his separation. Over a spare tapping piano melody, Ye adjusted the final lyrics into a personal note of heartbreak to his ex: “Baby, I need you to run right back to me … More specifically, Kimberly.”
The music could always redeem him even at his lowest public points (like calling early American slavery “a choice” of the enslaved), but the last two years have been filled with distractions.
In 2020, his independent run for president appeared designed to help the incumbent but wasn’t considered serious on any level, received as another confounding stunt. (Just in today’s news, a Ye associate, Trevian Kutti, is accused of threatening a Georgia poll worker with arrest if she wouldn’t falsely confess to voter fraud.) The public drama continues, though it’s also notable that in their strange Oval Office meeting in 2018, Kanye at least lobbied then-President Trump for a commutation of Hoover’s federal sentence.
Drake’s set was less generous with long-established hits, and leaned on highlights from his sixth studio album, “Certified Lover Boy,” yet another U.S. No. 1 album. But when Ye left the stage, the flavor of the night shifted into Drake’s direction, with songs less tortured, more romantic, and a delivery soothing as often as he was combative.
Nearly a decade younger than Ye, the Canadian rapper has enjoyed many multi-platinum successes, if less consistent critical respect. And like Kanye, he’s capable of making his own waves, as he did this month by withdrawing his new album’s Grammy Award nominations for best rap album and best rap performance.
The concert was Drake’s first live appearance since appearing as a guest at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival, which ended in tragedy in Houston when 10 festival-goers were killed in a crowd surge. It went unmentioned on Thursday.
After Ye’s “Runaway,” Drake joined him for their duet, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” His set then leaned on newer songs, including the live debuts of “Girls Want Girls,” “In the Bible,” “IMY2” and “What’s Next.”
Considering the years of slights and insults, Drake was notably gracious to his host, calling the night “surreal” and saying of Kanye it was “something I always wanted to do — be onstage with one of my idols while he’s running through one of the best catalogs in music.”