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Yeezus Christ Superstar

After spending much of 2018 as a conservative shock jock, Kanye West officially unveiled his new persona at Coachella with Sunday Service, a gospel-heavy quasi-sermon that had an unspoken goal of redemption. Did it work?

After what you could reasonably call the most disastrous 2018 imaginable, Kanye West is suddenly a good guy again and performing gospel standards at Coachella. How was Sunday Service, the quasi-sermon on a hill that began with a processional of people in “church clothes” and ran for nearly three hours? And also: How on earth did we get here? To answer those questions—and decide how much a T-shirt should cost—Micah Peters and Rembert Browne started an email chain.

Micah Peters: Remember how there was a literal Church of Yeezus once? There was a whole religion—Yeezianity—and an attendant religious philosophy called the “Five Pillars.” I’m not kidding. I guess that was the logical end point of our collective fever dream over Kanye West in the mid-2010s, inspired by a larger-than-life figure who was, at the time, matching eyeless, bejeweled Margiela masks with literal straightjackets. Remember the grainy live footage from that 2013 show at Zenith Paris were he stepped out to Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” and launched into Theraflu? We were all so much younger then.

Rembert Browne: It’s funny, because not only do I remember every single thing you just brought up, I think of them all fondly. It’s a beautiful thing, to be so on the record as a Kanye fan. I swear, for years, the only reason I had an HDMI cable to connect my laptop to a television was so I could play the “Runaway” performance from the 2010 MTV VMAs on Vimeo for anyone who would watch. I marveled in the five-plus minutes, from the staging to his live MPC mixing to the devilish red suit. But when it came down to it, it was the end that made it so perfect—the audience chanting “Kanye, Kanye” as he (seemingly) humbly shrugged and bowed. It was his redemption moment, his return to the public consciousness post–Taylor Swift. With that performance, he was back—you wanted to root for him. Right then, I understood his ability to pull us back in. And I didn’t fight it. I almost welcomed the roller coaster of a decade that followed. When the lows would present themselves, it was almost like “Wow, let’s see how Ye gets himself out of this one.” And then he would.

But then there’s 2019, a year following the SS18 collab of MAGA x DONDA. Not here to talk about his politics or his comments—I know neither of us wants to go there—but what is interesting enough to use brain space on: yet another moment in which Kanye wins the public back. With a choir.

Micah, Sunday Service is the thing that’s supposed to get me back on the bandwagon, but I’m fighting the hell out of it. Because black choirs are both gifts from God and iconic tools of misdirection. And guess who knows this? Black-ass Kanye West.

Peters: You remember the first viral Sunday Service clip, right? Nearly five months had passed since he threatened us with Yandhi; about four months since he tried to sell Donald Trump on a hydrogen-powered iPlane and just one and some change since he called into the Goldenvoice offices demanding a dome to perform in at Coachella. And there he was with a giant grin, in a two-point stance, attacking an MPC machine and triggering the same Fred Hammond sample over and over. Swizz Beatz provided the video; Neal Brennan provided the context.

“Kanye does this thing every week called Sunday service,” the Chappelle Show co-creator wrote. “All music. Very little Jesus stuff. 60 person choir. 20 piece band. Gospel songs, his songs, classics. I went last week. It was excellent. Kanye is wildly talented and sweet when he’s not suffering from mental illness.”

That’s honestly all it took to get the image-rehabilitation ball rolling, despite what we know, which is that literally every time Kanye wants you back, he goes back to the church. The wages of cutting Taylor Swift off at the VMAs are G.O.O.D. Fridays. Why are people so eager to believe a corner’s being turned? I mean, he’s one of the most famous people there is, so maybe coming to terms with him and his place in the fabric of popular American culture means coming to terms with popular American culture on a fundamental level, which … sounds exhausting. Kanye West is exhausting.

Browne: You’re right. He can be, especially if you haven’t made your peace with your old thoughts of Kanye West as genius. Or if you still want him to be what you thought he’d become, during the College Dropout through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stretch.

My read on him now: He’s one of the most captivating artists of my lifetime, one dead set on being remembered. For what? Time will tell, but Kanye West will never be forgotten. For the past few months, with the rollout of Sunday Services, I tried my hardest to ignore it, because I feared the worst—one of my greatest loves, gospel music, being turned into a publicity stunt. With every video that’s trickled out, I’ve had an ever-growing eye roll, which only intensified upon learning that he’d be doing this at Coachella.

The combination of a predominantly white Coachella crowd, Kanye-led secular choir cuts, and all of this actually happening on Easter Sunday felt like something nearing blasphemy. Because we’d already started emailing about it, I turned on the live stream Sunday morning. I was pretty disgusted with myself, I can’t lie—an hour earlier I’d gone out to a bodega to buy toilet paper in shorts and a hoodie, walking past black families in glorious pastels, and now I was casting the Coachella YouTube channel on my television, watching a procession of black folk in brown two-piece baggy cheesecloth through a small, GoPro-like circle on the screen.

Almost three hours later, when it ended, let’s just say I was surprised by the proceedings, as well as my reaction. We were texting throughout (thank you for sending me that Prince of Egypt video), but please take me through your feelings, as they corresponded with Kanye’s Baptist church service–length performance.

Peters: We’re both well acquainted with a black religious leader’s capacity to eat up an entire day, so let me be the one to say: As a megachurch Easter memorial, Kanye’s Sunday Service was actually note perfect. From undeniable gospel arrangements of secular songs—“Summer Madness,” “Outstanding,” “Family Feud,” etc.— to the amped-up praise leader stretching the last refrain as far as it’d go, all the way into lunchtime. His mini-sermon had almost no religious parables in it, it was all vague stuff about empowerment and making it through the day-yuh. It was a version of stuff we’ve seen hundreds of times over, but underwritten by Amazon and American Express.

But I feel like I’m not doing justice to its weirdness. Rembert, I’ve been late to every Easter service in my life—has the procession ever lasted that long? Also, the clothes. Pared down with the soft distortion of the fish-eye lens, the spiral choir formations, and all the hopsack … it looked very … Rajneesh-y. How’d the performance grab you? Well enough to drop $225 on a sun-bleached Gildan sweatshirt?

Browne: This event proved to me that I am simultaneously allowed to experience something and to not necessarily care. Kanye had a bunch of people on a hill, dressed like Jesus Christ Superstar, in formation like it was the Coca-Cola hilltop “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial, which was really something that my eyes saw. As for my ears, he had a bunch of musicians who could really play and a bunch of singers who could really sing. I’m not that much of a hater to act as if that wasn’t pleasant for a lazy Sunday morning in the apartment. But, to be honest, it was most enjoyable in the background. As for the star of the show, Kanye spent the majority of the performance away from both the camera and the microphone. And I enjoyed that—it dispelled some of the “Kanye is starting a cult” rhetoric, because it wasn’t as if he was actually giving a sermon.

I was prepared for two hours of secular music, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear his choir sing Fred Hammond, Shirley Caesar, and Kirk Franklin. And it was even more of a surprise to hear a song like “How Excellent,” a hymn that is more than a choir-led song in real black Sunday service—it’s one that the entire church sings. These moments were nice, because I was missing church, and I could sing along.

It was a little odd to hear these songs, though, and then watch the camera pan out to the audience. The shots of mostly white crowds during the hymns reminded me of why I’d been rolling my eyes for so long about Sunday Service. Knowing these songs has always felt uniquely special, both an earned knowledge and a privilege. Sure, there’s nostalgia tied into hearing songs you learned growing up and continue to love—I was constantly reminded of that every time I saw Chance the Rapper belting away—but these songs aren’t just songs. It’s the messages in the lyrics and the emotion that comes through four-part harmonies, but it’s also what you experience by watching the faces of those in the church go through it while they’re being sung. Gospel music, for me, is as much about religion as it is about ancestry and community.

Like I said, the shit sounded nice. And I wasn’t there—maybe I would have felt something more had I been in attendance (to be honest, I’m quite certain it would have made me much angrier). But I’ll cry to certain gospel songs just through my headphones on the subway (or at Subway)—I’m prone to feel things. And even seeing Kanye and many others break down in tears toward the end—I believe those tears and it made me happy for them. Easter is a day to let yourself be overwhelmed with the spirit. But all it reminded me was that I should probably go to a real church soon.

Who knows, maybe that’s his whole plan—let this mid inspire you to go get the real thing. But that’s probably not true—which is why it’s convenient to do this at Coachella, surrounded by adoring fans (and skeptics alike) who are getting Kanye’s Sunday Service as a gateway drug to gospel.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’d love to see him do it in three months at Essence.

Peters: I mean, if only to hear DMX do the benediction again.

Browne: Also: I grew up in Atlanta, intimately around my uncle, who is a good preacher in a city full of megachurch prosperity gospel. I bring that up to say: That Yeezy Szn 3:16 merch table is comically out of pocket and it very much feels in line with “Preachers is pimps too / Gon’ brush your shoulders off.” So you’re very much allowed to hate it, but don’t act like the financial practices of church-related things are all holy.

And if you bought it, that’s just a decision between you, your financial adviser, and your lord.

Peters: Still though, you can’t be 2019 Kanye charging 2014 prices. His antics have depressed his brand value to at least $35 for a T-shirt. I tend to agree with your earlier point though: It was embarrassing, yes, but it was largely fine, and it might even lead me to revisit gospel music I haven’t in some time. I largely went into this expecting to have my skepticism rewarded or destroyed, but ultimately, mercifully, it came and went. And without any new speeches or twists or additions to the ever-growing Tao of Kanye—he barely even performed a full song! For once, he said it was about the vibes, and it actually was.

Sunday Service wasn’t epochal enough as demonstrating blackness in a largely white and corporate space—we already have Homecomingto be that memorable, and on its own, it wasn’t enough to vindicate the egregious missteps Kanye made over the last 20 months or so. And though I’ll be laughing for some time about Kanye going full Walk Hard for this new unreleased track literally titled “Water,” this liturgical outburst doesn’t move the needle for me. ’Twas a dream, sold by an idiot, full of sound and color, signifying nothing. If you need me, I’ll be listening to Rance Allen.