The circular ring of screens at the top of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta went dark at 9.42pm on Thursday. The crowd released a brief, approving cheer at the sign of progress, only to realise that the show had still not begun. “It’s Kanye West,” said Christopher Hicks, a music executive living in Atlanta who attended the listening party with his teenage son, before the music began to play. “You’ve got to expect chaos.”
Ten minutes later, the speakers started blasting music at an uncomfortable volume as the song Come to Life appeared to start playing halfway through. The giant listening party for Donda, West’s long-awaited 10th studio album, had finally begun, almost two hours late. West emerged from a tunnel wearing a puffy red jacket, matching leather trousers and orange shoes. After raising his arm to greet the crowd, he walked to the centre of the white-clothed floor where he mostly stood still, occasionally swaying, stumbling or dropping to his knees in a prayer-like posture, illuminated by a shape-shifting spotlight.
Through the blasting audio came West’s recorded voice, trading bars with Pusha T, a frequent collaborator. As the night went on, it would become clear that Come to Life was one of the closest songs to completion on Donda, named for West’s late mother; most other songs were played in snippet or obvious demo form. The listening party was expected to herald the album’s release on Friday. As of publication, it has not materialised. Theophilus London, one of West’s collaborators, has said that West is finishing verses and adding new guest features to a tracklist that already includes Travis Scott, Playboi Carti and a surprise feature from Jay-Z that suggests a rapprochement between the two rappers.
Scattershot album releases represent the tip of West’s unpredictable actions in recent years, among them endorsing Donald Trump, a failed presidential bid and off-colour remarks about his family. The listening party, announced on Pusha T’s Instagram account on 19 Julie, set off a scramble for tickets originally priced at $20 en $50, which many assumed would sell out quickly. In reality, access to the show was still available as late as Thursday morning. West donated 5,000 tickets to the Atlanta University Center Consortium, which includes heralded HBCUs Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. Local restaurateur Pinky Cole gave away 1,000 tickets. The stadium was by no means full.
West’s actual concert performances are conceptual and innovative: on the 2016 Saint Pablo tour, he performed on a floating platform suspended over the crowd. At the Donda event, the violently loud beginnings served as a harbinger for an uncomfortable, disconnected and mostly low-energy evening of music. West did not address the crowd or even have a microphone. From what could be heard through the noise, much of the music felt inspired by gospel, with Auto-Tuned vocal moans weaving through church organs, atmospheric soundscapes and minimalistic production – drum tracks were conspicuously absent. The pared-back sound brought focus to the music’s repetitive features, such as the refrain “We gonna be OK” of the song 24.
There was a notably positive reaction to the material that seemed destined to win in Atlanta, the home of trap music: Hurricane features the Kenyan American pop rapper KayCyy and local superstar Lil Baby, whose voice caused visible bouncing inside the stadium. Praise God, a trappy bounce track that echoed the sound of Atlanta’s Migos and featured Travis Scott and Baby Keem, offered staccato lyrics like: “I been had the bop / The devil my opp.”
Otherwise, there was limited enthusiasm for the music. Clearly losing patience, some audience members attempted a chant of “Say something” as West stood motionless and stared out into the gathering. When he wasn’t standing perfectly still, he solemnly paced the floor, appearing trapped inside an illuminated prison or walking over projected images, including an anime clip of a child jumping backward from a high mountain perch, spliced with footage of an astronaut falling back to Earth.
He repeatedly dropped to his knees, suggesting his search for understanding, if not forgiveness – perhaps from God, his late mother, his fans, of his estranged Kim Kardashian, in attendance with their four children. Donda continues the overt religiosity of West’s 2019 album, Jesus Is King, and his Sunday Service worship sessions. “He’s done miracles on me,” he intones in the snippet he played of No Child Left Behind. The ring of video screens above the floor often went white, producing a literal halo effect. West paced alone on the white floor, misted by fog that created an almost heavenly effect, but which also obscured the view of West for anyone watching beyond the lowest stalls.
The performance, if it could be called that, felt like a man returning to sacred ground. Donda features quotes from his late mother, among them: “We came from somewhere. Not just the wombs of our mothers.” West was born in Atlanta and moved with Donda to Chicago, aged three, after his parents’ divorce. The death of his mother in 2007 was clearly a point of no return for West. Tonight in Atlanta, he seemed to be searching for a sign – whether from the crowd, his mother or the creator – that might offer answers.
There were sympathetic fans in the crowd. Champ Heaggans, a screenwriter living in Atlanta, has attended every West tour since 2008’s Glow in the Dark run. “He knows the vibe and he knows he’s gotta win the hearts of the Black people back,” Heaggans said. “This is a full-circle moment.”