Kanye West wants you to believe: The beloved rapper premiered his much-anticipated “Jesus is King” at The Forum last week
On Wednesday night, brilliant blue lights bathed The Forum and the phrases “Kanye West” and “Jesus is King.” Nearly 10 or 12 thousand people filled the Inglewood venue for the premiere of Kanye West’s ninth studio album and a screening of his first IMAX film, both titled “Jesus is King,” at a free event dubbed “Jesus is King Album & Film Experience.”
Upon arrival, attendees were required to secure their phones in Yondr pouches with locks, allowing people to remain in possession of their phones without accessing them to prevent recording of the unreleased material.
“At first, I didn’t mind the phone cases just because I was like, ‘OK cool, trying to keep people present and whatnot,’ but then I started to get really frustrated and flustered because [of] the fact that I didn’t know what time it was, and there were no clocks in there,” said Pilar Lee, a freshman majoring in journalism.
As hundreds of fans filed onto the floor of The Forum, they made their way through arrangements of tall potted plants while sounds of chirping crickets and running water played overhead. A gargantuan screen towered over the crowd, placed on the far side of the floor from the entrance. This was the first time Kanye incorporated this immersive element into the show, a collaboration with multimedia artist Meg Webster.
Kanye made his appearance near 8:30 p.m., flanked by family members and collaborators alike, to announce that about half the people were still waiting outside — but eventually the house lights went down and the film began.
Directed by Nico Ballesteros, the film featured several short scenes interspersed with verses from the Bible on-screen. “Jesus is King” aimed to capture the Sunday service experience on screen. Dozens of choir singers wearing matching uniforms of oversized, chestnut-colored T-shirts and sweatpants poured their souls into performances of gospel hymns. The film was enigmatic.
One stunning scene featured the camera looking up through a circular skylight, as one of the choir members vigorously conducted his congregation above it. The final shot was of a man holding a child, the image detailed enough to make out the cracks in his skin and the little wisps of hair on the baby’s head.
The film ran for half an hour. Then, armed with just his laptop, a microphone and a few members of his security detail, Ye geared up to play the album — church was almost in session.
He descended into the crowd and set up atop a small platform near the right side of the screen, standing upon one of the patches of grass. Fans swarmed toward the pseudo-stage, stopping at nothing to get a better view. Many attendees balanced precariously on the potted plants, while others pushed together like sardines to get as close as possible.
“It had a whole different energy versus if you were at a concert ’cause I think you’re expecting them to perform, but with this, you were just experiencing it with him, so it was really cool,” Lee said. “He just seemed very down-to-earth, like, ‘Yeah, this is cool; this is cool. Yeah, I’m vibing with you.’ The energy in the room was great. I really enjoyed it.”
While West has incorporated religion in his music since his first studio album, “The College Dropout,” with his early hit “Jesus Walks,” this album is by far his most explicitly religious to date. The sonic hallmark of “Jesus is King,” which will likely come as no surprise given the album’s title, is its gospel overtones.
This album is rife with choir vocals and interpolations of church hymns, while scant with the rap features that have typically colored his previous releases. He departs from the line of the fractured experimental production he was pursuing with “Yeezus,” “The Life of Pablo” and “ye,” while retaining the grandiosity found in “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Lyrically, Kanye raps extensively about his newfound faith, referencing specific passages of scripture. He also continues his investigation of fame, at one point spitting, “I was looking at the ‘Gram and I don’t even like likes / I was screaming at my Dad, he told me, ‘It ain’t Christ-like’” on “Follow God.”
Although this was the first time West played the final version of the album in public, many of the fans were familiar with the music and sang along to tracks that had been leaked weeks before. This didn’t seem to bother the artist, who smiled from ear to ear when people sang along to tracks like “Closed On Sunday,” in which he references Chick-fil-A and “Use This Gospel,” the Clipse- and Kenny G-assisted track featured prominently in the film’s closing sequence, marked by its anthemic “oh, oh, oh” melody.
“When he was doing his leaked songs, and I knew the lyrics from the leaked songs and the other people didn’t, I felt like I was more connected,” said Ben Lasky, a freshman majoring in music industry.
During his performance, West debuted a prototype for a new technology that he told the crowd he’s wanted to make since “Yeezus,” which released in 2013. He controlled the audio with a pocket-sized remote that allowed him to manipulate, in real time, volume and effect levels for individual stems, or discrete groups of audio tracks such as vocals or drums. He attempted to alter the songs in response to the audience’s reaction, creating a dynamic, reflexive experience.
However, the device seemed to still have a few kinks to work out. Many songs, most notably “Follow God,” were stopped in the middle, only to restart from the beginning several times, disrupting the seamlessness of the listening experience.
“The transitions were my only issue,” said Rahul Manwani, a freshman majoring in animation who attended the event. “They were very abrasive and abrupt. That’s his whole thing — he’s very volatile and in and out of pockets of music. He would go from an 808 trap beat, rapping hard, to him, Ty Dolla $ign and The-Dream and a whole choir harmonizing. It was a bit jarring at times, but the gospel sections were gorgeous, they really hit.”