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Kanye West mixes gospel classics with eclectic catalog at second Sunday Service in Chicago

Kanye West played a more subdued role in his second hometown Sunday Service, allowing The Samples — his massive gospel choir directed by singer Jason White — to lead concertgoers through a mix of gospel, hip-hop, house and other genres.

Kanye West and the Sunday Service Choir perform Sunday at the Credit Union 1 Arena during the NBA All-Star Game weekend.
Kanye West and the Sunday Service Choir perform Sunday at the Credit Union 1 Arena during the NBA All-Star Game weekend.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Kanye West presented his eclectic Sunday Service, a two-hour concert mixing gospel music classics with the Chicago-born rapper’s catalog of genre-bending hits, to a crowd of nearly 10,000 ecstatic fans at UIC’s Credit Union 1 Arena.

West played a more subdued role in the show, allowing The Samples — his massive gospel choir directed by singer Jason White — to take most of the spotlight. They congregated in a large circle at the arena’s center, singing gospel praises mixed with a selection of West’s hits for an hour before the rapper even joined them onstage.

“People who came for a Kanye concert left with a Jesus concert,” said Shawna Woodruff, of North Lawndale. “The focus was on the choir and the words they preached. I didn’t expect that from Kanye and really appreciated the message.”

Tickets for Sunday’s show quickly sold out Wednesday after West announced he was bringing the soulful concert series to Chicago’s NBA All-Star Weekend. It was West’s second Sunday Service in his hometown after previously bringing the show, along with special guest Chance the Rapper, to Northerly Island last September.

White stood in the middle of the two-tiered stage, a large mound of what appeared to be dirt in the middle of the arena. He directed the choir as it reimagined the rapper’s catalog by remixing his old hits with gospel-themed lyrics or mashing them with gospel classics like “Perfect Praise (How Excellent)” by Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago.

Fans danced, praised and sang along as The Samples grooved through a blend of gospel, hip-hop, house and just about every other genre found in West’s wide-ranging catalog. At one point, a lively mashup of the choir’s “Follow Me - Faith,” with West’s Chicago house music-inspired “Fade,” created an entryway for fans of the rapper to experience the gospel.

West joined the choir halfway through the show, performing a version of his early hit “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” that had been remixed with gospel-themed music.

“I loved how he revisited his older music from a gospel perspective,” Woodruff said.

Her younger sister, Alexis James, is a member of The Samples. Woodruff came out to the service to finally see her perform.

“Two years ago my sister took a risk and quit her job to pursue music in Los Angeles, and she fell into The Samples,” Woodruff said. “I’m proud of her for being part of something bigger than her — bigger than Kanye. They’re spreading a message of unity to people who might never have listened to gospel.”

West let his music do most of the talking during the show, only addressing the crowd during his closing performance of “Jesus Walks” to reflect on his musical pivot to gospel.

“The Devil’s greatest trick is taking all the tricks, all the sauce, all the wealth and fire beats and saying ‘if the beat is fire, you’ve gotta work for me now. You can’t mention Jesus on there, or that’s going to be corny,’” West said. “Then, [‘Jesus is King’] came out and became number one. I ain’t afraid no more.”

“I ain’t afraid no more,” the crowd sang back in harmony with The Samples.

For Tyler Chlapecka, a 28-year-old from Wicker Park and lifelong Kanye West fan, the Sunday Service was a daylong affair. He was one of hundreds who lined up outside streetgear store Leaders 1345, located at 1152 W. Madison St. in the West Loop, to purchase a pair of the Yeezy QNTM, West’s newest sneakers.

He brought his newly purchased kicks to the Sunday Service, taking them out of the box to admire them before the show began.

“It’s been an inspirational day,” Chlapecka said. “Kanye’s music is universal. Some saw him making gospel as a complete 180, but when you listen to ‘Jesus Walks,’ you see this has been his message all along.”