Some bands have listening parties for their new albums at a record store or the watering hole where they got their start. But Kanye West rented out Chicago’s Soldier Field, hired fabricators to build a to-scale model of his South Shore childhood home in the middle of the stadium, and invited 38,000 people to witness the “experience.”
Thursday night’s extravaganza created buzz from the minute its coming was announced just eight days ago, complete with relaxed COVID-19 safety restrictions requiring no proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results (1,500 doses of the vaccine were available on-site for attendees seeking a convenient vax site).
Chicago’s “Donda Album Experience” followed two stadium listening events in Atlanta, and is presumed to be the final live preamble to the release of Kanye’s upcoming 10th studio album named, for his late mother.
Anticipation over “Donda” has been swirling for more than a year and there were rumors that Kanye, or “Ye” as he officially may soon be known, was set to finally drop the album at midnight in conjunction with his massive homecoming event. That of course didn’t happen. (September 3 is allegedly the new date.)
By now we should be used to the fact that delays and surprises are just part of Kanye’s M.O. It was much the same at Soldier Field on Thursday night as the rapper kept the audience waiting nearly two hours past his advertised 9 p.m. start time with no opener nor a trace of background music to fill the air. This afforded the crowd two hours to just stare at the “house” in the center of the field, begging the questions: How did it have running electricity? What demise would it meet after the show? Was there maybe some kind of family dinner going on inside with Kanye’s kids and soon-to-be-ex-wife Kim Kardashian in attendance?
In truth, the re-creation was a breathtaking marvel and one of the most impressive props used in a concert in recent memory. If only Kanye had interacted with it a bit more rather than relegating himself to the front porch with some questionable guest company, it might have had more purpose. The setup also completely forgot about the fans in the “backyard” who basically watched the entire event on the stadium’s sideline screens that carried a video feed formatted like CNN Breaking News with a series of Bible verses acting as story headlines.
Once Kanye and his entourage did emerge — at 10:49 p.m. — it was a nonstop affair that began with a montage of black-and-white video featuring Donda West, her name repeated in monotone, and then quickly devolving into a chaotic mock crime scene that was hard to turn away from over the next 90 minutes.
Kanye, disguised most of the night in a full face mask as his arms gyrated to the beats of tracks like “I Know God Breathed On This,” looked like a villain lording over Gotham. In the setup, he and his cronies — a rather distasteful and controversial crew that included Marilyn Manson and DaBaby — were surrounded as a cavalry of dancers dressed in SWAT gear and a lineup of trucks worthy of a monster rally, continuously circling the perimeter of the house. It was rife with the chaos and controversy that Kanye likes to invoke, including a heavy play on the religious themes that have long been his muse.
Truth be told, the fabricated childhood home resembled a church, with a beaming cross on top and, early on, a crew of dark-cloaked “clergy” were seen lighting candles one by one on the lawn that burned out by the time the tardy Kanye got on stage. In this instance, the Jesus cult vibe of his Sunday Service gatherings was replaced with more sacrilegious fodder, with Kanye inviting the Antichrist Superstar himself. That may have been a cool look in 1996 when Marilyn Manson was the poster boy for Satanic panic. But in 2021, with Manson facing allegations that now include sexual assault and abuse against women, it was crass. Add in the case of DaBaby — recently dropped from a string of events including Lollapalooza amid homophobic remarks — it’s clear Kanye was going for the moral jugular.
Whether it was Kanye’s embedded commentary on cancel culture or perhaps just his own version of shock rock, clearly it all worked, as those guest appearances will likely make more headlines than the music. So did the incendiary final five minutes of the show when Kanye wrapped up the affair by being set on fire (safely) before recreating his nuptials with Kardashian herself strutting down the field in a wedding dress to the evening’s final song, “No Child Left Behind.” It’s one of the more promising tracks from the upcoming album that Kanye continues to tinker with and reportedly will include guest stars The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Roddy Rich, and DaBaby who now looks to have taken Jay-Z’s guest spot on “Donda” track “Jail.”
Though the night offered traces of Kanye’s roots to Chicago and those more innocuous “College Dropout” days, the anticipated homecoming show seemed much more reliant on the excess that too often shrouds his creative prowess and has the airs of a forced marketing ploy.
If he was looking to up the ante and wow a crowd (and maybe make current rival Drake shudder a bit), Kanye for sure accomplished that in a night that was performance art on a scale we’ve never really seen before. But there’s also something to be said about creating meaningful replicas, reconnecting with family past and present, and bringing it home to the city he adores so much that he named one of his children after it, that suggests beneath the pomp there is sincere authenticity. If only Kanye could realize it doesn’t always need the next big stunt to make us pay attention.
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.