Everyone should’ve known what was happening when they saw the socks. Everyone should’ve taken one look at the socks, turned right around, and tromped back into the Coachella campgrounds. Maybe they could’ve found someone selling coke. Maybe they could’ve happened upon a hungover massage circle, or a phone-charging station. Maybe they could’ve seen a horse. Any of those things would’ve been better uses of their time. The socks were the dead giveaway.
On Sunday morning, Kanye West performed at Coachella. Sort of. Basically. Originally, Kanye West was supposed to headline Coachella. And then he dropped out, reportedly because West wanted the Coachella people to build him a gigantic dome in the middle of the festival grounds and because the Coachella people didn’t want to have to radically rethink their whole port-a-potty situation. But on the second Coachella weekend, West ended up performing anyway — earlyish in the morning, on Easter Sunday, while standing atop a makeshift sod-covered mound that the Coachella people had built for him.
This was the first semi-public version of the Sunday Services, a thing that West has been doing lately. At invite-only, celeb-heavy gatherings near his Calabasas home, West has been conducting these vaguely religious parties where he chops up gospel songs and runs back whatever Jesus-themed song-bites he can find in his catalog, while backed by gospel choirs. Videos of those services have been circulating online — West forces guests to sign non-disclosure agreements but also encourages them to post videos — and they generally look like fun. West seems refreshed and cogent and excited about music. We want him to be those things. We might want him to be those things so badly that we’re willing to forgive West his ghastly-ass 2018, with its halfhearted album blitz and its White House visit and its indefensible statements about slavery and its general frantic need for attention. But while videos from those sessions might give us brief good-feeling endorphin rushes, we should also stop for a second to consider the absurd spectacle of invite-only VIP worship. And we should think about what that augurs for West.
The socks showed exactly what that meant. West had a tent at Coachella that sold exclusive merch, and the lines for that tent reportedly got crazy hours before his performance began. West sold $225 crewnecks that said “holy spirit.” He sold $75 T-shirts that said “trust God.” And he sold $50 socks. There were two sock options. One pair said “church” on one sock and “socks” on the other sock. The other pair said “Jesus” on one sock and “walks” on the other. So: $50 “Jesus walks” socks. That’s what was happening there.
— Def Jam Recordings (@defjam) April 21, 2019
People bought the merch, of course. They bought the socks. West has spent years cultivating a feverishly dedicated fanbase that will pay untold hundreds for his moon-boot-looking sneakers. The prices are a selling point. These clothes are supposed to indicate, to envious onlookers, that you were there for some momentous West-directed occasion, that you got to take part in a rarefied experience. That’s just part of what Kanye West does now.
West’s Coachella set was structured as a spectacle. That was the whole idea. He stood atop this hill, surrounded by these robed singers, and he presented a vision unto the Lord. He played vaguely gospel-inflected songs from other artists. He rapped a couple of his own older songs. He debuted a new song called “Water,” which frankly sounded butt. Kid Cudi and Chance The Rapper and DMX made appearances. The crowd milled around the bottom of this hill and made videos with their phones. Coachella’s cameras beamed a livestream of the performance into the computers of people around the world — everything for some reason visible only through a keyhole-looking circle.
Kanye previews new song called “Water” 🙌🏼🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/QfsCtJ0bc9
— jay (@jescutler) April 21, 2019
Kanye West has always been good at spectacle. I remember watching in disbelief when his Glow In The Dark tour — a show that structured his entire catalog into a narrative about a crashed spaceship — came to New York. This was the man’s first time headlining Madison Square Garden, and he spent it talking to a sentient computer, turning it all into a one-man sci-fi Broadway show. With every successive arena tour, he’s found ways to tweak the entire idea of the arena tour, to bend it to his will. He’s done the same with many of his festival appearances, and his fashion shows, and his album-release publicity stunts. He knows what he’s doing.
Maybe it felt special to be there on that fake hillside in the California desert; I’ve read differing accounts from those who were there. Maybe it was like being invited on one of those private jets to Wyoming, where some part of you knows you’re taking part in something stupid and absurd, but you get swept along in the insanity of it anyway. Maybe it felt magical to hear a choir howling Stevie Wonder’s “As” or Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” or Cajmere’s “Brighter Days (Underground Goodies Mix),” great songs in any context. Maybe it did people’s heart good to see DMX, an embattled figure who only ever knew how to be sincere, up on that mound, rasping out prayers the way he used to do in jammed arenas on the Hard Knock Life tour. But this was not special. This was curdled and ugly and wrong.
Kanye West is one of the greatest artists in rap history. He held onto the center of the genre — to relevance — longer than anyone else, before or since. He reshaped what it meant to be a rap star, and then he reshaped it again. He made a generous handful of straight-up classic albums. And he did all of this while flaunting his own noxious and needy personality. This fantastic feat has won him the undying loyalty of many. I understand that. But Kanye West is also a Trump supporter. He is the guy who said slavery is a choice. He will always be those things. West’s Sunday Services, and especially his Coachella spectacle, are clearly intended to be rehab moves, damage control. They are still mind-boggling feats of ego.
— billboard (@billboard) April 21, 2019
At his worship services, West placed himself at the center, presenting himself as an exalted figure. He fell to his knees, performatively crying. He made humility a part of his look-at-me photo op. He (badly) rapped a couple of songs from College Dropout, maybe to remind the world, or himself, of the version of Kanye West that made that album. But he did it wrong. College Dropout wasn’t great because finally someone was rapping about Jesus. It was great because it was joyous, energetic, inventive, full of contradictions and runt-of-the-litter defiance. If anything “Jesus Walks” itself was the radioactive wound at the center of the album — the praise-God song that was more about praising Kanye West for being publicly willing to praise God. That’s the version of Kanye West we got on Sunday, and it’s probably the version we’ll get going forward.
There is a great deal of speculation that Kanye West has designs upon launching his own church, and that this was a practice run at it. Financially, it might be a good idea. The New Yorker points out that Kris Jenner, West’s mother-in-law, recently founded the California Community Church, which asks worshippers for either $1,000 per month or for 10% of their income. I will never understand how American Christians just skate past what the actual Bible has Jesus saying about rich people — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” — but plenty of American Christians have evidently made that rationalization. Prosperity gospel is a done deal.
And who knows, maybe Kanye West is paying attention. If he can convince people to buy $50 socks, maybe he can also convince enough to pay tithes to his church, where his cult of fans can become a literal cult. But fuck that. This shit is stupid, and it will only get stupider until we all stop buying in.
1. Valee – “You & Me Both”
Valee mutters like five words over the 16-bit version of the Lawrence Of Arabia score, and it’s bewitching. I have no idea how he does it.
2. Your Old Droog – “Smores” (Feat. Lil Ugly Mane & Wiki)
“You been wack since Von Dutch trucker hats.” Please be aware that Your Old Droog has a whole new album, and that it is full of lines like that.
3. Doe Boy – “Walk Down”
Doe Boy came from Cleveland and spent some time on Future’s Freebandz label, and now he’s apparently making fundamentalist West Coast head-knockers. I don’t understand how that works, and you probably don’t either, but you don’t have to understand things to enjoy them.
4. French Montana – “Slide” (Feat. Lil Tjay & Blueface)
French Montana is probably the most mercenary hit-chaser left in a rap climate that has become inhospitable to mercenary hit-chasers. I admire the shamelessness at work here: A song that features French next to two fight-starting next-gen figures who are almost young enough to be his sons. (French Montana is 34. Blueface is 22. Lil Tjay is 17.) But French’s pedestrian flow weirdly works to ground the other two, and the beat is hard, so I guess it works? Shout out to Blueface for (1) rapping on-beat and (2) getting rap-feature money while doing as little work as possible.
5. DJ Paul – “Real Money” (Feat. Beanie Sigel)
If this was 1999, I would’ve kicked my faculty advisor in the neck to hear a DJ Paul/Beanie Sigel collaboration. But it’s 20 years after 1999, so I’m just pleasantly bemused. “Pleasantly bemused” is still a good way to feel, though.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Left "Left at London" at London (@LeftAtLondon) April 23, 2019