Nothing elevates a song quite like a gospel choir. When so many heavenly voices lock into place—the harmonies, power, and precision, all surging forward in a rush—the effect can be transcendent. Kanye West knows this better than anyone. From “Jesus Walks” to “Ultralight Beam,” he has used choirs to emancipate himself from sin as he’s wandered back and forth between God-like self-deification and being, as he once put it, “the guy who believes in God but still likes pussy.” More often than not, this strategy has worked. But at his Sunday Service performance at Coachella yesterday morning, which featured West atop a hillside surrounded by famous collaborators, a small band, and a large group of tunicked singers, no such potency was ever reached, no supernal energy tapped into. Sometimes, the choir seemed as perplexed as the audience often was.
The Coachella set capped off a run of weekly, invite-only Sunday Service performances that Kanye has been holding near his home in Calabasas, California since January. In light of his notoriously self-immolating 2018, these chill prayer parties have registered as atonements, or cleansings. Yet those Coachella attendees and YouTube live streamers hoping to share in the holy spirit on Easter Sunday instead got something that was both light on Kanye and light on miracles.
Watching the set online was particularly distancing—for whatever reason, the whole thing was shot through a pinhole lens, as if the viewer had one eye pressed against the small end of a telescope. Led by keyboardist Philip Cornish, whose credits include R&B stars K. Michelle and Musiq Soulchild, the band began by playing instrumental renditions of songs by Stevie Wonder and the Gap Band for nearly 20 minutes. When Kanye finally arrived, he mostly just stood around with Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, and Ty Dolla $ign. When he did perform, he seemed unrehearsed, despite the fact that many of the songs have been featured at previous Sunday Services. The setlist was lazily stitched together, as if by a Tuesday night DJ. (Chicago house anthem “Brighter Days” into gospel anthem “Brighter Day”? Genius!) Secular songs were reinterpreted as spirituals, segueing in and out of the Kanye catalog, most of which Ye seemed averse to performing, perhaps in fear of lyrics about bleached assholes tainting what was to be a sacred occasion.
Everything felt incomplete. The experience recalled the haphazard passing of the aux at the The Life of Pablo listening party at Madison Square Garden, only less irreverent and fun. Even the choir, under the direction of “American Idol” vocal arranger Jason White, seemed to be taking part in a rehearsal rather than a coordinated production, as an endless string of interludes and vocal warm-ups dragged on. When they did get into a song, such as Kirk Franklin’s “Brighter Day,” they peeled it down by the layer until there was nothing left.
There were moments of profound feeling conjured during the service, though they were mostly reserved for the performers themselves: a giddy Chance the Rapper danced to Kanye’s “Fade,” and Kid Cudi consoled Ye after a DMX prayer brought him to tears. Teyana Taylor, with the sun at her back, performed her song “Never Would Have Made It” as if it were a hymn. But these moments of spiritual uplift were only brief stopgaps for what was otherwise a complete mess.
Meticulousness was once a Kanye West staple. When he headlined Coachella in 2011, he brought synchronized ballerinas and winged models as part of a painstaking vision of pimping at the top of Mount Olympus. Sunday Service at this year’s Coachella bared none of that diligence. These days, he’s content to let discombobulated, at-times-pitchy singers in pajamas wander across a hill and call it gospel.
The breakdown in praise music star Fred Hammond’s “This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made,” which sounded like a stunning, soul-flipping reintroduction to Old Kanye in a two-minute clip that leaked from an early Sunday Service, was reduced to mere filler in this program; the bit played on a loop with none of the spontaneous theatrics of Kanye making beats. Eighty minutes in, when Ye first decided to rap, seemingly on the fly, to the choir’s surprise, he had to take a moment to gather himself after fumbling the lyrics to “All Falls Down.” Things that should’ve been easily executed for style points, including suites of songs he’s been tinkering with his entire career, felt far from his grasp as the service fell apart. He obviously wanted the choir to be at the center, but without Kanye playing God, there was no focus.
Those who were willing to endure the two-hour show until the end were rewarded with a new song called “Water,” performed with ye collaborator Ant Clemons. The would-be hymnal featured absurd lines like, “Take the chlorine out of conversation/I don’t like these perfect discussions/But we’re made up of 90 percent water.” The song, like the entire event, like a baptism, was an appeal to be purified. But even in his smallest bids for rebirth and perfection, Kanye still couldn’t get it quite right—only 60 percent of the adult human body is made up of water. But there is something else that’s over 90 percent water: a tomato.