Mano Sundaresan needs Jesus like Kathie Lee needed Regis.
“This section is VIP. Are you guys VIP?”
I hear the voice from the row behind me. It’s two scrawny white teenagers in pastel colorblocked tees. My plus-1 and I flash our neon green wristbands. As we settle into our seats in the GW auditorium, we overhear the teenagers chatter with a dude in a towering Vivienne Westwood hat straight out of Pharrell’s 2014 wardrobe.
“How do y’all know Kanye?” he asks.
“We work for him,” the teens reply.
Pharrell-hat guy mumbles something about being in real estate, then starts probing them about what they do.
“I’m an assistant editor on the IMAX movie,” one of them says. His first Kanye album was Graduation.
The other: “I was accepted for his internship. I helped shoot too.” He’d never heard a Kanye album before being hired.
The two teens go to high school together in Cody, Wyoming. Last week, after they got out of their afterschool clubs, they went to Kanye’s studio to kid-test music that’s presumably on his new album we’re about to hear, Jesus Is King.
Pharrell-hat guy keeps talking to them. He tells them he wants to learn how to Create Content at a Higher Level. This is my cue to turn away and stare back at the massive screen, which is dark and dotted with flashing specks of green. Some real art shit.
Suddenly, the screen lights up, awash with the brighest colors. It’s the sky-blue Windows homescreen and everyone is going nuts. I reach for my pocket to grab my phone to record but then remember that it’s sealed up in a magnetized case. Kanye event rules. I look around and see at least five phones out recording.
With no phones, time moves slower and every external stimulus is a rush. Everyone is attentive, heads darting around in unison towards non-events like the gigantic Windows homescreen and false alarms of Ye entering the building and Pharrell-hat guy yelling “I SEE YOU PUSH” every now and then.
Finally, at 3:00 p.m., an hour after this Event or Experience or whatever was supposed to start, Kanye walks through the right entrance of the auditorium, flanked by Kim Kardashian, Pusha T, his team, and his kids. Mic in hand, he announces that the album Jesus Is King is now supposed to drop October 25, introduces the first thing — a short documentary — and sits down in the front row with his people.
The green dots still percolate across the screen as the first shots of Kanye pacing around Japanese architecture appear, and I’m now pretty sure that this is a malfunction and not some real art shit. Kanye’s muffled, boomy voice blares over shots of him among giraffes, then in a crater, then outside his sun-bleached domes in Calabasas. He sits on top of two donut-shaped pillows and claims that this could revolutionize chairs. Due to the poor audio quality, not a whole lot registers for me in this film, but it seems to be about how Kanye’s Christian awakening has influenced his design choices. At one point, he says something about wanting a dome to have 13 rooms to symbolize the 12 Apostles plus Jesus. Artist James Turrell and his magnificent beard pop up here and there.
The one image that hasn’t slipped my mind is of Sheck Wes in a powder blue jumpsuit with some blinding Yeezy Crocs on.
Next is the IMAX movie Jesus Is King. At this point, Kanye is well-aware of the screen malfunction. “You’re gonna watch it with green dots,” he says. This one’s actually pretty cool. It’s largely shot in James Turrell’s light-based art installation in Arizona’s Roden Crater and seems influenced by the simply-rendered maximalism of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kanye’s choir enters the crater singing a Christianized rendition of “Lost In The World,” then performs several other gospel songs, a perfect circle of sky above them.
There are some seriously beautiful shots. There’s this one where the camera faces up at the conductor towards the sky, and he’s dominating the frame, thrusting and twisting his body to warm organ and vocal harmonies. Another highlight is Kanye performing “Street Lights” accompanied by just keys, organ, and some spare backing vocals. The camera orbits around the circumference of the crater as he sings rewritten lyrics: “I know my destination, God took me there.” It’s kind of heartfelt and moving.
Finally, the album. Kanye introduces it by reading some passages from the King James Bible (his favorite version because it “says Ye all the time”) then plays the first song “Selah,” a flurry of Hallelujahs and tribal drums. Next is “Closed on Sunday,” the clear fan favorite, off the strength of its bizarre chorus: “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A.”
The songs keep going and it’s all kind of fine and unspectacular. “Follow God” sounds like a Daytona throwaway, “On God” is a decent Pierre Bourne banger with political commentary about the 13th Amendment. “This is a song we worked on last night,” Kanye says before playing a soulful cut full of boomy, compressed drums and earsplitting Hallelujahs that sounds massively unfinished. He goes on to play just the sample of some song that he hasn’t finished yet.
Album closer “Use This Gospel” repurposes the Yandhi leak “Chakras” into a gospel cut featuring Clipse (including a particularly inspired No Malice) and an incredibly placed Kenny G solo. As he’s wailing into his final crescendoing run, the beat drops with a force unlike anything else on this project. It’s loud and epic and overwrought, a slice of that delectable melodrama that is definitely overstaying its welcome but it’s ok because you look up and see Kanye bouncing around with Pusha T like it’s the 2010 VMAs and in this wink of a moment, in that mini-world between your ears, Kanye West is the Event, the Experience, the biggest star on the planet, and the rules suddenly don’t matter and for some confounding reason you feel happy for the guy. And that rare glimmer of something transcendent is actually teasing out the problem here.
Jesus Is King, in its iteration that I listened to, is boring. It’s PG and squeaky-clean and, for all its spiritual fervor, doesn’t sound inspired. It’s safe and predictable, treading the same water Kanye’s languished in since The Life Of Pablo. There isn’t a “Runaway” or “Real Friends” or even a “Ghost Town” on this thing. It’s further proof that Kanye’s self-made news cycle can only take him so far, that the music (which hasn’t been interesting since 2016) still needs to deliver.
The album’s done and the Experience is over. Influencers in Amiri Jeans and Balenciagas alongside students in flannel and Killshots flood out of the auditorium. I can feel the atmosphere loosening up, but not before one final “I SEE YOU PUSH” from Pharrell-hat guy. I never quite figure out how he ended up in VIP.