Kanye West’s Coachella Sunday Service: Tears, Water, and DMX

Coachella’s second weekend may have been rich with performances from some of the music industry’s biggest names, but no other event garnered as much wide-eyed curiosity as Kanye West’s “Sunday Service”. An extension and validation of all the Sunday Service sessions that have been drip-fed to us over the past few months, portraying an invigorated West completely submerged in the gospel inflections that have elevated his music since the very beginning.

A few hours in length, Kanye’s Sunday Service was beamed across the world just a few hours ago, taking place across a sprawling section of the site’s campground with West perched on a small mound with an enormous choir of musicians that included Kid Cudi, Masego, FKJ, Ty Dolla $ign and Teyana Taylor, as well as countless vocalists and instrumentalists.

Carving out his very own Coachella crop circle, Kanye and co stood surrounded by a crowd of tens of thousands of fans and Instagram influencers, bearing witness to what was surely one of the most experimental and unconventional moments in Coachella history.

Much like Kanye’s previous conceptual performances, this was a curious beast from the very beginning.

‘Ye stood silently as the entire band slowly formed a funk medley introduction, bringing in beautiful recreations of classics like “Do I Do” by Stevie Wonder, “Outstanding” by The Gap Band, and “Summer Madness” by Kool & The Gang. If the introduction was meant to show off the magnificent scale of the band and what they were capable of, Kanye succeeded as a director.

And it was very much Kanye as a director for most of this performance. Where many were expecting this to be a full-blown Kanye concert, what we were given instead was a genuine and heartfelt display of how powerful gospel music can be when it’s amplified in an open field.

Hundreds – it was hard to tell from the live stream, where the screen was mostly black save for a small circular peep-hole lens – of dancers and singers joyously moved as one behind, between and in front of the crowd. They all looked like blueberries (or Teletubbies – the setting did look the part after all) with their oversized faded purple shirts, mirroring the colour of Kanye’s hair as the man himself just stood there casually tinkering on the keys, but mostly just surveying the scene with a large grin.

A half-formed version of “Ultralight Beam” signalled the segue from appetiser to main, although it would still be a long time before Kanye’s presence was truly felt.

The heavy lifting was given over to the commanding choir and their spirited harmonises, sprung with a palpable conviction that was surely felt through the live stream.

Though hopes of a Kanye concert crashed as fast as the choir’s remarkably energetic drummers, it wasn’t hard to truly give yourself over to the infectious positivity of such a celebratory gospel performance.

Covers of Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder was interspersed throughout the set, some given clearer focus than others, while occasionally the familiar form of a Kanye song would charge through and electrify the set. “Father Stretch My Hands” came early, although it largely fell flat with Cudi’s waning and unsure vocals, which could have been credited to mic issues.

“POWER” and “Otis” followed not too far behind, the former requiring a crowd-wide clap-a-long while the latter was treated with precision and remained one of the set’s finest moments. Still, Kanye wouldn’t even touch the microphone, instead opting to blend in with his band and mostly fiddle with the keys.

The first truly great moment came with “Never Would Have Made It”, Teyana Taylor taking the reigns to perform the K.T.S.E highlight and really show off what a powerhouse vocalist she can be.

“Fade” emerged with lively synths shortly after, although vocals were kept strictly to the choir, accentuating the key sample which took a much more prominent role than on the song’s recorded version. It was one of the few moments where the crowd suddenly rose to their feet and danced – it was entertaining watching everyone try to figure out how to dance to gospel music.

The other was “Lift Yourself”, which similarly put a bigger focus on the vocal sample given the choir was there to really do it justice. Hilariously, several kids were given the microphone to give their own playful takes on Kanye’s infamous “poppity scoop” troll verse.

It was only after this moment that Kanye finally picked up the mic, clearing his hoarse voice for a surprising rendition of “All Falls Down”, tripping at the start in a feeble attempt at calibrating the rhythm with his choir, but quickly recovering and busting out both verses with aplomb. It was clear that Kanye wasn’t exactly at his best vocally, but it was still enough to make this a clear highlight.

Playing on a lower key, new song “Water” gave Kanye a chance to sing in a smoother tone, even showing off an improved falsetto which lasted all but a few seconds before the awkward hoarseness returned. The song is apparently an official track that will no doubt be released in the coming days, and might just be the first single from the anticipated Yeezus follow-up, Yhandi.

“We are 90% water”, Kanye sang, as he lambasted chlorine and cursed its very existence, threatening to remove all traces of the chemical element from “conversation” so that we are left with only pure water. As far as songs earnestly dedicated to the virtues of H20, “Water” sounds like a hit; at the very least, a meme.

A reprise of “Ultralight Beam” signalled a rush towards the end, with Chance the Rapper performing his show-stopping verse acapella before a surprise appearance by none other than the legendary DMX. Dark Man added his own touch to Kanye’s beloved The Life of Pablo intro, tracing his roots with a powerful prayer delivered with X’s trademark gusto, so powerful that Kanye very clearly broke down in tears before being comforted by friends and family, including Kid Cudi.

The haunting chants of “Jesus Walks” rang out through the field to signal the set’s close, bringing Kanye to his knees as he rapped the classic verses despite his voice very obviously breaking.

A cover of The Clark Sisters and a second performance of “Fade” closed out the entire performance, which seemed to bring energy back to West who rose from his knees with an enormous smile on his face.

At that point the live stream faded out.

The performance may have not been perfect, and West was oddly off-form and seemingly exhausted for such a monumental moment in his career. Though, the often unfairly criticised artist (and genuine creative genius) can rest easy knowing that this beautiful concept was a very welcome interruption to the standard Coachella format. If anything, it furthered the love and light Kanye has used to glue albums like The College Dropout and Late Registration, immediately shunning any doubts that the “old Kanye” has faded from memory.

Though I don’t think this performance was meant to be perfect. Kanye didn’t look overly concerned with how things went during the set, only that the vision of bringing something beautiful to Coachella was in-tact, and understood. This was about the power gospel has bought to “black music”, and how funk, jazz, soul, R&B and hip hop is indebted to the religious tones that underpin these samples and melodies. It was about bringing harmony and the joy of free-spirited creativity to a platform like Coachella, and hopefully the crowd understood that.

This review is based off a live stream.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy-Editor-At-Large of the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.