It all started with the date: February 22, 2022. Apparently, Kanye West is a big fan of numerology — or at least, saw some significance in the rarity of the date he chose to target for the release of his new album, Donda 2. From there, it seemed he did everything he could to enhance the spectacle of this one-of-a-kind calendar occurrence. He announced that, instead of dropping his album to DSPs, it would only be available via his $200 stem player device. He announced another big stadium concert, this time in Miami, Florida, to showcase the album. Of course, the question of whether the album would be ready by the date in question loomed large over the proceedings, and as much as an hour in, fans watching the livestream via Twitch or the stem player website wondered whether even the songs he performed were finished.
The concert picked up where the last one for the original Donda left off, with a replica of his mother’s house going up in flames, and like the previous concerts, this one was a hybrid, somewhere between performance art and listening session. Again, Kanye stood in the center of the stadium, surrounded by a huge ensemble of models or dancers (although, they didn’t really “dance” per se), this time clad in all-black with those bizarre galoshes he’s taken to wearing of late. The floor of the stadium was flooded. The light was dim and moody. He was joined once again by a variety of guests, including Jack Harlow, Migos, Playboi Carti, and someone Twitter informs me is named Burberry Erry (a Google search expands this to Erik Arteaga, a skater and “style influencer” who was apparently a beneficiary of the late Virgil Abloh). The songs themselves harped on his ongoing divorce from Kim Kardashian and the struggles of co-parenting (some, at least, self-inflicted, as we saw from his Instagram activity earlier this month).
On Twitter, a big point of discussion was the ongoing sound issue that caused up to a second of delay between the video and audio. While some delay is usually to be expected in big room situations like this — fans even debated whether Dr. Dre actually played the piano during his Super Bowl halftime show performance — this was something else altogether. It’s hard to tell how much was due to the livestream and how much was due to in-arena sound troubles, but when Kanye tossed his mic into the pool of water at the end of the show, many attributed it to his frustrations with the technical glitches. But those were perhaps to be expected — a lot like the lukewarm critical reception of Ye’s last few projects, these snafus could be mitigated if he just spent more time on the craft and less on trying to make a big show.
The big takeaway is the sense that, for better or worse, this is who Kanye is now. The spectacle is paramount to the music, and the music is just an excuse to roll out some new merch or have another art performance that reveals less and less what Kanye wants to say about the world. Instead, Kanye wants us to know what he thinks about the world in relation to himself, which is to say that he feels very slighted and put upon and persecuted because everyone else should be doing things his way. It’s hard to even argue with him because he’s got a stadium full of sycopha — ahem — fans who are willing to spend all those hard-earned Gap checks on anything and everything he does.
It’s impossible to tell whether Donda 2 even lives up to its predecessor because so much of the playback in Miami centered around stuff he’d already released and done in the last listening session. It wasn’t even the more pleasant stuff; what was the point of bringing back Marilyn Manson to once again stand beside him as “Jail” played, other than trying to recapture some of the tasteless shock value of the first time he brought out the accused rapist? The new stuff sounded mostly like the aimless, self-important noodling on the last one, with the exception of a handful of guest appearances from the likes of Migos, Fivio Foreign, and others, who sounded as revitalized as Kanye did lost.
If it sounds like I’m just kicking the man while he’s down — insomuch as someone who just sold out a stadium could be considered “down” — nearly every Twitter comment during the concert noted how he’d forgotten or never finished entire verses. Of course, because it’s Kanye, there were bright spots — throw Migos on some synthesized horns and magic will happen — but the performance itself felt dreary, maudlin, and sort of grotesque. We watched over the past few years a man muddle through some serious mental health issues, and last night, we were just as complicit as Kanye in valuing spectacle over anything else — even his humanity.
And yet, because it’s Kanye, there’s still the sense that this would all be worth it if the music were as inspired and dazzling and trendsetting and groundbreaking as his old material. He once set the direction for the sound of hip-hop with projects like 808s and Graduation; here, he was reduced to rehashing contemporary sounds. When Kanye and Drake played their Free Larry Hoover concert in Los Angeles last year, Ye lit up the venue with the dynamic hits that helped carve out his reputation as such a musical genius, while Drake let the crowd down with a plodding set full of the gauzy gray production that defined his most recent releases. This time around, it was Kanye who disappointed by doing the very same thing. In LA, Kanye gave us all hope that the Old Kanye was still knocking around somewhere in there; in Miami, though, he showed absolutely no signs that we’d ever see that Kanye again.