Back in April, I attended a dress rehearsal of Twilight: Gods, an adaptation of the final opera in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle that was performed throughout a park garage in Millennium Park to audiences that were seated in their cars. A collaboration between Chicago's own Lyric Opera and the Michigan Opera Theatre, the production was a somewhat bare bones interpretation of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, using minimalistic sets, video projections, a sea of twinkling candles and classic cars to efficiently tell its tragic tale (you can request a link to watch a recording of the opera via the Lyric Opera's website).
I was reminded of Twilight: Gods striking field of candles when I arrived at Kanye West's latest Donda listening event at Soldier Field, immediately taking note of the flickering flames (and hooded figures) surrounding the replica of West's childhood South Shore home that has been the subject of numerous aerial photos over the past week. Crowned with a neon cross and sitting atop what appeared to be a small mountain of dirt, the facsimile was the visual centerpiece of the listening experience, bathed in thick clouds of artificial fog, and surrounded by what appeared to be riot barricades.
There's an operatic heft to the story behind the house—originally purchased by West's mother Donda in 1981 and later bought by West himself in 2018— and the tragic circumstances of Donda's sudden and untimely passing in 2007 at the age of 58. It's a loss that West has publicly been grappling with ever since, naming one of his companies (and now, an album) after his late mother
When West finally appeared inside Soldier Field shortly before 11pm (about two hours after the advertised start time of 9pm), he exited the front door of the house with two children as his mother's name reverberated through the stadium and images of Donda flashed across the giant screens at either end of the field. With more complex and personal trappings than his past two listening events at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, the evening appeared poised to be an emotional homecoming, set to the bass-heavy strains of his latest record that was pumped through stacks of speakers circling the field. But, with the exception of a few dramatic moments, the night seemed to be another excuse for West to bob his head while showing off the most recent iteration of his album.
West remained stationed on the front porch of the replica house for the majority of the night, joined by a group of people that—likely for the sake of courting controversy—included shock rocker Marilyn Manson, who has recently been accused of rape and sexual assault by several women. Soon after West appeared, a procession of dancers dressed in riot gear (emblazoned with the name "Donda") began marching onto the field, accompanied by a fleet of black SUVs, pickup trucks and sprinter vans. The dancers and vehicles spent the rest of the evening circling the recreation of West's house, reminding me of the gridlocked traffic around Soldier Field (I took a 90-minute bus ride from Block 37 to the stadium) and the hordes that formed in front of the tables selling official Donda merch in Soldier Field. Meanwhile, the jumbotrons showed video of West and his entourage overlaid with news chyrons listing Bible verses, giving the impression of a standoff between the artist and the police.
Of course, the whole production was merely a backdrop to the latest version of West's tenth studio album Donda, which still hasn't been released outside of these listening events. That hasn't stopped fans from becoming intimately familiar with the songs—attendees seated around me seemed to know the lyrics to most of the tracks played throughout the evening, often singing along and pumping their fists when they recognized a hook or sample. While there are elements of the gospel-influenced sound that West embraced on his previous record Jesus is King, the new collection of songs embraces contemporary hip-hop, with a few moments that evoked the distorted rhythms and synths of Yeezus. Highlights of the night included the purported lead single "Hurricane" (featuring a hook from the Weeknd) and a propulsive track called "Off the Grid" that included verses from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign. There was also a track that inexplicably sampled the nonsensical Globglogabgalab video that became a meme a few years back.
With dancers clad in black running in circles while a fleet of black cars idled with their headlights on, the scene inside of Soldier Field was surreal and filled with dramatic potential. But in spite of its operatic appearances, West didn't really seem interested in building a narrative or finding ways to relate the events unfolding on the field to the music that was being blasted into the stands. Just like the last two Donda listening events, the Chicago production was an exercise in arresting aesthetics without much thematic substance.
It's a complaint that's been lodged against West's work in the past, and at this point, it seems like a feature (not a bug!) of the experiences he creates. In a New York Times review of West's Nebuchadnezzar opera that was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 2019, Zachary Woolfe observed, "... West was more interested in evoking the trappings of opera — the bombast it represents and the anticipation it could conjure for his potential audience — than in actually shaping this fascinating material into a dramatic form expressed through music."
Things certainly got bombastic as the Donda event reached its conclusion: During the final minutes of the night, West retreated inside the facsimile of his childhood home before a person (probably a stunt double) emerged from the house with their body engulfed in flames (apparently West wanted to set the entire house on fire, but the city wouldn't let him). As the riot gear-clad dancers gathered in a corner of the field, a woman in a wedding dress that looked suspiciously like West's ex-wife Kim Kardashian walked slowly toward the house. On the jumbotron, I watched West meet the woman and lift his mask, revealing his grinning face. And then, suddenly, it was all over.
With its abrupt ending and mostly-uneventful proceedings, West's listening event left me wondering what the point of the entire exercise was, aside from providing something to look at while his album was played and an excuse to sell thousands of T-shirts. But plenty of attendees seemed to embrace the hip-hop superstar's latest spectacle more wholeheartedly. While shuffling out of the stadium, I asked several people what they thought of the show. One young man's response to my query stuck with me: "I haven't come back down to planet Earth yet."
I think I know the feeling that he was describing—I felt what I can only assume was a similar sense of elation and introspection as I exited the parking garage where I witnessed the aforementioned performance of Twilight: Gods earlier this year. But whereas that operatic production left me pondering inequity, death and rebirth, West's Donda event left me wondering if the artist even considered the overarching theme of the night. I had the privilege of attending the event with a comped ticket, but I couldn't help but wonder if folks who spent hundred dollars on tickets to the event felt like it was money well-spent. I hope they had a great time, but if I'd dropped a couple hundred bucks to witness West's latest album roll-out pageant, I think that I would have felt ripped off.