Flanked by an empowering gospel choir, Kanye West stands in front of a sampler with a heartening smile on his face. The scene is the most recent of his ever-more frequent ‘Sunday Services,’ an intimate series of concert-church service hybrids that wholly reimagine the Kanye West live experience as we know it. As the ritualistic vocals continue to swell, the platinum-selling artist beams while contorting Fred Hammond’s “This Is the Day” into unforeseen shapes. Somewhere between a spiritual homecoming and an artistic awakening, he looks content, inspired, happy. Most encouragingly, he resembles our perception of the spectral entity known as “The Old Kanye.”
Ignited by The Life of Pablo, the notion that the man with crate-loads of soul samples who waged an internal tug-of-war between bashfulness and braggadocio is completely divisible from the provocative firebrand of today gained a lot of momentum in recent years. Prompting wistfulness from fans who yearned for the past, “The Old Kanye vs. New Kanye” debate has been a plot device used to understand a man in flux. When he grew outlandish and divided the political aisle, it was a crutch that both sides used to depict a lost “genius.” Through this reductive view, his harshest critics could reaffirm their beliefs while ardent supporters could diminish responsibility from the innovator they’d fell in love with. Yet with the advent of 2019, the chasm between the Ye that first shook the fabric of popular music and the 41-year-old father of three looks far more negligible.
As an early indicator, you’d need only look at the structure of these Sunday Services. Throughout his career, Kanye’s music has always occupied a middle-ground between spirituality and the secular aspects of his lifestyle. By the time he reached the decadent abrasion of Yeezus, Kanye had gone from pleading for deliverance from evil to proclaiming that “I Am A God. Now what?”
Now that he spends the day of rest offering up exultant takes on his own psalms, he acknowledges that he isn’t the center of the universe but an artist with the power to bring people together. Where he once hovered above his audiences like the anointed one, he’s now part of an ensemble and developing a sense of community among the congregation, as seen on their mid-flight rendition of Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life.” Bearing more than a few shades of the legendary Late Orchestration, this realignment carried through in a chat with Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. Undertaken for Interview Magazine, Kanye willingly abdicated the spotlight in order to ask Oliver about his process and responded with a renewed sense of clarity.
As they traded gems about the nature of creativity, he resembled the Kanye West that once admitted to being “starstruck” by Roc-A-Fella’s artists or turned up at Def Poetry Jam and beleaguered audiences with a spoken word piece on “self-consciousness” that would later become “All Falls Down.” In fact, 15 years on from The College Dropout’s arrival, an awareness of his fortuitous position and the experiences that birthed his stardom seems to be heading back into focus.
While plenty of others rushed to commemorate his anniversary, its architect exhibited none of his usual predilection towards self-celebration. However, these Sunday Services allude to Kanye consciously gazing in the rear view for perhaps the first time in his storied career. Although he’s aired snippets of unreleased tracks, his weekly offerings have allowed him to retread more soul-baring material that had been sidelined as relics of the past. From the frank self-examination of Graduation’s “I Wonder” – which hasn’t been a live staple since 2008 – to the poignant take on Albert E Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away” that led so bittersweetly into “Spaceships” on his debut, Kanye is reappraising his past before our eyes. Stripped of the production tag and its most derisive lyrics, even “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1” has been transported into the realm of cathartic messaging that was a hallmark of his earlier work.
Although the motivation behind the services and this reexamination of his catalog has been largely kept under wraps, one happy side effect has become clear in recent weeks. During his discussion with Shayne Oliver, Kanye outlined how “creativity should always be therapeutic, not stressful” and voiced his distaste for the “pressure that is put on creatives when we’re forced to put out things that we don’t believe in.” Broad as they may have seemed, these remarks quickly went from abstraction to an admission of Ye’s struggle after news of his dispute with EMI came to light. Burdened with a deal that essentially prohibits retirement or any extended break, the lawsuit not only provides justification for the long-awaited Yandhi’s absence but contextualizes why he’s finding solace through music again. While an impediment on the surface, this drawn out battle has given Kanye a chance to celebrate creativity rather than be waylaid by the commercially incentivized life of the studio. Whether or not it’s been as therapeutic as videos portray, it has allowed glimpses of the man once feared to be an allegory for fame’s corruptive powers back into the public domain.
Music aside, Ye’s acknowledgement of yesteryear and its place in his legacy has manifested in rekindling his love affair with his hometown. Once believed to be stricken from his concerns, Chicago has requisitioned its place among the prodigal son’s priorities. In moves that aimed to both preserve its heritage and safeguard its future, Kanye’s recent $1 million investment in the Southside’s Regal Avalon Theater and explanation of his “refreshing, limitless” vision for the community to mayoral candidate Amara Enyia indicates that at least a modicum of “The Old Kanye’s” civic responsibility has held fast and his perspective has been shifted. Rather than being an isolated incident, this overhaul has bled into his stance on public relations.
In a notably alien scenario, we don’t know precisely what’s going on in Kanye’s head due to the radio silence that he’s maintained in the last three months. Since one final deluge on New Year’s Day, Kanye’s polemical Twitter account has been a barren wasteland. In decommissioning the tool that threatened to be his undoing, the public eagerness for Kanye-related dispatches has been satiated by “sources” rather than direct communication. From GLC’s claims that he’d ditched the “MAGA Hat” once and for all to gossip about his position on the latest Tristan Thompson-Khloe Kardashian fiasco, it recalls his deletion of Twitter and his ensuing absence from celebrity life prior to the release of Yeezus.
For those disenchanted by the “New Kanye,” it’s easy to see these developments as deflective or a refusal to meaningfully broach his transgressions. Taken out of that vacuum, his recent actions – premeditated or otherwise – feel like a concerted effort to funnel his energy into his art over the artifice of public persona for the first time in years. From the days of rallying against radio’s ban on holiness to those comments that mobilized the world against him, his powers as an envelope-pusher have never weaned. Sadly, his recent penchant for outbursts has left him looking unhinged rather than articulate, and corroborated the idea of a fundamental rift between the old and new. Now that the two have struck up a harmonious truce, it’s time to invalidate the self-devised death certificate that Kanye had constructed for his past-self back in 2016.