If you missed Kanye West’s first headlining show in several years, I can’t blame you. Despite its easy availability—Amazon streamed it live Thursday night on both Prime Video and the platform’s Twitch channel—the concert started 90 minutes late. That’s in typical West fashion, of course; anyone who tuned into this summer’s multiple Donda try-out streams will recall waiting impatiently for the artist to come out and debut his new tracks at the promised time. But when Amazon announced that the #FreeLarryHoover concert wouldn’t start until 8 p.m. PT anyway—11 at night for us East coasters—a 90-minute delay is pushing it.
Which is why I found myself in bed, squinting at Twitch on my phone, fighting to stay awake at 12:30 a.m. Not only was this special stream a rare Kanye concert, but the artist was bringing a special guest along: Drake. Drake and Kanye? Together? Performing? Live? And I don’t have to go anywhere to see it? But I also know West’s track record with showing up on time, and thus I woke up abruptly at 2 a.m. to the sound of Kanye rapping on my phone, the concert still going.
Missing the show because of the late start is one thing. But there are likely many lapsed fans—or proud haters—that wouldn’t bother to tune in regardless. West has made a huge mess of his public image over the past decade: blaming Jewish people for Obama’s political failings; defending Bill Cosby amid Cosby’s sexual harassment lawsuits; calling slavery “a choice”; publicly stumping for Trump; running for president himself in 2020; the list goes on and on. Most recently, West featured Chris Brown, Marilyn Manson, and DaBaby on Donda, a murderer’s row of ignorant and/or abusive men who have fallen out of good graces in recent years. Even the night before the #FreeLarryHoover show, West made news after reporters discovered his publicist pressured a Georgia campaign worker to admit to false voting fraud charges after the election in January. And lord knows that Larry Hoover would not be freed from prison thanks to an extremely expensive concert, during which the performers did not say his name once.
But watching the two-hour show, mercifully archived by viewers for the sleepy or impatient, it became obvious why we continue to be fascinated with West, spitefully or not. Instead of dedicating the show to the weak, scattered Donda—which his walkout song, “Praise God,” suggested he might—West marked his return to the stage by running through a full-bodied career retrospective, reminding us of his almost unparalleled catalogue of hits . After the Sunday Service Choir—best remembered from West’s truncated, delayed Jesus Is King record—opened by singing several gospel-fied covers (“Ready Or Not,” “Easy On Me”), West and Drake walked out together onto the foggy, oversized, circular stage to the sounds of cheers and screams—and probably a “Praise God” or two from the crowd itself, because the guys were finally about to start. Once Drake left and “Praise God” ended, West played his first song: The College Dropout’s “Jesus Walks,” one of his most beloved, acclaimed tracks.
He followed this with a straight string of classics, from breakout single “All Falls Down” to “Gold Digger” to “Runaway,” the showstopper from his masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While West’s voice is far from where it used to be, often yelling himself hoarse and dutifully letting the audience fill in any of the expletives that he now refuses to sing, he was consistently energized, jumping around magnetically. This history lesson in his past artistic excellence was undeniable: West did not play a single song that wasn’t exciting to hear, or memorably provocative for its time, or just incredibly singalong-able. When the backing for “Flashing Lights” started, it was almost transformative—as if West had shed the exhausting rigidity of his modern persona and transported back to his days as an excellent showman, at least on this stage.
There is perhaps something discomforting in enjoying West perform, knowing what we know of his character these days. No amount of charisma and catchiness can excuse the harm that his words or actions have caused others, nor did his performance prove that it’s possible to fully divorce the artist from the art; he still managed to throw in an awkward reference to his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and his desire for her to “run right back to me,” for example. He is unpredictable and erratic, often detrimentally so, and much of his music over the last five years has seen underwritten or half-baked. We’re not wrong for having little faith in him, if not outright being sick of him.
Yet West was so exuberant that, when he took a break to cede the floor to Drake—himself not bereft of controversies, especially of late—it was a surprising disappointment to see him go. The hand-off was a meaningful gesture between artists who have been feuding on and off forever. But Drake did little to build off that or West’s energy, keeping mostly to tracks from his recent and largely forgettable Certified Lover Boy. Even West, who covered Thank Me Later’s “Find Your Love” during the set, did Drake better than Drake did. When West came back on almost half an hour later, it was welcome—especially when he threw in a Watch the Throne track alongside a few more solo hits and a casual duet with Drake on “Forever.” Nine years Drake’s senior, West ran circles around October’s Very Own on the strength of his better-curated setlist. Drake is the biggest artist in the world, but the audience couldn’t forget that West held that title before him.
#FreeLarryHoover may not have accomplished its implicit premise of helping get the gang boss, currently serving six life sentences, out of jail. (West and Drake promised proceeds would go toward several foundations that support those who are incarcerated, for what it’s worth.) What it did instead was reaffirm a truth many of us may find uncomfortable: Kanye West’s music and shows can still slap—when he actually tries, at least.