Living in Los Angeles in 2019 means that every couple of weeks you’ll be summoned somewhere only coyotes and executive producers live to hear whatever Kanye West has been learning about in Bible study. This time it’s the Book of Daniel; this time it’s being staged as an opera; this time there are bomb-sniffing dogs hired from a firm that promises “High Consequence Threat Protection.” Art thou able to make known unto me the dream that I have seen?
On Sunday evening, the Hollywood Bowl was full of ticketed guests and hundreds of West-recruited performers, young men and women in off-white (though not Off-White) robes. In the hours before the show began, these robed extras lined up near loading docks to be handed Yeezys out the back of a white moving truck (a woman in a headset shouting “Seven! Seven! Nine and a half!”), or they ate in a tent that warned, on the paper signs at all its entrances:
“NO Take Out Food Allowed.”
“NO Second Helpings.”
The program: Nebuchadnezzar, an opera conceived by Kanye West and staged by his frequent collaborator, the Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft. As expected, West’s Sunday Service choir provided the spine of the performance alongside some instrumental sections; the action of the plot was pantomimed by actors dressed identically to the singers, except for Sheck Wes, the rapper and model who wore a blue robe and starred as the titular king. West himself remained offstage until the final bows, reading over the loudspeaker sections of the Book of Daniel that he had highlighted in his own Bible. It streamed exclusively on Tidal.
reading from the book of Daniel pic.twitter.com/GHmLTWa7iS
— ye (@kanyewest) November 25, 2019
The Nebuchadnezzar of scripture is Nebuchadnezzar II, who was the king of Babylon for more than 40 years in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. He is depicted in Daniel as a hubristic ruler who comes to admit God’s power first after three Hebrew captives are saved from being burned alive in a furnace, and later after he suffers a bout of madness. The press materials that Def Jam sent in advance of the show describe “Nebuchadnezzar’s transition from wicked, imperious, self-declared ruler to a true believer who finds salvation in his faith.”
Thirteen years ago, Kanye West was on the cover of this magazine, face scarred and bloody underneath a crown of thorns. David LaChappelle shot it; this image beat out one of West “in a gray silk suit standing alongside a topless Pamela Anderson riding a horse bareback while a passed-out circus clown wearing a George W. Bush mask lies on the floor clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels.” In the corner of the cover: “The Passion of Kanye West.” The story follows the artist in the weeks before the 2006 Grammys, where he would eventually perform two songs and take home three statues. He asks Macy Gray to sing on a song he’s recording for the Mission Impossible III soundtrack; he riffs on his porn addiction; he describes continued fame as a series of “David Copperfield-type stunts”; he eats squash soup; dissatisfied, he asks Keyshia Cole to re-track Macy Gray’s MI:III vocals. The cover image — the comparison to Jesus — is never discussed.
It is possible to witness the opera West staged last night and conclude that he was simply moved by the power of God to convert even the most powerful nonbelievers; it is difficult to read the work without at least considering the possibility of West as Nebuchadnezzar. (It is also difficult to hear Daniel 2:2 — “Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams” — and not picture Kid Cudi flying to Hawaii to dutifully knock out some reference vocals.)
The show was impressive in scope, but easier to marvel at than to immerse yourself in; the staging was static and pacing strange, the long, impressionistic streaks in the first half clumsily offset by the frantically plot-heavy ending. The musical portions, as in all of West’s religious projects, were competent and occasionally excellent; he uses music from his own catalog judiciously, bringing “Say You Will” and its orchestral coda in and out as a recurring motif, and finally fixing “Wolves.”
As an MC, West’s line readings did not seem fully rehearsed: He sounded like an actor who was nearly, but not quite off-book, suggesting the proper emotional intonations as often as he truly tried to sell them. This had an unexpectedly intriguing effect — perhaps because so many of the vocals on his recent albums have felt flat and disengaged.
It’s hard to overstate just how strange this will seem in the future: the most overexposed, overexamined musician of the century, who went broke clearing samples, then got rich again selling shoes, booking a famous outdoor venue to stage an opera that is more or less a straight reading of the Old Testament, during which he never appears in the flesh. It was not, strictly speaking, effective art: too muddled and off-the-cuff to work as a narrative piece, too linear to read as a performance installation. Merchandise sales did not seem to be a focal point, as they have been at nearly all of West’s other 2019 appearances. As the opera ended, some in the audience shuffled and texted and talked among themselves, others held their arms to the sky in an extended moment of praise. West is not the first generational talent to pivot to religion midcareer, but neither Dylan nor Prince’s fits of religiosity were quite so strangely realized, so messily articulated.