The 2,000 people inside of Fox Theatre on Friday night were feverishly excited. Eager stans followed Kanye West wherever he appeared; to the stage, underneath his balcony, to the soundboard. Security struggled to keep fans out of the aisles, in their sections, or even on the ground. “Get off those seats! You are not at home,” one guard yelled from the row, flashing a light inside the dark theatre. West would never perform, but no one seemed to care.
“We’re going to show y’all three things tonight,” West told the Detroit crowd — which he’d gathered with just a few hours’ notice — from the balcony, next to his wife, Kim Kardashian West, and their daughter, North.
The first was a documentary, shot by videographer Nico Ballesteros. It follows West’s time with light and space artist James Turrell — the inspiration behind West’s affordable housing project — and his construction of a new building designed for choir performances. It essentially made Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Experience, as the event was billed, a particularly rowdy premiere for a non-fiction short.
The second thing West had to show was harder to pin down. He screened a few scenes from a film directed by filmmaker and a longtime collaborator, Nick Knight, that was primarily focused on the Sunday Service performances that have become a recent trademark for West. The closing scene of the film included a stripped-back, piano-led rendition of “Street Lights,” West’s 2008 ballad from 808s and Heartbreaks. He said the film is coming to IMAX theaters in October; according to Kim Kardashian’s Instagram Stories from Friday night, the film will eventually be titled Jesus Is Lord.
West walked from his seat in the balcony through the middle aisle to the soundboard, where he congratulated Ballesteros and members of his team. Next, he announced, would be a premiere of his new album.
Fans erupted into excitement; the event would indeed be the first public unveiling of Jesus Is King. Even though the event was billed with the name of the album, until West confirmed it live and in-person, no one truly knew what to expect.
Though many hoped that the listening would then coincide with the official release of Jesus Is King, it was clear that the project had recently been assembled; West readily said that he’d recorded one verse just before entering the venue. The event, then, was similar in format to his premieres of 2016’s Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden, or last year’s event in Wyoming to debut ye. West nodded and rapped along to a “work in progress,” occasionally stopping a song to provide additional context. The energy brought by the crowd made it feel like a live performance — and difficult to decipher lyrics and features.
Merchandise was discreetly handed out throughout the crowd, quickly drawing attention (West is, at this point, about as coveted a designer as a musician). Employees walking through the crowd would hand out clothing to unsuspecting attendees, until word began to spread, and the presumably West-designed clothing became the unofficial focal point of the crowd at times.
Also adding to the mystique was the insistence on attendees’ giving up their phones; West partnered with Yondr for the event, a company that locks away smartphones at live shows to prevent leaked recordings. The result was nearly complete darkness in the theater. Fans instinctively reached for their phones before the show began, some managing to take them out of the magnetically locked case, leading to a select amount of clips making their way to Twitter.
For all the speculation on the direction of West’s ninth studio album, especially following a year of strictly Christian-themed Sunday Service performances, Jesus Is King is not a gospel album. While West is clearly deeply influenced by gospel arrangements — and, as some have noted, this may become the rappers’ first clean album — it’s still, first and foremost, a Kanye West album. There are elements of gospel, just as there are trap drums, ambient flourishes, prominent samples, and verses from the Clipse. “Both of ‘em” West told the crowd to thunderous applause, announcing the unexpected reunion of G.O.O.D. Music’s Pusha T with his brother, No Malice.
“We all try our best, and we all fall short,” West said, before debuting “Hands On,” which features Detroit gospel singer Fred Hammond. Other guests included a solo from saxophonist Kenny G (who West had play for his wife on Valentine’s Day), Ty Dolla $ign, and a placeholder space for Nicki Minaj, who was — at least according to West — recording her verse on Friday night.
Occasionally, Kanye would take the microphone to issue instructions. “This is like a soccer melody, like a soccer stadium melody,” West said at one point, encouraging fans to sing along.
Two upbeat songs stood out from the template of Jesus Is King, and captured the excitement of the crowd. “Follow God”, which featured a roaring sample and structure reminiscent of the West-produced “Come Back Baby,” on Pusha-T’s Daytona. Fans hopped on top of their seats to get a better view of the animated West, wearing a blue denim jacket with a white tee and gold chains. Audience members disobeyed security, unable to hold back their excitement once the male vocal sample sang “stretch my hands to you” before the beat dropped. “On God”, a Pi’erre Bourne-produced track, was an easy crowd favorite — though a handful of songs had leaked in some version or another prior to Friday, this was a new one, and much better for the surprise.
Though West has frequently been outspoken to the point of deliberate public inflammation, he largely stays away from his self-made controversies in the lyrics of Jesus Is King — from a single listen, it’s about as politically-minded as ye. Anyone expecting West to further acknowledge his relationship with the embattled President will be disappointed, though that did not seem like something his fans — in the theater or outside of it — were clamoring for.
Instead, West tread on more familiar ground, often returning to themes of disaffection, and his continued discomfort with his role as a celebrity and artist today. “Millions of people, trying to get on the scene / and everyone’s sellin’ their soul, everyone’s sellin’ their soul / Everyone swear they woke, but every everyone walkin’ dead eyes closed, L.A. monster,” West sings at one point.
When fans got their phones back after the event which concluded around 10 p.m., they quickly realized — again, via Kim Kardashian — that they still had a few more days until the release of Jesus Is King. It’s West’s second pushback in less than a year; though Jesus Is King has a far more promising route to release than Yandhi ever did. Some at the venue were, predictably, frustrated to hear of a new delay. “It’s cool that he’s hanging onto a few songs that leaked, a lot of the stuff we’ve already heard, so it’s a little disappointing,” said Zach Porter, a fan of West’s from Detroit. “But at this point, I think fans will take anything. Just drop the album, Kanye.”
After exiting, it became clear that the merch that many had swarmed for just hours before was now available online — albeit with a hefty price tag. The music is likely not far behind it.