Kanye West's "DONDA" listening event in Atlanta was like nothing anyone could have expected.
Kanye West has performed from atop a 50-foot high mountain. He has surfed over crowds while rocking out on a levitating stage. Ye even had Madison Square Garden jumping more than the New York Knicks ever did throughout the latter half of the 2010s, and he was just playing music from his laptop. The man with arguably one of the best discographies in Hip-Hop is as much of a performance artist as he is a recording artist or fashion designer. In 2021, everyone is fully aware that Kanye is an expert at keeping fans on their toes, so when thousands of his staunchest supporters piled into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday and didn’t see a stage, the conspiracy theories started quicker than a DaBaby verse.
The colossal stadium that’s home to the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC boasts a retractable ceiling, and thus, countless eyes were peeled to the massive opening in the sky, as if Kanye West himself would swoop in Lady Gaga-style to commence the momentous DONDA listening event. At one point, the lights shining above the lengthy white sheet that covered the field caused indecipherable lines, numbers, and symbols to appear underneath, leading fans to theorize that Kanye was hiding a secret stage underneath the expansive white covering.
Yet to probably everyone’s surprise, nothing that theatrical, exhilarating, or mind-blowing happened — at least, performance-wise — the entire night. Following an interminable wait, a glowing ring appeared at the now-shut roof, and Kanye just strolled onto the field as music started blaring from the myriad of speakers situated around the stadium. No microphone, no elaborate scheme — just Kanye West, dressed in a bright red outfit and full face mask that evoked memories of the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus eras of his career.
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For much of the album’s runtime, Kanye stood in the middle of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and stared straight into the crowd. As those in attendance listened attentively to the songs pouring out of the speakers, the DONDA artist gazed upon them like a proud chef watching guests eat an elaborate meal he had just prepared. Kanye even danced from time to time, and from the floor, he made his rounds and checked in on all the sections of awestruck fans.
The DONDA listening event could be interpreted as the ultimate stroking of Kanye West’s ego. Ten albums in, the artist who started off as a producer, could still command a crowd in one of Atlanta’s most unconquerable arenas. Beyonce and Jay-Z’s two-night stint at Mercedes-Benz for the On the Run II Tour in 2018 remains the only Hip-Hop event in recent years to pack out the stadium, and here Kanye West was in 2021, taking in all of the love and attention without saying one word.
While that idea is definitely plausible, the DONDA listening event could also be seen as one of the greatest album listening events in Hip-Hop history. The absence of gimmicks and the lack of any fluffy track-by-track anecdotes yielded a space where fans could soak in the music without any distractions and honestly react to the songs in real-time. As a result, there were times when a song would conclude and the stadium would absolutely erupt, and on the contrary, you could tell when the fans in attendance weren’t feeling a song at all.
The electrifying start to the Pop Smoke track, for instance, immediately got the crowd jumping to the point that it looked like a mosh pit was about to break out in the stands. Yet when the monstrous beat drop that everyone was waiting for never came, all of that momentum faded away, and rather than roaring applause, confusion and light clapping filled the stadium. However, there was no denying the impact that the masterful performances by Baby Keem and Jay-Z had on Mercedes-Benz. Nothing beats an “Is that who I think it is!?” moment, and when both emcees floated to the forefront of their respective DONDA tracks, you could see several fans turning towards their friends with looks of awe spread across their faces. Before anyone had even heard a good quality version of the songs, the raucous applause had cemented them as two of DONDA’s early highlights.
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Regardless of what you deduce about Kanye West’s psyche from Thursday night, the DONDA listening event was about the music, and because of that, Ye was able to make the largest indoor stadium in Georgia feel like an intimate event. He let DONDA, his latest album and his late mother, speak for him. Returning to the city where he was born, Kanye West played one of the most anticipated albums of the year without saying a single word, because the brief stretches of his album that featured archived speeches from his mother said everything he needed to say.
When Donda West said, “No matter what, you never abandon your family,” there was a real weight to that statement, and the emotional intensity of Kanye’s music, especially when considering that his children and his recently divorced wife Kim Kardashian were in attendance, sitting yards away from him. Heart-wrenching moments like that can’t really be captured through viral clips on Twitter, but that’s what made the DONDA listening event powerful, even if it wasn’t the most entertaining visual display that Kanye West has ever put on.
Ye once freestyled about fooling his fans and the entire entertainment industry during the 2013 Yeezus tour stop in Atlanta, and eight years later, he fooled everyone once again. As an artist who has done the unthinkable in terms of stage design, Kanye somehow managed to subvert expectations again by stripping away much of what young Kanye West fans probably fell in love with in the first place: his incomparable performances. He came out, he played his album, and he left. And although the DONDA listening event was admittedly strange, it was a quaint reflection of Kanye West’s fast approaching tenth studio album.