Enacted before a rather packed audience at Miami's LoanDepot Park, Kanye West's Donda 2 Performance Experience was pure chaos — in a fascinating way.
For more than two hours after the ostensible start time of 8 p.m., people continued to trickle into the stadium. The more time passed, the more the audience talked about the curious setup in front of them. It started with passive observations about the motorcycles, piano, and abundance of cameras that surrounded the pool of shallow water with the re-creation of Ye's childhood home that we all knew would inevitably be set ablaze and eventually pivoted into theories like, "Maybe it'll start at 22:22, since it's 2/22/22."
That theory was soon proven wrong.
The anticipation that had built up over nearly three hours never left the stadium, with the audience occasionally bursting into applause or engaging in cross-stadium waves as the night grew darker and the heartbeat sound effect playing over the speakers grew louder. Even seeing Ye on Instagram Live, standing in a hallway with the world's choppiest Wi-Fi connection and video source, became a source of excitement. His heartbeat pulsing through the crowd only made things more riveting, and by the time the lights shut off and the new music kicked off, the audience was ready to burst.
It was here that things became both increasingly intriguing and oddly chaotic.
From any given spot in the stadium, what the audience could see was simply the moving parts of something grander than they could have expected. West was barely visible behind clouds of smoke for some time as the music played and Donda's house was on fire, with cameramen floating around him and the expansive staging. It was, ultimately, revealing itself to be something of a glorified listening party, but one with an endless onslaught of surprises.
Dozens (or hundreds, really) of bodies flooded out in organized lines, placing themselves in front of and around the stage in various forms. As massive as the scale was, with not a single person in the crowd genuinely knowing what direction or purpose there was to it, the synchronization was nothing short of impeccable. The more bodies that emerged, the more disorienting it all became. Motorcycles sped around the stage in extensive circles, Ye danced on his porch and walked through the water with some of his friends accompanying him to vibe and dance themselves, an eclipse appeared on a screen above the staging, and a choir clad in what looked like plague masks from a distance but seemed to be mourning veils.
For better or worse, the whole thing felt like watching an elaborate production of an art project or concert filming. The number of visual references that came to mind was endless — from David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Matthew Barney to America's racist history — but it gets lost without the camera itself selecting what images one is witnessing.
Donda 2 is ultimately an aural work of art, and, to be clear, it is an often gorgeous album that had me wishing I could sit down and listen to it more closely. The lyrics of each song stood out (my personal favorites being the reflective lines in "Sci-Fi" that explore and question his relationships with Kim Kardashian, social media, and his own ego) and the unique mix of samples, stylization, and featured artists made it impossible to take it all in with just one listen. But something about sitting in the stadium and trying to piece together whatever was going on from a distance felt at odds with the experience of listening to this new music. It's hard to appreciate one thing when you're attempting to make sense of an onslaught of stimuli at the same time.
The haunting choir was the turning point of the evening, taking the event out of the realm of a listening party and into a concert. It felt less like a transition from one moment to the next and more like a proper climax to the event — and in actuality, it was. It marked the moment the show went from truly exciting to a disaster of a live performance, if one could even refer to it as such. "Hurricane" was the high point of this back half, the audience and choir alike singing "Don't let me down" as Ye figuratively and somewhat literally "walked on water," but things quickly devolved from there.
Now, I'm not saying it's a sign from God that things went to hell the moment that Marilyn Manson joined Ye on stage for "Jail," but I'm inclined to believe that, if He exists, the Good Lord said, "Fuck your show," for the sin of Ye framing himself as Manson's personal Jesus.
After "Jail," the audio became something of a nightmare. More often than not, it was impossible to tell what was live and what was a backing track. Surprise guests (including Alicia Keys, Migos, Pusha T, Jack Harlow, Playboi Carti, the Game, Fivio Foreign, DaBaby, and Manson) would emerge, but it was often unclear whether they were singing live, and it sometimes sounded as if they were mumbling over their own verses.
Keys may have been the one gem of this portion, the only voice whose power was clear from the moment she stepped out in front of the piano and sang. Yet even her song with Ye, the wonderful "City of Gods," was not without issue, as everyone except her was drowned out by the sound mixing. Even odder were the constant abrupt stops that completely cut off songs as though someone was smashing the skip button. For the audience, it was frustrating, and the pyrotechnics work that signaled the end of the show felt more like Ye going out a whimper than a bang.
Throughout the show, I found myself looking at numerous texts from a friend who was watching the livestream from home. It was clear that what they were witnessing was something completely different from what the audience at LoanDepot Park was seeing. What we got was essentially the behind-the-scenes production of the true work of art: Ye's Donda 2 Performance Experience: The Livestream.
It's fair to say the true treasure of the night was bestowed upon those who watched from home or at one of the IMAX screenings. For the remote audience, the product creative director Niklas Bildstein Zaar, director Aus Taylor, director of photography Bradford Young, and a massive collection of producers and designers put together was nothing short of breathtaking, yielding a completely different perspective on the Experience.
For all the times the word "cinematic" is thrown around with filmings of live stage productions, rarely does there come a time when something seems so deliberately created to be filmed. Viewed through the livestream, the bodies and staging that seemed chaotic in person suddenly betrayed meaning and purpose. The staging became more impactful when framed a certain way, gloriously deepening the context the music already provided, even when the camera focused exclusively on Ye dancing with his friends on stage, enjoying the music they collectively created and sharing it with the audience.
Watching the filmed version of what I'd seen painstakingly created and executed live, I found myself appreciating it all the more. It was enlightening to see the chaos put into context. The audio issues all but disappeared (with Ye literally throwing his microphone across the stage midway through "Jail"), certain visual cues were no longer obscure, and it felt like something of a perfect synthesis of music and cinema.
For all the frustrations that came with the production as a whole, for both the audience (some of whom paid too much money for a messy event) and Ye himself (who at times looked incredibly sullen after the audio issues took over), watching the final product is entirely worthwhile. Donda 2 Performance Experience, as a filmed work, ends up feeling exactly what Donda West, and the music that her son created in her name, deserve. It's as much a celebration of life as it is a moment to mourn the loss of someone who meant (and still means) everything to the artist, and there's much beauty to be found within.
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