There was a sense among the massive crowd, patiently waiting in the long line that wrapped down the road from the entrance to Chicago's Huntington Bank Pavilion, that as soon as the gates swung open, anything could happen. Literally.
Kanye West, one of the most-lauded and polarizing artists that the city has ever produced, announcedon Saturday (Sept. 7) that he was bringing his traveling Sunday Service roadshow to his hometown. (Tickets were posted up online for free and sold out in less than an hour.) Over the last couple of weeks, he’d staged similar events in Dayton, Ohio and Watts, Calif. to rapturous response online. Surely for Chicago, he’d do something a little special, right?
Before the gates opened on Sunday (Sept. 8), fans decked out in Yeezy apparel passed the hours excitedly speculating about what might happen once they got inside. Would Chance The Rapper show up? What about Kim Kardashian? Brad Pitt? Mayor Lori Lightfoot? Would he debut new music from his upcoming album Jesus Is King, set to drop later this month? Would he pick up a microphone and spit a few bars? And for the hypebeasts, would there be merch?
For a minute there, a terrifying rumor started going around that Kanye had decided to cancel the whole thing entirely. A light omnipresent rain caused people to furiously refresh the weather app on their phones to make sure that God himself might not end the event before it even started. Fortunately, the rumors turned out to be false, and the weather, while slightly annoying, never became threatening enough to shut things down.
In a light gray sweat suit and donning a pair of dark black sunglasses, West emerged from behind the large stage a little after 9 a.m. and quickly pushed his way through the dense mass of people pressed near the front, out into the middle of the fray where a collection of singers and musicians were already treating the faithful to a collection of soothing gospel classics. Upon his arrival, the band shifted into a heady, re-arranged rendition of his The Life Of Pablo album opener “Ultralight Beam” while he bobbed his head and smiled. Fans held their phones high over their heads to try as best they could to catch a quick glimpse of the man of the hour, making it difficult for those just outside the inner circle to discern what was going on. Those that couldn’t see merely danced and sang instead.
For the most of the hour-and-a-half long service, West remained content to merely observe the proceedings and watched as others threw themselves wholeheartedly into his early-morning spectacle. He was at once the center of attention but seemed more than happy to cede the spotlight to the array of music makers at the very heart of the gathering, and more importantly to the Lord above. On a few occasions, he dipped out from the crowd entirely, preferring to get a bird’s-eye view of the people enjoying the music from behind the barricaded soundboard. He especially seemed to enjoy the band’s take on Nelly Furtado’s 2000 classic “I’m Like A Bird.” The audience delighted in re-arranged versions of his numerous modern classics like “Fade” and “Father Stretch My Hands,” which soared thanks to the addition of the lush, choir-filled harmonies.
While the energy hardly flagged, the moments when he decided to rejoin the festivities were certainly the most thrilling. Yes, he eventually grabbed hold of a microphone and rapped out a bit of his breakout hit “Jesus Walks,” giving the crowd a little thrill by namechecking his City: “Ye back in the Chi, everybody screaming out!” And yes, his protégé Chance The Rapper appeared, decked out in his signature baseball cap, in light blue, and regaled the 10,000 spectators with a fiery rendition of his scene-stealing verse on “Ultralight Beam.” That one left more than a few tears in people’s eyes and lumps in their throats. West did not, however, as far as I could tell, bust out any new snippets from Jesus Is King. The merch tent also remained devoid of wares, and Brad Pitt was probably somewhere far away, possibly sleeping.
No one really knows where West might take his Sunday Service next. At the end of the proceedings in Chicago, the musical director promised that “We’ll see you soon,” which certainly sounded promising, but trying to guess where he may take it s truly a fool’s errand. Maybe it becomes a regular event, a la Bob Dylan’s famous Rolling Thunder Revue, where you never can be sure to which town he might visit next. Maybe it all comes to an end tomorrow. If the reception he received in Chicago is any indication, the Church of Kanye West is certainly alive and well and more than eager to receive the good word and bask in his Glory.