Kanye West at the Forum. Photo by Tony Pierce.

Kanye West’s Sunday Service Proves the Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

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The rapper brought his gospel choir and band to the masses in South L.A. and delivered an unforgettable performance that deserves an amen.

There have been a lot of memorable sporting events, concerts, and shows at the Forum in Inglewood over the years. Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Elvis, and Prince have all rocked it. The Lakers, Kings, and Olympic basketball have been played there. Marvin Gaye sang his version of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game in that arena on Prairie and Manchester.

The merch lines were as long and deep as the prices were high. None of that stopped the moneychanging from happening at the Sunday Service. Photo by Tony Pierce.

The Forum is a building that seems outdated inside and out, but still manages to make new memories.

Thousands of fans congregated Sunday at noon at the Forum to experience Kanye West’s latest foray. They came sporting his freaky shoes, they donned his high priced t-shirts and hoodies, and they stood in line for $170 shirts and $250 sweatshirts.

Maybe that’s what happens when tickets for the show cost $10 plus service fees.

The floor where Magic and Bird once roamed was donned with flowers, trees and fold-up chairs for the VIPs. The lights were dimmed and nature sounds of crickets and birds oozed through the half-empty arena when the clock struck 12.

But there was no sense of urgency. It was L.A. It was a fashion show. Kanye’s fans were mostly all dressed to impressed, and even the most fashion-backward fans pulled on a fresh new black baseball cap with gold lettering on it that read Sunday Service.

Would he screen his 38-minute documentary, “Jesus Is King,” named after the recently released album? Would he, indeed only perform with his choir and band for 45 minutes, as the ushers warned?

As 1 p.m. came and went, one wondered if he’d perform at all?

Fans in Sunday Service swag. Photo by Tony Pierce.

And where was everyone? Were they all still outside milling about buying $12 tacos and drinking coffee as no alcohol was being served?

At around a quarter after the hour a roar came from inside. The choir was filing into the round center stage. Dressed in white there must have been a hundred of them. Some of their friends in the audience yelled out at them. You better sing, girls!

Then the house lights dimmed and a giant bright circle of light above the singers lit up all white.

Choir Director Jason White, the secret weapon of the show, raised his hands and the choir sang loudly to the tune of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” – the powerful choral piece from Carmina Burana that moviegoers have seen from “Excalibur” (1981) to the opening of “Jackass, The Movie” (2002).

But West had rewritten the 84-year-old classic. Instead of the singers belting out:

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis

they sang

Jesus is King!
The King of Kings!
Our God, give praise forever!

And church had begun.

Kanye West’s twist on “O Fortuna.” Video by Tony Pierce.

What came next over nearly two hours was mesmerizing sound, tears, dancing — and something you didn’t see in church. The choir looked in towards its leader, White. White gesticulated and swayed and shouted on the off-beats as the circle moved in choreographed ways that looked like all of the planet’s energies were in the center of that storm and what came out was a joyful noise.

In that nexus of bodies and voices was a tight band equipped with horns, percussion and an organ that brought it all back home when the time called for it.

It looked like a black “Midsommar,” but no one was dying here. The moving themes were eternal life and gratitude through song.

Somewhere in the throng was Kanye, wearing a vest so he could stand out, but when he wasn’t standing on a riser above the group, he blended in with the 100 performers bobbing his head, absorbing the miracle, and occasionally directing the show: change the lights to blue, now only the drums, everybody down.

Kanye’s visual and artistic style was all over this. First seen at Coachella and most recently on the East Coast. The look, the sound, the tone was undeniably one man’s vision — and yet for most of the performance he was as much as an observer as the audience was, only singing or rapping for a fraction of the afternoon.

Mostly it was White with the singers, backed with the band who had a drummer on a marching band grade snare drum who brought a pop to the music rarely heard in gospel. These people were here to give praise at the top of their lungs, using all of their talents. Singing from a collection of songs that have no business being that good live. But when Kanye’s on his game, he has no peers.

It was loud, proud and the very best aspects of unapologetic African-American gospel music.

Kenny G & Clipse join Kanye West’s Sunday Service for the song “Use This Gospel.” Video by Tony Pierce.

And then Kenny G appeared which surprised and delighted the already overwhelmed crowd, as he added some old school smooth jazz from his iconic soprano saxophone. Later the group veered into Jamaica covering a Damian Marley tune.

The Lord works in mysterious ways and this Kanye West gospel show had you thinking, why do we feel so good. Is that the spirit? Is this holy? It sure seems holy.

Because Kanye plays by his own rules, as the service was heading toward the two-hour mark, zero hits had been played, almost everything was from the curious new record, which had only been out a few days. So the question was, would he play “Jesus Walks,” a 15-year-old track whose lyrics foreshadowed what he had just had the audacity to do: produce an entire album about the Christ.

They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I’m dreaming about
Next time I’m in the club everybody screaming out
Je-sus Walks!

Usually when you play the hit record at the end of the show, it’s the climax. But as nice as it was to hear him perform it with that choir and band… somehow the newer material had more power. Somehow it was fresher and held more surprises.

But this was no ordinary show. Kanye is no ordinary performer.

The music and vocals and choreography that went down Sunday at the Forum are just too good not to take on the road and spread the word. The performance and lighting and sound and spirit makes the newly released album seem more like a blueprint of this unique live experience. It must be experienced.

And again, even though this is a full-blown Kanye West production, he is in the spotlight only about a quarter of the time.

Jesus is King. Kanye is just his hype man.

Los Angeleno