WATCH: Kanye West Takes his “Sunday Service” to Coachella, Centering Black Church Experience With Songs from Marvin Sapp, Kirk Franklin, and Others

A small crowd was invited to view West’s performance just below the mountain, and Coachella attendees packed in early behind barricades to get a look at the set, called Sunday Service. (Credit: Rozette Rago for The New York Times)
A small crowd was invited to view West’s performance just below the mountain, and Coachella attendees packed in early behind barricades to get a look at the set, called Sunday Service. (Credit: Rozette Rago for The New York Times)

Kanye West’s Sunday Service was not a traditional Kanye West concert. It was a spiritual, had-to-be-there experience fashioned like a new-age Baptist church revival.

West was not here to play his hits, or deliver anything that would have offered clear insight into the mind of one of the most polarizing figures of the last quarter-century.

Instead, what he staged outside of Coachella during the early morning of the festival’s final Sunday was a nearly two-hour celebration of the gospel and soul music that’s shaped the framework of his artistry.

Centered atop a sprawling, man-made summit near the festival’s campgrounds, West’s vision was church jam session meets performance art.

He arrived a little after 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, cloaked in purple frocks – his hair partially dyed a bright hue to match his ensemble — and took his place atop a two-tiered peak that overlooked the entirety of the grounds.

There were hundreds of singers, dancers, a full orchestra and West collaborators Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla Sign, Teyana Taylor and Chance the Rapper — all shrouded in various shades of dusty rose, some women in the choir styled with ashen blond extensions down to their ankles.

Childish Gambino, Jaden and Willow Smith, Idris Elba, Jermaine Dupri, Lizzo and the entire Kardashian clan were some of the VIPs stretched across parcels of freshly laid turf below the stage.

It was a stunning spectacle from a provocative artist who has made a career of disrupting the way we experience music in live spaces, and quite frankly the most hype-inducing set at Coachella in this post-Beyoncé year of our Lord.

What West did by centering the black church experience at a mainstream music festival is nothing short of remarkable.

The soulful harmonies of big-lunged church singers sampled and flipped on rap records have been a part of hip-hop’s DNA from the beginning. But rap fans who didn’t come up in households where the Clark Sisters and Curtis Mayfield soundtracked Easter Sunday dinners were likely unaware of these holy original texts.

At Coachella, West let the records that he turned to for salvation and sampling lead a set that saw him assume the role as a faithful servant to worship.

Pastor T.L. Barrett’s “Father Stretch My Hands,” which he heavily sampled for a track off his “The Life of Pablo” album, was gloriously sung by the choir with a slight assist from Ty Dolla. Chance the Rapper delivered a verse during a transcendent rendering of “Ultralight Beam,” and Teyana Taylor stretched out Marvin Sapp’s searing “Never Would Have Made It,” which West sampled on an album he produced for Taylor amid a creative spurt last year.

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