Photo: Liam MacRae
Waking up at 7:30 a.m. on the last day of Coachella to make it to Kanye West‘s Sunday Service was no small task, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something really special was going to happen and I’d kick myself for the rest of my life if I missed it. It took place on a perfectly landscaped, green hilltop surrounded by rolling hills, the San Bernardino mountains, and a seemingly endless swarm of people trying to spend hundreds of dollars on Kanye’s brown and beige Church Clothes. But water was free — it’s also the name of the new song he played for the first time at Easter morning Sunday Service, and it doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say it was one of the most unique and prolific live music experiences of my lifetime, as well as one the most iconic, inimitable moments in Coachella’s 20-year history. The telescope-view livestream was a cruel joke; I’m so sorry for everyone who tried to watch it and to anyone who couldn’t pull it together Sunday morning, I doubt anything like it will ever happen at the festival again.
When I arrived at 9:20, dreamy, warm organ music was floating over the hillside as fans filed into a circle around their round, hilltop performance site while Kanye and Chance the Rapper’s daughters processed up the hill. A 30, maybe 40-piece band formed a circle around the top of the hill, including a golden harp, and in the center was a round platform where the featured vocalist would stand. A 100-member choir processed up the hill in a spiraling Fibonacci sequence and stood around the band, as Sunday Service began.
I haven’t been to church on Easter in probably 20 years, but this was some of the most vibrant and wildly fun music I’ve ever witnessed. And the whole experience didn’t feel like watching a performance, I felt like we were participating in something. It felt profoundly humanizing to be out there on a hill with the Kardashians, the Biebers, the Smiths, Donald Glover, Idris Elba, and a sea of extremely ambitious, open-minded fans who actually made it out before 10 a.m. on the last day of Coachella, a feat of sheer will. “Jesus Walks” was the first song I ever heard by Kanye West 15 years ago, a song that’s undeniably the rocket fuel in this whole Sunday Service concept, and hearing him sing it with a choir of 100+ was like watching lightning hit the ground from 15 feet away.
The show was a circle in every sense, from the arrangement of the players and singers to the crowd to the format of show. It opened and closed with the iconic Kanye sample from “Fade” modified for Easter Sunday to proclaim, “He’s alive! He-he, he’s alive!” I personally found it difficult not to get lost in the whole sweeping revivalist feeling coming off the performers, as well as the 50+ hype crowd Kanye had in the baggy, beige Sunday Service garb dancing on the hillside. Chance the Rapper’s openness about his Christianity has always struck me as being quite brave and indicative of a certain quality of character, and having him there belting out “Ultralight Beam” was beyond my wildest dreams. Ty Dolla $ign, Kid Cudi, and DMX were also guest performers, but Chance took the cake because when he sang the line, “I met Kanye West, I’m never gonna fail,” my heart grew three sizes.
He debuted a new song called “Water,” and it reminded me of some of the melodies from College Dropout and Graduation. He didn’t rap over it, but I feel like maybe he just wanted to share the song itself in its church-form and when it comes out, it’ll have verses. And hopefully, they’ll be really inspired verses because Kanye West seems incredibly inspired right now. The song itself, the melody and production (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t entirely live), felt like moving water. And it did so in a beautifully shiny, Daft-Punk-made-an-ambient-pop record type of way, so I could imagine him blowing us all to bits with some gut-wrenching verses over that.
Photo: Liam MacRae
But I’m a fan, I want to believe in him. I feel like him inviting us into a communal experience that obviously means an awful lot to him and getting to watch him be a creative collaborator in real time might be a sign of great music to come because it means he’s opening up. His collaborative work he did in the last year like Pusha T’s DAYTONA and he and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts, in my opinion, is better than his own album. This could be an incredibly special time for him creatively as he’s rooted in his faith and family while working communally on producing a unique Sunday Service every week. I find it’s always easier to be creative when there’s no pressure and I’m doing what makes me happy with people who inspire me, and he seems to be in that sweet spot, and I’m personally hopeful that some of the best music of his life is going to come out of it.