On Thursday (July 22) a superstar stood alone as he commanded a sea of fans with raw emotion at a highly anticipated listening party. Atlanta’s massive Mercedes-Benz stadium was nearly filled to the brim with Kanye West fans awaiting a first listen to his 10th studio album Donda.
Devotees battled the city’s infamous traffic, the stadium’s lengthy lines and strict security to fill the arena to take a first listen of the project ahead of its release. Reportedly 5,000 of the party’s estimated 42,000 attendees were students, faculty and staff from the Atlanta University Center, the oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities. Kanye gifted tickets to the group in remembrance of his late mother Dr. Donda West, who once worked as a professor at Morris Brown College.
Inside the stadium people clamored to find their seats while wearing shirts and gear paying homage to Kanye. A man clearly channeling ‘Ye wore a camouflage ski mask similar to one Kanye recently wore in Las Vegas and several others wore Yeezy sneakers in various styles from porous white Foam Runners to Boosts.
Waiting for the showcase to begin, whispers and buzz broke out that Kanye’s family was in attendance. Even though the event was supposed to start at 8 p.m. in the evening, a sunglass wearing Kim Kardashian brought out all four of their children— North, 8, Saint, 5, Chicago, 3, and Psalm, 2, alongside her sister, Khloe as a show of support despite their impending divorce. Fans texted and tattled about the reality stars loyally sitting quietly in a section closest to the arena’s floor.
Conversations amongst the crowd began to spark collectively asking questions like; “Is Donda a gospel album? Is Kanye bringing out surprise guests? Who else is here?
Nearly two hours past the intended start, the rapper emerged ready with answers.
Taking to a crisp, white tarp accented only with subtle smoke, Kanye appeared dressed all in red with orange sneakers, walking out to the sound of Baptist church-style pipe organs playing in the background as the lyric, “We gonna be okay” was set on repeat for what seemed to be an overextension of time.
Without uttering a word and with a sepia stocking cap covering his face, Kanye immediately swayed to the music as the recorded voice of his late mother took over the show. He continued standing in the middle of the stadium floor in silence, letting the music instead speak for him. At times a seemingly emotional Kanye abruptly stopped swaying and fell to his knees with his head hanging. Other times, he stood completely still with a finger pointed to the sky and fans mirrored him, following suit; fingers up, just like ‘Ye.
This was of course attendees’ first-time hearing Yeezy’s latest project, but they caught on quickly. “No matter what, you never abandon your family!” the crowd recited along to one of the tracks. “I know God breathed on this!” they echoed back to the rapper on another.
As the event continued, eager ears clamored to hear the special collaborations on the project, and some were easily identifiable. A track featuring Travis Scott dropped and the energy in the arena immediately spiked. People jumped out of their seats to the beat and Kanye appeared to be equally as excited as he bounced and bopped along to the music in response.
At one point Lil Baby’s distinct voice came through the speakers and the ATL crowd surged with excitement. Pop Smoke’s signature timbre made a fan near me grab his waistband and dance like the late Brooklyn drill emcee. Everyone was entranced by Kanye and clearly wanted more. Chants of “Yeezy” engulfed the stadium especially when the rapper looked up at fans receiving the sea of posters, waving hands and cell phone lights despite a mandate of no flash photography or recordings.
In what would turn out to be the final track of the night, the distinctive voice of Jay Z surprisingly rang out leaving the crowd stunned. “This might be the return of the throne,” rapped Jay in a recording on the track. “Throne, Hova and Yeezus, like Moses and Jesus,” he added. Heads bobbed as people realized the significance of this musical reunion. It’s been nearly 10 years since Kanye and Jay Z’s “Watch The Throne” album was released and this track was perfectly presented as the climax of the evening.
In hindsight, hearing Jay’s verse was especially noteworthy considering that producer and engineer Young Guru said it was recorded just seven hours before the event. While the crowd was still buzzing over this historic reunion, the latter quietly walked away and disappeared backstage to mark the listening party’s end. Kanye’s humble yet ubiquitous event was over. Clamoring for more, fans initially waited for an encore, but upon realizing there would be none, folks began to exit their seats with satisfied smiles.
Although he was completely silent during the 45-minute appearance, Kanye simply let Donda speak for itself. Streaming sales will certainly tell the story that the world is ready to listen to Ye, as it always does and likely always will.
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group)