ATLANTA – Exactly two weeks ago, Kanye West played his long-awaited “Donda” album for about 42,000 fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
And then he literally never left the building.
The superstar rapper – a genius to his devotees, an eccentric to everyone else – created a studio lair in a pocket of the cavernous downtown Atlanta venue where he slept in a makeshift spartan bedroom, ate meals from a privately commissioned chef,toiled away on “Donda,” livestreamed elements of his temporary (?) life and welcomed guests including Chance the Rapper.
On Thursday night, West emerged from his stadium cocoon for another live album presentation for a slightly smaller crowd of about 35,000.
As with his July 22 event – during which “Donda” played in the stadium while West walked around the venue floor – West arrived on his own time, at 10:25 p.m. (tickets were for 9 p.m.).
Clad in black with the word DONDA on his back, West stood amid a circle of lights on a setup mimicking his makeshift room (bed, candle, shoes) as the song featuring a speech from his beloved late mother Donda West – who died in 2007 and for whom the album is named – played. One amusing lyric, “You brought church to stadiums built for only soccer,” was perhaps a nod to his surroundings.
It was immediately apparent that the retooled album sounded more cohesive, with more beats and melodies and songs such as “New Again” and the Roddy Ricch feature “Pure Souls” sounding textured and lyrically fulfilling.
Guest shots from Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, Jadakiss and Griselda also popped up during the nearly 90-minute presentation. But Jay-Z’s appearance on the guitar-buzzing, percussion-heavy “Jail” and The Weeknd’s creamy vocals cushioning “Hurricane” sounded like highlights for fans, who whooped appreciatively at the recognition of both.
(Trivia alert: This was the first music event in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take place under an open roof – a call made by stadium officials due to the COVID-19 surge.)
West still never spoke, but at least stepped up the production element, which, granted, wasn’t a tough assignment.
As one song featuring the intonation “stay outside…let’s get right” played and the halo video board in the stadium flickered with images of menacing clouds, West dropped to the ground to do pushups while dozens of choir members trotted out from the hallways and filed around the stage.
During the clip-clop catchiness of “Junya” (featuring Playboi Carti, who also appeared on “Off the Grid”), hundreds of additional choir members, dressed head-to-toe in black, walked in an endless circle around the stage. At one point, West appeared to be holding a phone and having a faux (?) argument as the choir burst into heavenly vocals. At another point, he threw a black jacket over himself and raced around the stage before falling to the ground, where he remained for several minutes into the first part of the slow-burning “Remote.”
His lament about his impending divorce, “Losing My Family,” was accompanied by more choir members crawling across the stage floor as his mother’s words – “no matter what, you never abandon your family” – chanted in the background and West lay motionless on the bed.
As with the first round of “Donda,” West’s estranged wife, Kim Kardashian West, was on site, along with the couple’s children, in a show of support.
Donda West’s presence felt stronger on this version of the album, as she loomed in “Jesus Lord” as well (“And if I talk to Christ, could I bring my mother back to life?” Kanye pondered); the spiritual overtones were also notable during the rumbling “I Know God Breathed on This,” accompanied by pulsing red lights.
To close his event, West zipped skyward on cables, hanging limply in midair as an organ swelled for “No Child Left Behind” with the closing statement, “He’s done miracles on me.”
While it’s evident that West’s additional work has resulted in a markedly impressive album, fans still don't know when “Donda” will officially drop because getting West to commit to a release date is like trying to catch air. But when it does arrive, this time, it will be worth the wait.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kanye West: Improved 'Donda' album impresses at live Atlanta event