#25. “Say like The Black Album was like The Black Movie. So the soundtracks are like scores to scenes that’s going on in the movie. This record ain’t a record. It’s a movie.” This audacious sentiment, expressed by a young Kanye West to his label boss/mentor Jay-Z in 2001, is the most direct the Chicago visionary has ever come to comparing his musical output to the likes of cinema, an art form he has a lot of normie opinions about, but one he seldom seriously engages with. He’s flirted with the idea of being a director of sorts before — “feelin’ like Hype Williams” on “Illest Motherf**ker Alive” — yet this brazen energy (to be expected, given the source) has only ever properly manifested itself for the music video/short films “Runaway” and “Cruel Summer,” the latter of which was exhibited at Cannes on seven screens in a custom-built pyramid theater. That is until we enter into the off-shoot realm of the “concert film,” where West’s artistic ambitions continue to push the limits of what exactly a recorded live performance can truly entail, even if he himself wasn’t directly credited beyond star-billing. There’s that never-released Yeezus doc, directed by the aforementioned Williams, shelved for undisclosed reasons, a grail for Yeezy fanatics who would salivate at the thought of their idol screaming through “Black Skinhead” while running across the stage; but his 808’s and Heartbreaks one — filmed at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015 for the album’s seven-year anniversary — gave us a true glimpse of what we were potentially missing. The show was this massively staged, multi-set production — one that felt more akin to conceptual theater than as a musical event — a clear predecessor to West’s recent Donda listening parties and the closest fans had come to organically bear witness to the musician’s creative genius emerge in real-time.
Experiencing this ecstatic conception is perhaps the single greatest joy of watching the comparatively stripped-down (and also awkwardly named) Kanye With Special Guest Drake: Free Larry Hoover – Benefit Concert, which serves as both West’s first live performance of any sort since canceling his Life of Pablo tour mid-way through 2016 and as a celebratory rapprochement between two long-beefing MCs (supposedly there’s the whole “advocating for clemency on Larry Hoover’s behalf” angle, but he’s never once mentioned it outside of the title): to observe untapped potential operating at top performance, the key component required for any sort of grand spectacle. West casually tears through his wide-ranging discography — a body of work that “special guest” Aubrey Graham deems as “one of the greatest catalogs in music history, period”— with a frenzied, free-flowing ferocity (and some expert breath control!) as he traverses through his humble professional beginnings (“All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks”), into stadium-status territory (“Good Life” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), and has him, yes, eventually running around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s massive stadium screaming out the lyrics to “Black Skinhead,” all with an energetic verve that the historic night’s cultural significance had finally drawn out of him after all this time. Even though he is technically a co-headliner, Drake’s appearance here could be considered “super special” when viewed on Amazon’s streaming platform: his entire contemporaneous-inclined set has been curiously removed from the final cut (some licensing details, though he pops out at the end to do his part of “Forever”), making it even clearer how much this event was strictly a showcase for Ye, even from its inception. But defining this event solely by exhibitionist terms would be myopic, even a bit willfully wrongheaded; this show, as it stands, is the articulation of one man’s nearly twenty-year career, along with his hopes and dreams, materialized into an ephemeral moment in time. Simply put, as West once elegantly did, it’s a movie; nothing more, and nothing less.