Inside Kanye West's Soulful, Smoky and Spiritual 'Nebuchadnezzar' Opera

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Kanye West

The plot centered on the religious text about the Babylonian king from the Book of Daniel.

Like most Kanye West-related endeavors, his Nebuchadnezzar opera ran a bit behind schedule. Patrons filled the Hollywood Bowl as the sun set on a brisk Sunday (Nov. 24). West’s family, represented by Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Kris Jenner and the kids, arrived to applause. Actor and West’s friend Brad Pitt, rappers MGK and Chance The Rapper, musician Travis Barker, a cowboy hat-clad Diplo and hairstylist Jen Atkin were among the notable folks who piled into the Garden boxes section in front of the stage, signaling that it was showtime. Over two hours after the socialized start of 4 p.m. PT, the production commenced at precisely 6:14 p.m. PT as darkness befell the amphitheater for more dramatic flair.

Directed by multi-disciplinary artist and longtime ‘Ye collaborator, Vanessa Beecroft, the roughly hourlong show featured the Sunday Service choir, singer Peter Collins, the group Infinity’s Song and visual performers. This was not a “hip-hop musical” a la DaBaby’s “BOP” nor was it similar to ‘Ye’s previous congregations featuring holy remixes to contemporary favorites. The plot centered on the religious text about Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, from the Book of Daniel, which he shared in images of multiple highlighted passages in the Bible on Twitter, which for churchgoers is basically the digital way of passing mass books to other parishioners in a pew.

Set to a soundtrack that transitioned from 808-heavy beats to acoustic R&B melodies to soul-tingling gospel, the opera showcased moments of bittersweet tension and physical punctuation as West delivered the story as narrator. Harlem rapper Sheck Wes played the titular character. Draped in Prince-esque purple garb, the “Mo Bamba” MC employed strong facial expressions and projection in his vocals to elicit groans of agony, writhe in anguish or shout light dialogue across the stage. 

Other striking images that linger long after the final bow include the bit where Daniel vowed to not “defile himself with the royal food and wine,” as two lengthy dinner tables with platters piled high of a kingly feast were rolled out. Several performers began chomping at the delicacies without using their hands. This prompted Daniel and his friends to consume only vegetables and water for 10 days, appearing fairer and more agile than those who indulged in a gluttonous diet. If there was a snapshot of this contrast between Daniel’s squad, approved by the eunuchs, and the lethargic others, the modern-day Instagram caption would most likely have been: “Blessed and highly favored.”

Another stirring scene was Nebuchadnezzar's dream state. Soft R&B melodies featuring acoustic guitar enhanced the hazy sequence — emphasized more by the icy fog that wafted out at numerous points during the show along the rows in the Garden seating section. The dance component was entrancing to watch as the performers mimicked the idea of a human domino effect from left to right and back in a fluid, yet purposeful way before circling Nebuchadnezzar in a ring around West’s holy prose-y. A pullout quote: “Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, wherewith his spirit was troubled, and his sleep brake from him.”

Scan or poll the crowd for instant reactions and it was scattered across the board. Some attendees left halfway, as others craved more of a Kanye West musical — or as one patron said, “A Yeezus moment” — while things clicked sooner for those in tune with religion. Others were admittedly confused but appreciated the moving art (despite feeling frozen from the drop in temperature during the chilly L.A. evening, which sent some to buy a $45.00 Hollywood Bowl blanket). Hints of West’s secular work snuck into the soundscape, though, like the eerie “Wolves.” During a breakthrough moment, a group of dancers bowed down to a gold statue made up of a man in a gilded gown that wrapped a tall pillar that represented the Nebuchadnezzar “image of gold” that all were instructed to worship. This segued into the casting of the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, into the fiery furnace for not worshipping the golden image. Later, they emerge from the flames upon Nebuchadnezzar's request to be rewarded for their loyalty to God.

The production also felt like a triumphant moment to see — and hear! — a majority of melanin faces onstage for an opera. (A post was spotted on marketing agency and content production studio New Edge Agency CEO Daniel Lau-Lopez’s Instagram Story for a casting call from Kanye’s team for 300 African American men and women with a $100 rate to be in West’s “once in a lifetime historic event” and ensembles — white garments and Yeezy Boost sneakers that were allegedly handed out before the performance and stowed in a truck in the backstage area — were offered as well as a $100 rate). Despite ‘Ye’s controversial opinions and sharp yet seemingly erratic musical pivots, he continues to stay committed to his spiritual causes under the influence of God, which has yielded opportunities for those based in faith to shine beside him.  

Still, this version of enlightened ‘Ye is a hard man and artist to relate to or check for in the age of cancel culture. Google searches still contain clips of his head-scratching, infuriating stance on slavery and his MAGA hat-wearing pictures next to America’s current president, a stickler for political and moral incorrectness. Add the devoted rap purists who prefer the brash and unfiltered bars belonging to the Kanye of old. It’s hard to move past both pasts.

At this moment, it’s evident that West — as narrator for his first opera and overall Christianity follower — is watching a different kind of throne than the one that inspired his joint album with Jay-Z. In the final scene, Nebuchadnezzar realized the glory of God’s kingdom. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven.” Kanye’s voice now crescendoing into a parable-loving politician’s tone. “All whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.” He then called for the audience to stand up with their hands up as the harmonies reached heavenly volumes, beyond tangible comprehension.

This story first appeared on billboard.com