Kanye and Drake’s ‘Free Larry Hoover’ concert was a missed opportunity

Forgotten lyrics, a poorly curated setlist, and lack of a cohesive message plagued what could’ve been a powerful moment.

ByJayson Buford

Over the past three years, Kanye West and Drake have ventured into a beef that is equal parts passive-aggressive and confrontational, homoerotic and hyper-masculine, farcical and bland, misconceived and well-judged. They’re both bombastic figures with their own separate histories, as well as a frenemy relationship dating all the way back to 2009’s So Far Gone, where Drake rapped over Kanye’s "Say You Will" and Kanye directed Drake’s "Best I Ever Had" music video. Throughout their off and on friendship, Kanye has called him an “amazing sparring partner," Drake questioned the writing abilities on Yeezus, and Kanye gave him a co-sign at OVO Fest. The turning point in their relationship happened when Kanye allegedly provided Pusha T the information for the 2018 headlock “The Story of Adidon,” which made public Drake’s son with a French woman named Sophie Brussaux with a wicked punchline: “You are hiding a child.” All of this has created a hoopla on social media. These two men aren’t going back and forth on wax (at least not by name); they’re trading MTV soap opera shots, talking about each other’s family lives, and making coy but abrasive Instagram stories. Drake, whose lasting genius will be his use of social media and memes to his benefit, has come out as the lesser of two evils in this. (This is surely also because of Kanye West dabbling in MAGA politics, wearing the hat, and meeting with the man, whom he called his "brother." ) The beef, while unquestionably funny, has also been embarrassing and petulant, especially for Kanye, who has dealt with apparent mental health issues since the ignition of this entanglement.

Last month, Houston rap executive and Drake’s mentor J. Prince posted a photo of Drake and Kanye together taken at Drake’s house in Toronto. The photo is ominous and hilarious — with Prince doing his infamous finger gun pose like a movie villain. Days later, there was an announcement that Drake and Kanye would be doing a benefit for reputed and imprisoned Chicago gangster Larry Hoover, co-founder of the Gangster Disciples. Hoover, who is serving a 200-year sentence for ordering a murder in 1973 and for running a crime operation from prison after being convicted, has built momentum around the belief that he should be pardoned. In theory, this is a sound idea. Many people are unjustly in prison for crimes related to gang affiliation. The carceral system in this country is abhorrent and has gotten deserved comparisons to slavery for its relationship with involuntary servitude. The idea behind freeing Hoover is simple: it would help show people in hip-hop leadership, Hoover could help broker much-needed peace within Chicago, and also that he is rehabilitated after over 40 years in a cell. His son, Larry Hoover Jr, said as much in an interlude at the end of “Jesus Lord,” from West’s latest album Donda.

Last night, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Drake and Kanye finally came back together. The crowd was energetic, with the Sunday Service Choir majestically singing "This is a God dream" as the backdrop. Kanye came out with a setlist that played towards who he was early in his career, when he was considered an underdog with a fiery anger reminiscent of Chuck D but the complexities of an artist with a personal narrative. The College Dropout, along with the sharp and disruptive Yeezus, are his angriest and best records, willingly embracing the contradictory impulses of social justice and materialism. When he compared himself to Steve Jobs or Ralph Lauren, it was weighted with the conviction of a man who wanted to make playgrounds and uniforms for his former high school. Those complexities (and his showmanship) made Kanye the artist of the people for a stretch of his career: when he says there will be a benefit concert, despite the past misdeeds, everyone will tune in and watch.

Opening with “Jesus Walks,” ”All Falls Down,” and later “Touch the Sky,” Ye got off to a hot start, tugging at the heartstrings of those who say corny things like “I miss the old Kanye.” (To be fair — we all do a little bit.) But West is no longer in physical shape like he used to be; strutting around the stage rapping became tough for him, and he began missing words from his verses. He also, clumsily, tried to avoid profanity, which he said in recent years he was doing for religious reasons. This led to awkwardness during the songs, as he would remember not to curse one minute and then forget moments later. He did a rendition of Drake’s “Find Your Love,” a song he produced, signifying the fact that these two are on good terms for now. Later, he ran through “Runaway” while crooning more about his regrets and singing to the crowd about resolving differences and reuniting, even pleading, “run right back to me, specifically you, Kimberly,” referring to his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian West. Here is Kanye in 2021, using what was supposed to be a benefit concert to simp over his ex.

Drake, meanwhile, did the opposite: his setlist was confusing, inconsistent, and went for songs that are immediate hits but not the classic tunes that Kanye played. Going from a cover of Kanye’s “24” to his own “Wants and Needs” and his recent Certified Lover Boy hit “Way 2 Sexy,” Drake was playing the algorithm, not the emotional bangers that endeared him to so many fans. He also performed “No Friends In The Industry,” and other songs that fans thought had subliminal shots aimed at Kanye when they were released.

Kanye and Drake make sense to perform with each other — So Far Gone and Drake’s subsequent records built off his Kanye’s somber concoction of emotiveness, vulnerability, and melding of rap and R&B with 808s and Heartbreak. Together, the two dictated the changing tides of hip-hop that are still reflected more than a decade later. It didn’t work here, though, with Kanye forgetting his lyrics (at one point he told the DJ to skip “All Day” because he didn’t know the words), and Drake seemingly being uninterested in playing hits that made him the biggest artist in Hip-Hop.

They also never mentioned prison reform. There was one mention of Hoover, caught by an ambient mic that said "Larry Hoover was a man who made a mistake," but nothing extensive or educational. If you are going to do a concert on prison reform, a real-life issue that affects millions of incarcerated people, it shouldn’t just be for the sake of legacy-building, self-mythologizing, or the public perception of resolving a beef. Such an event should bring enlightenment to a situation that deserves discussion. If bailing out Hoover is the mission, there should be some sort of roadmap to that goal — knowledgeable speakers in the criminal justice reform space, statistics, the amount of donations shown. Thursday’s concert had none of that.

At the New York IMAX theater I went to, the screen went black during the middle of the performance. Despite proceeds and merch going to groups like ‘Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, an IMAX theater, supposed to show us the beauty of the picture in the widest, most vivid way possible going blank at a crucial moment felt like a microcosm of the event as a whole. Moments after the screen went dark, a fan shouted: “They ain’t never freeing him now.”