Kanye West barely performs in headlining set at Rolling Loud

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Whatever Kanye West was paid to headline the first night of this weekend’s Rolling Loud California festival, it was easy money. Onstage for about an hour Thursday evening with Ty Dolla Sign — his partner on the chart-topping “Vultures 1” album released last month under the duo name ¥$ — Kanye roamed around in a black jacket and a face mask as their songs played over the festival’s sound system on a huge circular stage planted in the parking lot of Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium.

If he was rapping, you couldn’t hear it; if he was holding a microphone, you couldn’t see it.

This kind of presentation isn’t new for the controversial rapper now known as Ye, who’s introduced his last several albums with high-profile listening events held in arenas and stadiums around the country. But Kanye’s booking at Rolling Loud — hip-hop’s festival of record, with wildly popular editions in cities including Miami, New York and Los Angeles — was billed (or at least was widely perceived to be billed) as something different: his first full-scale festival performance since the seeming meltdown of his career after he made a series of antisemetic remarks in late 2022.

Yet a listening session is what he and Ty delivered in front of SoFi, where Rolling Loud California is set to run through Sunday with acts including Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and the duo of Future and Metro Boomin. The two of them played — well, the sound system played — many of the songs from “Vultures 1”; after they left the stage, an unseen DJ played about a half-hour’s worth of old Kanye classics, including “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” “All of the Lights” and “Runaway,” as a smoke machine did its best to conceal the fact that the rapper wasn’t there. (“Vultures 1” has some high points, but these staggering oldies really made clear how dramatically his musical skills have diminished in recent years.)

Did fans mind? Salty tweets proliferated among folks apparently watching online — the general idea was that Kanye had pulled off a swindle — though those on the ground certainly seemed unbothered: New songs like “Paid” and “Back to Me” and “Keys to My Life” inspired huge reactions in the crowd of tens of thousands, including among one group of people who’d broken through a security fence to climb onto a section of stage scaffolding. During the chorus of “Carnival” — currently the No. 1 track on Billboard’s Hot 100 — the music from the stage cut out and the audience took over the song’s percussive vocal chant, drowning out the performers in the spotlight.

But then of course that wasn’t hard to do.

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