Album Review: Kanye West's 'Jesus Is King'
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On Friday morning, Kanye West finally released his long-delayed ninth album, “Jesus Is King.” The album is his first since he experienced a well-publicized Christian awakening, began holding gospel-themed “Sunday Services,” and promised to have forsaken secular music for good. The album is West’s second-shortest, his least percussive, and his first to feature absolutely no swearing. It’s also not very good. But the degree to which it’s still worth listening to depends entirely on your relationship to Kanye.
For people who can only remember, or who only knew, Kanye West after he began his grand heel-turn into pop music’s most radioactive provocateur, it can be difficult to explain what he meant to those of us who fell in love with him back when he still rocked a pink polo and rapped about Sam’s Club. His prickliness, his self-righteousness, and his egomania have always been constants in his music, but early Kanye was nonetheless uniquely, intensely relatable, and it’s remarkable how long this residual goodwill has lasted him. It’s hard to think of another 21st century artist who has gone to such lengths to alienate his core fanbase, only for that fanbase to crawl back with wary curiosity every time he releases a new project. Perhaps it’s his Madonna-like capacity for reinvention, the idea that an artist who has adopted so many different guises over the decades will inevitably find a new, less toxic one than the incoherent MAGA-hatted reactionary he’s been playing since 2016. Or maybe it’s simply that, more than his considerable musical genius, the key appeal of Kanye West has always been the pathos he inspires. To be a Kanye fan is to be capable of finding him ridiculous and aggravating and sometimes even despicable – sometimes even dangerous – but still somehow wanting him to figure it all out.
Perhaps that’s a reason why so many greeted West’s newfound spirituality with something like relief. If anything, a religious conversion felt like an overdue plot point on the great Kanye narrative. Unlike Bob Dylan, whose abrupt 1970s shift into born-again piety seemingly came from out of nowhere, the ecclesiastical tensions in West’s music have been percolating ever since his earliest singles. Plus, as every classical conversion narrative will tell you, the light of the spirit is often darkest before the dawn, and West’s last album, 2018’s “Ye,” was as bleak as they come. Though it remains his worst record, full of toothless provocations and rushed production, it nonetheless provided several of those indelible morsels of honesty that keep die-hards from giving up hope on him completely. The first track, “I Thought About Killing You,” opens with a repetitive, seemingly impromptu spoken-word piece in which West recalls pondering the murder of an unnamed loved one, among other “really, really bad” thoughts. “Just say it out loud,” he says to himself mid-confession, “just to see how it feels.” It’s not exactly Augustine’s pre-conversion epiphany, “I loved my own error – not that for which I erred, but the error itself,” but it’s not that far off, either. On “Ye,” West had pushed his own debasement about as far as it could go, and for those of us Kanye apostates who still longed to someday rejoin the flock, the idea of an abrupt swerve into a brighter direction seemed welcome.
“Jesus Is King” arrives, of course, after months of sneak peaks at West’s Sunday Service celebrations, including a hillside performance just outside of the Coachella festival grounds last April. Like almost everything West has done over the last half-decade, it was hard to know what to make of it at first. From the teasing clips West’s wife Kim Kardashian posted online, West looked happier surrounded by a gospel choir than he’d seemed in some time, visibly moved by some sort of spirit as he joined in with the chorus and repurposed his secular hits into praise songs. But the service’s denominational slipperiness also seemed concerning. Were Kim and Kanye genuine, or were they cynically co-opting the black gospel church tradition for an Instagram stunt? What sort of gospel did this service preach anyway? Was this a nascent cult? And was Kanye just a member of this ad-hoc congregation, or was he its leader?
Ultimately, the sincerity of West’s personal faith is entirely between him and his God. But for “Jesus Is King” to work as a conversion narrative, however, we have to understand what went on in his head to turn him from Kanye the exasperating troll into Kanye the smiling, robe-clad ringleader of weekly gospel services. It’s one thing for his theology to be confused – and the lyrics on “Jesus” are an unwieldy jumble of baseline devotional verses with dashes of prosperity gospel nonsense – but one would hope he’d explain what his theology means to him, and how he arrived there. On “Jesus,” the self-humbling and the bouts of repentance that should be the heart of his awakening all seem to have occurred offstage, with West already asserting the confidence of the lifelong believer. “When I get to Heaven’s gates, I ain’t gotta peek over,” he raps between shout-outs to a handful of New Testament verses on “Selah,” continuing: “Keeping perfect composure / When I scream at the chauffeur.” Perhaps his Bible study sessions haven’t gotten around to Matthew 19:23 yet.
This refusal to really reckon with the life West lived before his great awakening leaves a hole at the center of “Jesus,’ because our interest in hearing him rap about the Bible is entirely contingent upon knowing what he rapped about before. There are plenty of Christian rappers out there, most of whom can rhyme about Scripture with considerably more nuance than Kanye, but none of them wrote “Hell of a Life.” Yet we almost never hear West atoning or trembling or marveling before the majesty of God, instead we hear him exalting in the sense of power and control that his faith gives him. And as even Kanye once acknowledged, he already had more power than any one man should have.
While only a few of the songs here function as straight-ahead rap tracks – and only “Follow God” sounds like something the old West might have cooked up in his prime sample-chopping days – this is certainly still a Kanye album, with no shortage of left-field pop culture references, extremely slanted slant-rhymes and groaner one-liners. (The deeply regrettable “closed on Sundays, you’re my Chick-fil-A” lyric has already achieved a good measure of online infamy, but “I thought the book of Job was a job” and “I was on the ‘Gram, and I don’t even like likes” both have an undeniable charm.) Yet it’s on the broader, more Sunday school-worthy songs of devotion that West’s message goes down the easiest. Aside from the opening track – which is owned entirely by his Sunday Service Choir – the purest gospel song on the record is “God Is,” on which West sings plainspoken praises in a high, increasingly hoarse voice. Its replay value may be minimal, but hearing him unleash his fervor so nakedly is unexpectedly affecting.
On the whole, however, the album is a lyrical mess, alternately alienating and bland. “On God” may be the worst offender, with West moaning about his taxes and going to great lengths to justify the eye-watering prices of his merch and his Yeezy sneaker line, explaining that if he were to charge less, his family might starve, or he might be forced to appear on “Dancing With the Stars.” (He seems to find these two fates comparably bleak.) “Hands On” boasts a moody, low-key beat and a nice cameo from gospel veteran Fred Hammond, but West’s persecution complex spoils the party, as he falls into a sour funk whining about being judged by fellow Christians. (Thankfully, the album is free of any explicit Donald Trump content, though one would be curious to hear how West reconciles his embrace of Christianity with his allegiance to a wrathful, avaricious, baby-jailing adulterer who spent most of his life erecting gaudy monuments to his own pride and vanity. That goes for plenty of other self-professed Christians too.)
The album’s saving grace, as with so many of West’s more mis-calibrated works, is the quality of the production. Ever since “Yeezus” saw him birth a new aesthetic out of scratch vocals and unsanded transitions, West has been more and more willing to blur the lines between rough demos and polished products, with “Ye” in particular featuring a number of obviously half-finished tracks. “Jesus,” whose release was delayed more than once, shows signs of greater studio care, and even when the songs feel incompletely developed, at least the seams aren’t showing. “Everything We Need,” for example, features an absolutely glorious, multitracked vocal hook from Ty Dolla $ign, though West never quite figures out what to do with it. Producers Pi’erre Bourne and Timbaland show up to give some songs an extra kick, but only occasionally do they have the proper space to breathe.
The best track on the album by far – and the only one likely to appear on any West career retrospectives – is the de facto closer “Use This Gospel.” Like a more modest take on “Runaway,” the song moves from the pulse of a single piano key to a wordless football-chant refrain, through verses from the reunited Clipse (with No Malice, who underwent his own spiritual conversion years ago, managing to sneak a coke reference into this otherwise squeaky-clean affair) and finally, a blown-out sax solo from none other than Kenny G. That these unlikeliest of elements should combine to form the most coherent song on “Jesus” shouldn’t be surprising; Kanye used to pull off similar miracles all the time. But its presence here almost diminishes the rest of the album, serving as a reminder of how good Kanye once was, and how much we’ve been forced to grade his new music on a curve.