Undercooked tracks on this gospel album dont delve deep enough into Wests spiritual enlightenment
In the beginning, Christianity rippled through the music of Kanye West. He was the star who made his name by envisioning a world where clubs would go wild in the name of Jesus and testified that before he left his planet he would touch the sky. West was happy to present as a natural-born sinner who believed in scripture; a heathen with God in his heart.
But during the release of his 2016 album, The Life of Pablo, the rapper started talking up his work as being gospel music. Its opening song, Ultralight Beam, might have promised a collection to blow the roof off houses of worship, but West was content only to gesture towards biblical teachings. His new record, Jesus Is King, is different. Completing the ideological journey he started three years ago, West arrives in front of the altar, arms stretched, dressed all in white, ready to hand himself fully over to his Lord.
A Kanye West gospel album with an accompanying film by Nick Knight set in James Turrells Roden Crater is an intriguing prospect for anybody who believes in the power of catharsis, a potential cleansing baptism after his hurtful Maga hat posturing, to wash away the perceived sin. Whats Christianity about, if not redemption? But Jesus Is King is too slight a record, too lacking in substance, to offer any sense of purification or real insights into Wests mind. What we get is 27 minutes of perfunctory religious discussion that tell us little of Gods place in the life of this one believer and almost nothing of Gods place in the modern world.
Like Wests last solo album, the half-baked Ye, this is anotherslapdash project from a once great album-maker. Jesus Is King finds West fumbling around like a sleepy Sunday morning churchgoer desperately searching through their trouser pockets for coins when the collection plate unexpectedly arrives. With only three songs stretching beyond the three-minute mark, the album is mostly made up of short sketches. Some are perfectly fine little ditties, but without more full-bodied tracks to act as support, Jesus Is King is a suite that constantly feels like it will blow away in the breeze.
Confronted with the task of creating songs about religion, West delivers a set that lyrically is as thin as Bible paper. As you would expect, there are plenty of assertions of his faith: When I get to heavens gates / I aint gotta peak over, he jerkily raps over the organ chords of Selah before the rapturous choir chants of Hallelujah set in. In Closed on Sunday, he suggests turning off Instagram to spend more time praying with family, a statement that would spark significant eye-rolling from kid worshippers if they heard it coming from the church pulpit. A few tracks later, West sends guests Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons out to assert, We have everything we need, which feels a bit rich coming from a man who once asked Mark Zuckerberg to invest $1bn in his ideas.
Religion in rap is not an alien concept, from Tupacs calls to hail Mary to Chance the Rappers Coloring Book, a dedicated if alienating to many non-believers meditation on the blessings of scripture. Kendrick Lamars To Pimp a Butterfly was palpably spiritual, presenting belief as a necessary ingredient in the balm that will soothe the US. Aside from some commentary on the countrys 13th amendment which abolishes slavery but leaves a loophole that suggests it is legal to enslave convicts, something West has previously called to be amended he eschews heady topics and instead collapses into religious cliche. We dont get the madcap charm, funny metaphors or cutting introspection of his best work. Lines like Use this gospel for protection / Its a hard way to heaven are begging him to go deeper, to reveal more about the personal struggle that has pushed him towards a spiritual project. The closest we get is a reference to his abandoned album Yandhi Everybody wanted Yandhi / Then Jesus Christ did the laundry, he raps on Selah suggesting the content of the record was not compatible with his newfound beliefs (the leaks, however, say it would have been better).
Equally slender is the orchestration. The albums sonic minimalism is evident in Everything We Need, a new version of the leaked song The Storm. Among the elements to be deleted from the songs previous draft are the layers of bass, a Jersey Shore audio clip, and a verse from the late XXXTentacion, rendering the song practically naked in comparison. Minimalism isnt a synonym for flawed, of course the best cut here is Follow God, which features a lean soul sample that evokes memories of Bound 2 but too much of Jesus Is King feels unfinished, like West was forced to do the bare minimum to hastily meet a deadline.
The reunification of the Virgina rap duo Clipse on Use This Gospel does promise a beautiful subplot to Jesus Is King. Two brothers divided since 2014 are artistically reconciled, Pusha Ts trust in Wests vision snapping into line with No Malices insistence that his music carries a positive message. But built around some dinky keys and Wests distorted hums that sound hastily synched by a loop pedal, the song is frustratingly undercooked. An unlikely saxophone solo from Kenny G is surprisingly simplistic, not helped by West, who pushes him into the spotlight.
West has spent his career investigating his own singular path, and he has contorted hip-hop with his particular genius. But its hard to envision his base listening to Jesus Is King and catching the holy spirit. This sharp turn isnt going to change the cultural zeitgeist. Rather, its an album that feels like an oddity in the canon a diversion before normal service is resumed. Except that hes already planning a follow up titled Jesus Is Born, suggesting secular music is off the menu for at least a little while longer.
Theres a pretty big question at play here. Last years Wyoming sessions showed evidence that, after almost two decades at the top of the game as a producer and solo artist, West was facing a creative regression. These fears were somewhat soothed by excellent high points Pusha Ts laser-focused drug rap album Daytona, the West-Kid Cudi team-up Kids See Ghost, sections of Teyana Taylors soulful KTSE. But Jesus Is King might be the definitive assertion that Wests golden period is over. Being reborn as a preacher might be good for his soul, but dont expect it to be good for his ends.