Kanye West needs no introduction. The legendary rapper/singer/producer is responsible for some of the most monumental pieces of art in modern music history, with albums like “The College Dropout”, “808s & Heartbreak”, and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” making for some of the most game-changing, influential, and awe-inspiring works to ever be recorded. This isn’t hyperbole, either; Kanye’s discography has helped inspire entire waves in hip-hop, and are home to some of the most musically literate compositions to grace the genre. It’s hard to think critically about an artist I value in such high regard, but recent years have forced me to re-evaluate who Kanye is as a figure due to his polarizing off-stage persona.
Recent issues regarding West’s politics and public comments have inspired much discussion. Some of these elements have even made it into the music, as was the case on Kanye’s last solo studio album ye. A lot of Kanye’s comments have come across as the ramblings of a lunatic, and it has been difficult to separate the problematic artist from the legendary art.
But after months of controversy, delays, and bizarre antics (like the much-talked-about Sunday Service speeches, which have included praise for President Donald Trump, in addition to traditional gospel preaching), Kanye has finally dropped his latest, much-anticipated album, “JESUS IS KING”. And like many of Kanye’s previous works, it’s a total curveball, stylistically and lyrically. Gone are the psychedelic rock infusions of the mind-bending Kid Cudi collaboration “KIDS SEE GHOSTS”, instead replaced with the sounds of gospel music. Organs, choirs, and thunderous kickdrums dominate “JESUS IS KING” (formerly titled Yandhi), combining with divinely inspired lyrics that sound straight out of church processions. Religious themes are nothing new for Kanye (a la “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam”), but never before has he dedicated an entire album to this subject material.
So, does it work? The answer is yes, mostly. With JESUS IS KING, Kanye has essentially created a gospel album for everyone, including non-believers. The messaging of the album is one of overwhelming positivity, choosing to focus on the good aspects of religion, rather than those that make religion somewhat problematic. Some critics might say he is avoiding the touchier subjects as to pander to a religious audience, but I don’t believe this is the case.
My evidence for this comes in the form of the song “God Is.” On this cut, Kanye talks about what God means to him as an individual. The song goes further to talk about how religion is what saved him from his addictions, and cured him of his mental health afflictions. To Kanye, God is a welcoming, loving figure who doesn’t discriminate based on arbitrary reasons, but rather a divine motivator of sorts for Kanye’s mission. “This ain’t bout a damn religion,” Kanye starkly claims, instead arguing for a globalist movement towards love and universality, themes that I think anyone could get behind.
When directly questioned about his relationship with Christians, Kanye pulls no punches. “They’d be the first one to judge me,” he proclaims, as he describes that he’s desperately trying to lead the Christians to Jesus, but worries that his motives might be questioned by the very people he is trying to lead. Kanye sounds truly reflective on this cut, talking about how sincerely he is taking this mission and the criticism he’ll inevitably get for making this decision (“I deserve all the criticism you got… To praise his name, you ask what I’m smoking”).
The soulful messaging of the album continues on virtually every track on the album, each relating to a different aspect of Kanye’s faith. “Follow God” is the closest thing the album has to a banger, with Kanye’s traditional chipmunk-soul sound applied to topics like his complicated relationship with his father. On this track, Kanye tries to be a Christ-like figure, but finds himself in situations that compromise his faith-based journey. “Selah” is another fantastic cut, with its epic chants and organ playing complimenting Kanye’s lyrics about being a misunderstood prophet. “Before the flood, people judge / They did the same thing to Noah,” Kanye raps, talking about how he’s trying to spread a message of positivity, but people aren’t looking past the language to see the messaging. These are all-time great songs for Kanye and showcase exactly why his music has been so enduring: larger-than-life sounds mixed with sordid personal details and catchy flows.
The real stunner of the tracklisting comes much later in the album, in the form of the cut “Use This Gospel.” The swelling beat builds up to a series of fiery features from Pusha T and No Malice of legendary rap duo Clipse, as well as saxophonist Kenny G. The Clipse brothers abandon the cocaine raps that made them so famous to begin with, focusing on being saved through the work of God. “From the concrete grew a rose,” raps No Malice on his verse, discussing how getting thrown in jail and finding God saved him from his wretched path. It’s an admirable moment from the legendary rapper, who hasn’t been united with his brother on a track in over a decade, and transitions perfectly into Kenny G’s show-stopping sax solo.
As great as moments like these are, the album does have a couple of key flaws. It starts and ends on low-notes, with “Every Hour” and “Jesus Is Lord” sounding more like interludes than true opener/closer tracks. But nothing compares to “Closed on Sunday,” a truly awful song that features what might be one of Kanye’s worst lines ever: “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A.” It’s a head-scratchingly stupid moment on an otherwise serious album, and it really confuses me as to what his intention was with including a line like this.
JESUS IS KING is Kanye’s most emotionally honest and soulful work to date. One key exception aside, every track on the album is cohesive from a thematic standpoint and sonically sounds as gorgeous as Kanye’s greatest work. It’s sure to be a polarizing album for some due to its lack of true bangers and risky subject material, but in my opinion, this is another good entry in Kanye’s discography and is sure to inspire much conversation as the year goes on.