Kanye’s musical ear remains one-of-one, but sonic choices alone can’t save what is largely an erratic and uninspired affair.
In a recent two-hour long interview percolated with extended metaphors and unkempt grandiosity, Kanye West touched on everything from his sex addiction and religious revival as a “recent convert” to his decision to don a MAGA hat (which he deemed “God’s practical joke to all liberals”). Yet in the wake of West’s ninth full-length studio album Jesus Is King, one sound bite from the aforementioned conversation is particularly telling. In a moment of reflection, West likened himself to Nebuchadnezzar, the storied Babylonian King whose unquenchable ego was matched only by his vast need to display his splendor. Blinded by his pride, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God for failing to see the source of his success. It was only after a series of grueling trials and tribulations that he finally acknowledged there was a God sovereign over himself and extolled his “everlasting dominion.”
Such reads the latest crudely captained chapter of the Kanye West redemption story, one in which the villain-turned-believer motif rings more hollow than ever. Pitched as the Christian awakening from the self-proclaimed “greatest human artist of all time,” Jesus Is King is chock full of anemic spiritual posturing and chaotic sketches of mental health. What ultimately emerges from the 27-minute run time is a sad portrait of a would-be mega preacher with a persecution complex. In positioning himself as the figurehead and mouthpiece of gospel grace, West summons forth a directionless and unfulfilling project on which the kingdom he’s wrought, from the luxurious hills of Calabasas to the quiet plains of Wyoming, can no longer accommodate the whims of its creator.
It feels necessary to begin with a disclaimer that although it’s largely devoid of personality and soul, the environment that West constructs on Jesus Is King is not entirely sterile or insipid. Opening number “Every Hour” is a rousing fireworks display from the Sunday Service Choir, whose voices soar with intertwined intensity. The track kicks into hyper-speed mid-measure, its frenzied energy spaced by plunking piano keys that are every bit church hymnal meets “Rhapsody In Blue.” Each note is precisely placed, a testament to the talents of the vocalists involved and a prime example of the visceral appeal of gospel (West's voice is notably absent). “Selah” marries organs with a crescendo of “hallelujahs” and offbeat tribal drums that act as attention grabbers amidst the sound and fury. The choir’s exuberance is a welcome respite from West’s evangelical motto-musings, which feel markedly more lively and less manufactured on the chop-up-the-soul Kanye of “Follow God.” “On God” is a mild to spicy Pierre Bourne barn burner that coaxes together the producer’s token 8-bit battle tones with West’s bombast as he attempts to flip the script presented on Yeezus. “Everything We Need” delivers a stunning feature from Ty Dolla $ign that deserves to be looped to no end, while final track “Jesus Is Lord” erects a beautifully layered horn arrangement that serves to usher out West and his collaborators on bended knee.
“God Is” is the album’s climatic, hands-to-the-sky moment on which West’s hoarseness lends itself to the raw emotion sandwiched between a sample of Rev. James Cleveland’s 1979 song of the same name. On the verge of losing his voice, West reaches for something greater in what is his most endearing performance and where he gets the closest to baring the “newly reformed” version of himself. “Use This Gospel,” a restructured version of Yandhi leak “Chakras,” is the strongest of the 11 tracks. The epic gospel salvo’s creative contours sound as if they blossomed from a moment of haste in which West left the car keys in the ignition, which many listeners have postulated is a symbolic reference to his journey of faith following the car crash that nearly took his life in 2004. Not only does the track reunite Clipse for an impassioned verse from No Malice (whose coke rap credentials were put to rest after he too found God), but it’s accentuated by a Kenny G solo because the year is 2019 and why not. It’s quintessential Kanye West melodrama that flirts with the euphoria of transcendence while at the same time offering a sobering glimpse at what could have been.
What becomes clear in parsing through these snippets of potential is just how little substance there is to be found. West’s voice commands attention, and he’s remained remarkably prolific as a result, but it’s getting increasingly tiresome to wade through the nonsense and half-baked ideas that he assembles. On “Hands On,” a track that boasts glitchy, bone-chilling harmonies, West undermines his creation by pitting himself against the whole of Christianity in a strikingly reductive display of vanity. He suffers the same fate on “Closed on Sunday,” which kicks off in dramatic fashion with the gentle melancholy of an acoustic guitar before sputtering to a snail's pace with its bizarre troll of a chorus that reads like something the Chick-fil-A marketing team would have concocted after one too many sips of spiked lemonade. This childish and elementary presentation carries over to West’s lyrics, where his take on “prosperity gospel” (see “On God”) brings the commercial ramifications of “Jesus Walks” full circle. It’s true that West is more successful than ever (Forbes ranked him as the top earner in hip hop in 2019), but his pretentious equating of net worth with redemption is nothing more than a premise used to prop up his celebrity. He lands a punchline here and there (“That’s why I charge the prices that I charge/I can’t be out here dancin' with the stars”) but at the expense of dealing in shaky metrics of faith.
In the end, Jesus Is King is nothing more than a few stunning soundscapes and a plethora of empty, incoherent gestures of devotion. Contrary to what some proponents of the album would have you believe, Jesus Is King is far from the “epitome of fearless creativity.” Rather, it’s a forgettable placeholder for this latest phase in the Kanye West saga, one that won’t command the replayability of much of his previous discography beyond its furthering of juvenile contrarianism. For better or worse, music hasn’t been West’s primary creative pursuit in recent years, and the final product on Jesus Is King is in part a reflection of this shift. Every song ends abruptly, as if mirroring West’s fractured narcissism. After scrapping what sounded like it could have been a relatively promising project in Yandhi, West decided to trade in profanity and the concerns of secular music for Jesus and Judases and a hefty side of self-glorification. He latches on to the black gospel tradition with a conqueror’s mindset that is on-brand for the narrative he has constructed for himself over the past few years. Perhaps it was nothing more than wishful thinking to assume that some semblance of the cultural icon from years past was still churning beneath the surface. Kanye West may be growing closer to God, but in the same breath he’s distancing himself from what made him a compelling artist in the first place.