By KYLE KERSEY
The definition of damning with faint praise: “Jesus is King” is better than anything I’ve heard in church.
It opens with energy: “Every Hour” loops West’s sped-up Sunday service gospel choir as they sing the praises of the lord. “Oh boy,” I thought to myself. “This kinda sounds like old Kanye – chipmunk-soul Kanye. ‘College Dropout’ Kanye. I can’t wait for him to chop it up and drop some bars over it.”
He doesn’t. The song abruptly cuts out after a little less than two minutes, with a non-transition into “Selah.” A lack of development is a recurring theme of “Jesus is King.”
Originally titled “Yandhi,” “Jesus is King” was delayed for over a year and, after listening to it in full, it’s hard to figure out why. Clocking in at a paltry 27 minutes spread thin over 11 tracks (for those keeping count, that’s an average of about two and a half minutes per song), it’s a messy collection of gospel-inspired, curse-word free Christian rap songs that vary heavily in quality. Some, like “Selah” and “Use This Gospel”, are immaculately-produced biblical epics worthy of the album’s namesake. Some feature a babies-r-us approach to lyricism, like “Closed On Sunday” (“Closed on Sunday / You my Chick-fil-a” he sings, the absolute madman) and ‘Everything We Need” (some nonsense about putting apple juice back on a tree). And some play like sloppy and unfinished demos (insert the rest of the album here).
Last year, Kanye had similarly short releases with “Ye” and his collaboration with Kid Cudi, “KIDS SEE GHOSTS.” But since those albums were made over the course of the summer and released as part of a five album rollout (the other three being albums West had produced for Nas, Teyana Taylor, and Pusha T), it made sense that those projects were so short. They were tight in their brevity, not strung out.
“Jesus is King” contains plenty of nice ideas on for Kanye to play with from a musical perspective – the relaxed flow of “Water” and the faux-christmasy sample on “Closed on Sunday” come to mind – but none of them are fleshed out. Take “Use this Gospel” as an example; a spiritual successor to his 2010 anthem of self-loathing “Runaway.” Clipse provide a nice set of verses (I especially love the No Malice line “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those / And in my arrogance, took a camera pose”), there’s a Kenny G sax solo (Lord have mercy) and Kanye is on form with his vocal harmonies. It might be the best song on the album, but at just three and a half minutes long, it has barely any time to develop. It all passes so fast that it feels like these different elements were just crammed in a few weeks before the album dropped rather than a naturally flowing song.
Referencing his faith is nothing new for Kanye. Some of his strongest material, like “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam” tackle themes of his complicated relationship with the almighty and raging intrapersonal conflict head on. Moments of doubt, pain, and suffering are where people often turn to God to provide meaning and structure so it’s unsurprising that, throughout his work, there’s a true exploration of grace and the human condition.
Contrast this with the majority of modern church music (i.e. Christian rock), which shies away from personal conflict in favor of simple, clean praise. It’s what separates substantive songs like “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens, “How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar and “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West from superficial songs like “How Great is Our God” and “Your Grace is Enough.”
But “Jesus is King” falls more into the superficial category; there’s little message beyond “god is good.” For once, Kanye is relatively tight-lipped about his personal life and mental state; the closest he comes to revealing what caused this sudden shift towards born-again, devotional Christianity is the song “Follow God,” where he raps about conflict with his father. Even this, the only true rap song on the album (and one of the album’s best cuts), runs for just over a minute and a half. The spiritual transformation is less interesting than what caused it. What is his redemptive arc? What personal experience resulted in this religious rebirth?
Compare this with “The Life of Pablo”: the 2016 album West himself described as a “gospel album,” a strange term to use given how the album features lyrics about bedding Taylor Swift and models with bleached assholes (and something about being “ghetto Oprah”).
But if Kanye understands nothing else in this world, he understands human beings are horribly flawed creatures that, according to his faith, are saved only through grace. His shortcomings as a husband, as a father, as a Christian and as a human are laid bare. From the first track onward, he talks about trying to keep his faith while coming to terms with his own flaws and shows how God reveals himself in the strangest of places. The concepts of forgiveness and atonement are woven into the fabric of our cultural storytelling structure. Whether one is religious or not, they’re still identifiable and far more powerful than anything on “Jesus is King.”
Kanye West cannot be just another squeaky clean Christian artist delivering a squeaky clean Christian message, separated only by talent alone (and make no mistake, he is very talented). To do so would be to abandon what made his music so powerful in the first place. After all, the most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.
Highlights: “Every Hour,” “Selah,” “Follow God,” “Use This Gospel”