Kanye West - Jesus is King

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Religion really isn’t something new for Kanye West’s music. He has been juxtaposing the divine with the profane since “Jesus Walks.” Kanye has always looked to a greater being even in his most unholy anthems. “I told God I’d be back in a second, man it’s so hard not to act reckless,” he announced on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” off of 2007’s Graduation. The only difference on Jesus is King is just how overt and upward focused these tracks are.

Religion in music is best when it is not too on the nose, when religion is used as the lens for pondering life’s deep hardships and uncertainties. Religion in music works when it looks inward instead of as a tool for proselytization. Jesus is King breaks all of these rules, yet it is still at times fascinating. Whether a skeptic or a saint, it would at least be difficult to question Kanye’s sincerity. Riddled with a career full of missteps and media gaffes, Ye is eager to undo his wrongs and find some personal redemption. It’s not a perfect record; it is an honest one.

Production wise, there are still moments where Kanye shines behind the board. On “Selah,” a soulful gospel choir rises above ghostly organ sounds and a thunderous drum beat. With specific Biblical references, even citing his source when mentioning John 8:33, Kanye examines his own past with a look towards a new life in devout observance of a higher power.

Sampling the 1974 gospel song “Can You Lose By Following God” by Whole Truth, Kanye offers a direct sequel to “Father Stretch My Hands” off of 2016’s The Life of Pablo. “I just want to feel liberated,” Kanye cried on that cut from three years ago. Perhaps now he actually does.  

Where Kanye has gained a newfound optimism, he seems to have regressed as an MC. On “Everything We Need”, a heartfelt chorus by Ant Clemmons is drowned out by a series of ham fisted bars and clunky flow. Similarly “On God” is built around an intoxicating spiral synth pattern, but the track is bogged down by some frustratingly forced rhymes.

“God Is” is a beautiful and raw proclamation of Kanye’s stirring soul. If anything, Kanye sounds happy on this record, something most plainly heard on this track. His singing, as rough around the edges as it is, is packed with righteous charm. The clear highlight, and reminder that Kanye is still Kanye, is “Use This Gospel.” As the most complete track on the album, West utilizes experimental vocal processing in a very similar way that he did on the masterful My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Pusha T and No Mallice provide biting verses to complement Kanye’s spiritual pondering. The closing beat drives just as well as any of vintage Ye’s best productions. Of all guests to include on a Ye record, a Kenny G sax solo cuts in the middle of the track. Somehow, it works. It works really well.

“Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A” is undoubtedly the most meme ready line of 2019. Sadly, there aren’t many more instantly memorable moments outside of that one on Jesus is King. It’s not a disaster by any means. There are some undeniably warm and affirming moments, but overall this is Kanye’s weakest project to date. With many songs clocking in at under two-minutes, it feels rushed even with numerous delays behind the release. The songs feel incomplete and Kanye’s rapping is at a new unfocused low. Jesus is King feels more like a vehicle for West to explain his newly developed worldview more than it does a finished project. It is not improbable that Kanye’s best gospel album is still to come.

Grade C-