Arts & Culture, Reviews

Kanye West turns to Christianity in ‘Jesus is King’ album

Long-anticipated album succeeds in sound, stumbles in message

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2019

In a sharp turn toward the gospel genre, Kanye West embarks on an exploration of spiritual humility in his ninth studio album, eliciting a divided reaction from fans and critics alike.

On Oct. 25, fans all around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kanye West finally dropped his album “Jesus is King,” more than a year after its original release date.

The 11-song album is comprised entirely of Christian rap — a completely new trajectory for West, breaking away from the traditional hip-hop he is known for.

Since the dawn of the 2000s, West has solidified his reputation as an innovative and inventive artist. His musical releases consistently bring new and distinct content to the table. From his popularization of auto-tune through pieces like “Heartbreak” and “Stronger,” to his normalization of unique ad-libs like yelling, panting and “Huh!”ing in “POWER,” West has become a trailblazer in sound experimentation and production.  But alongside and perhaps fueled by those very qualities, he has simultaneously grown infamous as the industry’s largest ego.

Thus, what makes “Jesus is King” so revolutionary is its mark as West’s official ideological transition from secular to religious, from God-impersonating to God-praising.

Throughout his career, West has never refrained from talking about God and Christianity. In his 2004 breakout song “Jesus Walks,” his lyrics called to God for guidance amid the temptations of fame and wealth. Yet during his most outspoken and cosmopolitan era, he blatantly equated himself to God in songs like “I Am a God” and his 2013 album “Yeezus.” Now in 2019, “Jesus is King” marks the latest chapter in West’s musical exploration of his faith — no longer questioning or challenging it, but celebrating it.

The album’s musical components reflect this change. It is completely devoid of profanity and instead overflowing with many musical elements that hail from black gospel roots. It is more forthright, more direct and more zealous in both its delivery and its focus on worship.

The 11-song anthology begins with “Every Hour,” a jolting and passionate track sung entirely by West’s Sunday Service Choir. With the song beginning literally mid-chord, there is no room for a build-up of anticipation or even a moment for the listener to adjust. Instead, it promptly seats the listener in the front-row pew, submerging them in exhilarated praise amid the melody’s fast tempo and loud piano crescendos. The piece extends an overwhelming, warm welcome to all, awakening and assuring us that gospel is here to stay.

Rather than his actual rapping or lyrics, West’s command over the dimensions of sound as a producer — that is, his construction of an intricate musical score and a charismatic cast of featured artists —  takes center stage for much of “Jesus is King.”

Later in the album, West invites Clipse, a duo made up of Pusha T and No Malice, to join him on “Use This Gospel” to bring lyrical depth to the multi-dimensional, soulful piece. In their back-to-back verses — something that fans have longed for ever since Clipse temporarily dissolved for almost a decade — Pusha T and No Malice speak directly to God as if in the midst of desperate, grateful prayer. “Fashionably late, I’m just glad that you made it / The best is yet to come, I’m just glad that you waited,” Pusha T raps, expressing his gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness. No Malice continues: “They give you Wraith talk, I give you faith talk / Blindfolded on this road, watch me faith walk,” proudly declaring his trust in God. Alongside a vocalized synth-chorus melody that is later isolated by the echo of a sole saxophone, “Use This Gospel” structurally emulates the cyclical nature of prayer to amplify its deep spirituality.

In another collaborative track, “Water,” the suave croon of Ant Clemons accompanied by a swaying R&B funk melody conveys an aura of peace and purity. The song’s chorus, sung by Clemons, explores water as a motif of spiritual rebirth: “Clean us like the rain in spring / Take the chlorine out of our conversation … We are water / Pure as water / Like a newborn daughter.” Just like its liquid muse, the track flows effortlessly in its musicality and resonance. While Clemons’ verse serves as the best part of the track, West’s monotonous contribution serves as a barrier to the song’s cascading cadence.

In contrast, “Follow God” truly exemplifies West’s dynamic potential when juxtaposed alongside its counterpart, “Water.” The track incorporates a 1974 sample from Christian soul artist Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose By Following God,” but overlays it with a sharp, staccato beat. The expressive and vibrant combination, supplemented by West’s unwavering, crisp deliverance, coalesces into a jaw-droppingly catchy rhythm that has the listener repeatedly coming back for more. The explicable synchroneity between West’s beat and the smooth melody epitomizes the hallmark, textured production that West — and only West — has historically managed to master. With that said, this track, which is currently the most popular of the album on Spotify, is definitely the most in line with West’s past personas.

Although “Jesus is King” does contain such aforementioned moments of production genius, it often falls short of genuine, emotional depth. In all of its grandeur, the album demands and commands attention yet ultimately falters to deliver a coherent, convincing message once in the spotlight.

While biblical imagery is thickly interlaced throughout each composition and their titles, this over-saturated imagery of devotion, glory and awe sometimes comes off as cliché and superficial, evading an acknowledgment of the multi-layered nuances of Christianity within contemporary society.

But West’s own lyrics and vocal deliverance do manage to contribute an extra layer of vulnerability and candidness during one particular number: “God Is.” He lets his raw vocals — all of the wavers, cracks and imperfections — shine through, untouched. His efforts to enunciate the sheer significance that God now possesses in his life are on full display in his gushing, heartfelt lyrics. “Every time I look up, I see God’s faithfulness / And it shows just how much He is miraculous / I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still,” he sings, striving to hit every note. It presents an entirely unseen side of West. Through such visceral words and song, West makes it clear to us just how deeply important this album is to him.

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