The polarizing American musician's turn to Christian rap is moving, but his sweet hereafter doesn’t come without flaws and contradictions
To what degree should we separate content and creator? This burning question is central to our time, prompting us to either cancel or champion artists with iron fists.
From crashing telethons and speaking out against white supremacy, to donning MAGA hats claiming slavery was a choice, no pop icon exemplifies this polarized, surreal moment in history more than Kanye West. It’s clear that Ye’s Trump-related exploits and outbursts in recent years have left him in the bad books of many. And with the release of his ninth studio album, Jesus Is King, West is asking us if the angelic, triumphant harmonies of his Sunday Service choir are pure enough to wash away his sins.
After the usual release-date antics and delays, which started back in September 2018, Jesus Is King descended midday on October 25, along with a short IMAX film of the same title. Its sonically rich 11 tracks are the culmination of West’s Sunday Service tour, a weekly curated pop-up Christian music ritual comprising a core choir/band, numerous guest vocalists, producers and attendees, all draped in monochromatic wardrobe. The Sunday Service choir opens the album with the punchy, traditional gospel number Every Hour, whose resounding vocal layers would be at home on any Kirk Franklin song.
The next track, Selah, picks up where The Life Of Pablo’s Ultralight Beam left off, leaning into gospel harmonies with drawn-out organ notes reminiscent of an altar call. Ye makes his first appearance on the album, proclaiming “God is king, we the soldiers / Ultrabeam out the solar / When I get to heaven’s gates / I ain’t gotta peak over,” simultaneously confirming his newfound commitment to Christ and getting straight into the shameless ego-stroking we’ve come to expect. Performed by the choir, 40 seconds of “hallelujahs” follow, reaching an emphatic crescendo that foreshadows just how deep the Christian roots of this album will be.
In accordance with the highly regarded musical tradition of the Black church, this record is home to some of the most captivating melodies ever found on a West project. Take the song Everything We Need, where Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons team up to provide a smooth yet jubilant chorus and bridge, spliced in between West’s short, sparse verses. This vein of R&B-leaning, wavy church ballads continues on both Water and Hands On, which features gospel superstar Fred Hammond.
As usual, no single song features fewer than four producers. Along with West, Timbaland, Pi’erre Bourne, BoogzDaBeast and Angel Lopez make regular appearances. Much like 2018’s Ye, the album is largely devoid of the grit, drums and distortion that made Yeezus and The Life Of Pablo so moving. The exception is Follow God, a short, aggressive bop inspired by a contentious interaction between West and his father. Or maybe Use This Gospel, which includes Jesus Is King’s most talked-about feature: an unprecedented reuniting of The Clipse (alongside saxophonist Kenny G). For the most part, however, West avoids the darkness altogether.
It’s safe to say that 2013’s Yeezus came from an ominous place, possibly West’s personal hell. Then 2016’s The Life Of Pablo was purgatory, mixing the darkness with a new, more joyous gospel influence. With Jesus Is King, we reach heaven through West’s eyes.
And staying true to his brand, this sweet hereafter doesn’t come without flaws and contradictions. From a foundation of evangelical rhetoric, he offers statements from all over the political spectrum. For the lefties, On God highlights his stance on prison reform with the line “13th amendment gotta end it, that’s on me.” Back on the right, Closed On Sunday is basically an ode to Chick-fil-A, a beacon of religious homophobia.
To cancel or not to cancel? That’s better answered individually than by groupthink. The objective reality is that contradiction, controversy and innovation have defined West’s career. Why would that change now? Perhaps it makes more sense to view West as a future artifact, and consider the way his discography and impact will be remembered by generations to come, rather than how he is received by the audience of this moment. Jesus Is King provides an undeniably moving and distinct new chapter in the book of Kanye. Whether you choose to skip it or place it high on your mantel, its cultural significance is only bound to grow.
Top track: Everything We Need
Matthew Progress is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist and musician.