No Kingdom come for “Jesus is King”

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TMZ headlines, hot takes, countless tweets, and a flurry of social media speculation: a new Kanye West album is upon us. 2018 proved to be an abnormally prolific year for the MC/producer. Usually the type to release projects every two to three years in a storm of media coverage and controversial soundbites, Kanye produced four 22-minute albums in four weeks. Despite their release at the apogee of Kanye’s unsympathetic media tirade in June, projects such as Pusha T’s “Daytona,” West’s own “ye,” and the collaborative album “Kids See Ghosts” were concise and well executed, numbering among the best hip hop records of the year. After a year of teasing the now-scrapped album “Yandhi,” the perennially unpredictable artist declared that he would release a gospel album instead. “Jesus is King” is his answer, another relatively shorter project clocking in at a mere 27 minutes, with most tracks containing some reference to God, Jesus, or spirituality. Kanye is no stranger to reinventing his sound and focus to great success, but on “Jesus is King” it appears as if he’s pushed his luck. There are still several flashes of Kanye brilliance, great beats, and sticky melodies, but for every great moment on the record, “Jesus is King” presents the listener with a half-baked idea or a head-scratcher. This album, then, is a thoroughly mixed bag, one which errs closer to televangelism than transcendence and which is barely propped up by the ingenuity of its highlights. 

“Jesus is King” starts strongly enough, as the brief track “Every Hour” functions as an extended introduction with some powerful gospel vocals and passionate choral harmonies. The album’s first real track, “Selah,” is a stunning and dramatic introduction. Atmospheric organ chords color Ye’s aggressive vocals as he proclaims “Everybody wanted Yandhi/ Then Jesus Christ did the laundry,” referencing his doubling down on this newest stage in his discography. Thunderous percussion accents the end of the first verse, then a chorus of “hallelujah” slowly crescendoes until reaching a rapturous “He is wonderful” before Kanye launches into another verse. Instrumentally, the track “Follow God” is a departure from “Selah,” with a prominent soul sample that carries West’s trademark touch. The vocals here are also compelling, with a relentless, head-bobbing flow and numerous references to Kanye’s own erratic behavior: “Man, it’s really lifelike, everything in my life (Stretch my hands to You)/ Arguing with my dad, and he said, ‘It ain’t Christ-like.’”

The wheels start to fall off with the track “Closed On Sunday,” a melodramatic track with little to no thematic focus. The instrumental is promising, with plucked guitars and some sinister sub-bass chords, but then the vocals come in. While the second half of the album seems to vaguely address themes of protecting loved ones from danger, the impact of Kanye’s performance is seriously undercut by the first verse’s exclusive focus on Chick-fil-A’s menu and business hours. Listeners familiar with West’s music will no doubt be accustomed to the occasional eyebrow-raising bar, but the entire first verse of “Closed on Sunday” is a complete wash: “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A/ You’re my number one, with the lemonade.” “Jesus is King” is littered with moments like these, which undercuts the genuineness of the album’s spiritual theme without being funny or particularly clever. 

On the track “Water” West overstays his welcome, rapping an entire verse of “Jesus, give us strength/ Jesus, make us well/ Jesus, help us live/ Jesus, give us wealth/ Jesus is our safe/ Jesus is our rock/ Jesus, give us grace/ Jesus, keep us safe.” There is nothing wrong with Kanye choosing to explore his faith, but when he consistently displays a surface-level commitment to this topic in his verses it becomes difficult to take him seriously. Lyrically, “On God” presents one of the album’s most distasteful moments, as Kanye complains about his tax bracket: “The IRS want they fifty plus our tithe/ Man, that’s over half of the pie/ I felt dry, that’s on God/ That’s why I charge the prices that I charge/ I can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars/ No, I cannot let my family starve/ I go hard, that’s on God.” It seems unlikely that Kim Kardashian’s family will be starving at any point in the future, and Kanye’s bemoaning his status as one of the highest-paid artists in the world is egregiously out of touch, even for him (“It ain’t Christ-like”).

It becomes increasingly difficult to listen to the cringe-inducing moments on “Jesus is King” over time, especially because the album’s highlights are so strong. While “On God” contains some lyrical absurdities, the beat is one of the most immersive and bombastic on the record. The rapid keyboard arpeggios give the impression that the listener is being beamed into a video game, while the rumbling bass and Kanye’s emphatic delivery give the track a defiant and combative tone. This is a track that deserves to be listened to at high volume. “Use This Gospel” has all the makings of a classic Kanye track: repetitive keys, an earworm vocal melody, and two coldblooded verses from Pusha T and his brother No-Malice. In the track’s last third, the instrumental fades away and Kenny G contributes a saxophone solo. As the final notes climb and fade, the beat suddenly comes back in, this time with a shouted vocal sample and beefier percussion that ties the track’s dynamic progression together perfectly. 

“Jesus is King” is a disappointing effort with numerous flashes of brilliance. Kanye attempts to create a gospel album but never truly immerses himself in themes of faith and redemption, choosing instead to name drop gospel verses and use the words “Jesus” and “God” as often as possible in order to compensate. This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker if it weren’t for the clear disconnect between Kanye’s practice and his preaching, with the religious angle seeming like more of an excuse to embrace his God complex than a genuine interest. Songs like “God Is” see Kanye making a more genuine effort to connect, but moments like this are scarce in an album that doesn’t even reach the half hour mark. And yet, it is clear that Ye hasn’t completely lost his touch, with a few genuinely great tracks in the form of “Selah,” “On God,” and “Use This Gospel.” While it seems that West plans to continue down the gospel path, only time will tell if this ends up being another bizarre detour in an already turbulent and varied discography. Kanye has always enjoyed testing listener’s limits with his bravado and abrasive demeanor. While this has proven part and parcel with his success in the past, “Jesus is King” sees West overestimating himself and his stature. Hopefully the next effort will present listeners with a more carefully-honed, or potentially humbled, vision from one of music’s most perplexing figures.

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