Jesus is King is here, and it is … something.
It’s hard to put into words. We had been waiting for almost a year for Kanye to finally release Yandhi — his leak-prone, now-unreleased album — when it was suddenly replaced by Jesus is King in late August. The hype for Yandhi was palpable. Based on the leaks, Yandhi was set to be a mixture between the menagerie-like beats of the ever-polarizing The Life of Pablo and the cracked-out lyricism of the oft-reviled Ye, but with even zanier production and feature credits. Instead of Metro Boomin and Kid Cudi, we would have gotten Ronny J and XXXTentacion. However, Jesus is King is unlike anything we’ve heard from Kanye.
Kanye has toyed with the idea of gospel music before, most recently on The Life of Pablo, but on his most recent release, he attempts to take a full plunge. He forgoes all cursing, replacing it with near-comical amounts of non-stop Jesus talk. It’s often hard to tell if he means what he says. Sometimes, it’s earnest. On “Closed on Sunday,” he prays to God to give him the strength to protect and preserve his family and himself from the devil, rapping, “I pray to God that He’ll strengthen my hand / They will think twice steppin’ on my land … Try me and you will see I ain’t playin’ / Now back up off my family, move your hands.” Sure, he puts a little hip-hop twist on it, but it’s mostly like gospel music. Earlier though, on the same song, Kanye sings, presumably to his wife, “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-Fil-A / You my number one, with the lemonade.” Now this is a little strange: He’s comparing his wife to Chick-Fil-A and states that she’s “closed on Sunday” and then goes on to say that she’s the only one for him by comparing her to the famous number one meal (with the lemonade) from the fast-food chain. This head-scratching flip-flopping trend between sanctity and absurdity continues throughout the album.
The production, on the other hand, is mostly enjoyable, but as the omnipresent beatsmith Kenny Beats said, “I feel like the 808s on Jesus is King could have used some premarital sex.” Not only is that hilarious, but it’s also true. The production sounds great, even excellent at times, but it’s missing something. It’s missing a certain oomph. With production credits from new schoolers like Pi’erre Bourne and FNZ and legends like Timbaland and West himself, it’d be reasonable to expect some earth-rattling bass and mind-altering samples, but they never come, lest we forget that this is a gospel album.
Jesus is King does have a few great moments among the bizarre and disappointing. Clipse join forces for the first time in six years on “Use This Gospel,” Kenny G lays down a bitchin’ saxophone solo also on the same song, Kanye returns to the aggression and intensity of old on “Follow God,” Pi’erre Bourne busts out a pair of speaker-busting synth lines and drops his signature tags not once, but twice on “On God.” Sadly, the great moments are few and far between and are weighed down by questionable decisions, and unfortunately, that does not make for a good album.
— Jim Wilson, Daily Arts Writer
Kanye went through all the effort of cutting out cursing on Jesus Is King, so I figure it’s only right that I do the same. And on that note: Holy crap, the album actually came, and it feels legendary. Kanye West is in a special class of fabled musical figures — somewhere between Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean — whose mere hint of new music makes tidal waves within the sea that is the hip-hop community. The holy water is finally raining down.
Jesus Is King is not a rap album with religious influence — this is straight-up Christian music. There are elements of electronic and soul in addition to contemporary gospel, but what strings it all together is Christianity, not hip hop. Of course, this makes it a little less palatable for the not-so-Christian. And as Christian as it is, there is still less Christ and more Kanye (to nobody’s surprise). It’s certainly not a gospel album by anyone’s definition other than Kanye’s. But I’ll get there.
Religious or not, there’s no denying that this album opens with ferocity. Kanye really nailed the “King” part of Jesus Is King, because the Sunday Service choir is at its swankiest on “Every Hour,” and the roaring thunderclap percussion of “Selah” invokes a glorious sense of a higher power.
And that’s about where the quality in this album ends for the most part. There are some other high points — “Follow God” features a classic kickin’ Kanye beat, and “On God” has that Graduation-esque-gonna-slap-in-the-stadium type of effervescence. But both songs clock in at about two minutes, a twisted tease of what could have been. The only other cool thing is “Use This Gospel,” which reunites Pusha T and No Malice of Clipse for the first time in God knows how long (OK, six years, but that’s an eternity in popular music now). Four minutes of music that feels like “the old Kanye” and a collective 16 bars from Clipse are not enough to celebrate.
So where does this album fail? Does Christianity mess with Kanye’s creative ju-ju? Definitely not — from “Jesus Walks” to “Ultralight Beam,” God has been the backbone of some of Kanye’s greatest and most inspired music. But nothing on Jesus Is King feels particularly great or inspired. By the time I got to “God Is,” I felt alienated by the subject matter: It’s less gospel and more unchecked ego, something I should have realized on “Selah” when he started comparing his public persecution to that of Jesus and Noah. I do admire Kanye’s gruff and breathy singing on the track, though. It feels very performative, like a pastor belting at a sermon.
It’s too bad that not even the production can make up for the album’s failings. Ever since The Life of Pablo, Kanye has embraced a minimalist production style that’s all about giving the music room to breathe. This style isn’t necessarily bad — it worked on Pablo, then again (to a lesser degree) on Ye, and other artists are doing it better (see Billie Eilish’s latest) — but it’s not working for Kanye in 2019. Instrumentally, tracks like “Closed On Sunday,” “Everything We Need” and “Hands On” are profoundly uninteresting. “Water” breaks from this trend, and is kinda cool in a surrealist way, but it goes nowhere. It just makes me want to listen to Kendrick Lamar’s far more interesting “For Sale? – Interlude.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. I won’t debate that the writing is genuinely awful on this project — “Closed on Sunday” is a bigger lyrical embarrassment than last year’s “Lift Yourself.” It doesn’t sound good even if you care about Kanye; if anything, that makes it worse. This is writing that sounds good only if you are Kanye. But he does have a history of winning over listeners even when his writing is alienating. The real patrician music snobs will acknowledge that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s greatest album for it’s overproduced opulence, despite the writing being condemned as “only good if you care about Kanye.” So if people who can’t resonate with the lyricism on Fantasy in a genre that is all about lyricism can still laud it as one of the greatest albums of all time, then there’s no reason Jesus Is King couldn’t achieve the same. But even if the production was creative and unique and exciting for any longer than two minutes, I’m still certain that I wouldn’t want to hear Kanye say the word “Jesus” ever again.
— Dylan Yono, Daily Arts Writer