Jesus Christ and Kanye West
Ryan Israel | Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Three weeks ago, William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States and a prominent figure in the Trump administration, came to Notre Dame’s campus to deliver a speech at the law school. In his speech, Barr emphasized the importance of upholding Judeo-Christian values in our increasingly secular society, saying, “I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years, religion has been under increasing attack. On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”
The Attorney General’s speech and message are shockingly applicable to Kanye West, whose recent turn to God and Judeo-Christian values in the midst of a secular popular music landscape is the focal point of his newest album “Jesus Is King.” It’s a bold but not quite surprising statement from one of the most prominent, acclaimed and, recently, controversial artists of the decade. “Jesus Is King” is not Kanye’s best work by far, but it is an incredibly significant landmark in his musical career.
From “Jesus Walks” off his debut “The College Dropout” to “Ultralight Beam” on 2016’s “The Life of Pablo,” Kanye’s music has always been influenced by religion; God, Jesus and gospel music samples show up on every album. At times it’s been antagonistic, like “I Am a God” from 2013’s “Yeezus,” a song which finds Kanye comparing his modern celebrity status to the feeling of being a god, and he’s often spoken as the repentant sinner rather than the perfect saint. But given this through-line of religion in his music, it isn’t a total surprise that Kanye has taken this religious turn, which began with his Sunday Service performances in January 2019.
The Sunday Service performance series began as exclusive musical worship gatherings for Kanye’s closest friend and only came into the public eye through short Twitter videos which showed Ye reworking his old hits with the help of a full gospel choir. The series slowly opened to the public throughout 2019, leading to a Coachella performance that received mixed reviews and sparked a debate about West’s use of the religiously charged shows to sell overpriced merchandise. But the Sunday Services made one thing clear, Kanye had entered a new stage of his career, one marked by his fervent adoption of the Christian faith. “Jesus Is King” comes as the culmination of the Sunday Service series, solidifying a new Kanye era with new Kanye music.
Every song on “Jesus Is King” is directly tied to Christianity, and nearly every lyric, verse and bar is as well. They range from direct praises of Christ — “I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup / I know God is alive, yeah” — to prayers for Jesus’ grace — “Jesus, flow through us / Jesus, heal the bruises / Jesus, clean the music” — and corny Chick-fil-A references — “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A.”
But notably absent from these songs is any sense of depth; they skim the surface of Christian faith, offering praise and devotion, but fail to go any deeper. There’s no explanation of how Kanye got here, what inspired or motivated his turn to God, how he practices his faith on the daily or the challenges and struggles of maintaining his piety. In the past, some of his best moments have been those in which he expresses his failings and faults, when he takes on the role of repentant sinner and searches within himself. On “Jesus Is King,” he fails to go beyond a cookie-cutter template of what it means to follow God.
The most personal moment comes not from Kanye, but rather the reunion of Pusha T and No Malice, the two brothers formerly comprising Clipse, on the track “Use This Gospel.” The two stopped performing as a duo in 2009 and have been on drastically different paths since with Pusha T staying in the limelight, most recently by collaborating with Kanye, and No Malice relatively falling off the map. There’s tension in their reunion on “Use This Gospel,” but the track does find the two brothers united with Christ in a moment facilitated by Kanye West.
Consistent with almost all of Kanye’s music, “Jesus Is King” features incredible production. A variety of hit-makers including the likes of Timbaland and Pi’erre Bourne contribute richly textured beats that incorporate key elements of gospel music. While the production doesn’t break new ground, it stands out as a truly redeeming quality on the record. There’s the powerful battle drums and transcendent choir on “Selah,” the gospel-soul sample and autotune on “Follow God” and the strobing voices and cymbals on “God Is” all creating moments that shine no matter what lyrics Kanye sings.
At 27 minutes, “Jesus Is King” feels more like a flash of creativity than a refined, compete album. The lack of depth means that the album fails to emerge out of the mire of controversy surrounding it, from the delayed, chaotic rollout to Kanye’s statements on slavery and endorsement of Trump. Kanye’s best albums — “Late Registration,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “Yeezus” — feel timeless. “Jesus Is King” feels incredibly of this time — and not in a good way.
Artist: Kanye West
Album: “Jesus Is King”
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Favorite Tracks: “Selah,” “God Is”
If you like: God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit
Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5