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Kanye West - Jesus Is King Music Album Reviews

Kanye West - Jesus Is King Music Album Reviews
Christianity is the unwavering focus of Kanye’s gospel album, a richly produced but largely flawed record about one man’s love of the Lord (and himself).

In 1964, in the small, rural community of Longdale, Mississippi, a group of black worshippers at the Mount Zion Methodist Church were ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan. The attackers, some of whom were allegedly dressed in police uniform, broke one man’s jaw, viciously beat others, and ultimately burned the building to the ground. In the midst of the chaos, a woman named Beatrice Cole launched into a spoken prayer of despair: “Father, I stretch my hand to Thee, no other help I know. If Thou withdraw Thyself from me, where shall I go?” Improbably, the Klansmen retreated. Such was the power of the gospel.


“Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee,” an unsmiling Methodist hymn written by Isaac Watts in the early 1700s and turned into a rousing standard by black gospel singers over the next century, has since transcended the church pew. It is ostensibly a favorite of Kanye West, who sampled Pastor T.L. Barrett’s version on 2016’s The Life of Pablo, in a song that opens with a non sequitur about a bleached butthole. Three years and a religious rebirth later, the motif returns on West’s ninth album, Jesus Is King. “Follow God,” whose title is as literal as gospel can get, is organized around a sample of a burning vocal: “Father I stretch, stretch my hands to you,” goes the singer of an obscure 1974 track, Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose By Following God.”

Recorded (and, apparently, re-recorded) in the months after he announced a recommitment to Christianity, the album is West’s first offering in the wake of Sunday Service, the performance series he’s turned into something of a global church brand. As West sells it, figuratively and literally, Jesus Is King is a repudiation of his past sin, an absolution, a blank slate from which to spread the word of a very specific God, one whose blessings rain down on a cul-de-sac in Calabasas and a ranch in Jackson Hole. He’s always presented as religious—“Jesus Walks” imagined the club as a holy temple back in 2004; the Kardashians’ labored, glamorous Easter photos have become something of an annual tradition; Pablo was explicitly an album about faith—and yet the timing is notable.

By most accounts, fewer and fewer Americans identify as Christian, and a steadily growing number describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. The religious, meanwhile, identify as more devout. Consider the power of the evangelical right on the political landscape, into which West has inserted himself in recent years, causing some of the turmoil that presumably sent him seeking refuge in Christ this spring. (In a recent piece for Vibe, the writer Kiana Fitzgerald, who shares with West a bipolar diagnosis, put forth a moving theory connecting spiritual fervor with the experience of mania.)

Though Jesus Is King followed what is now a characteristically chaotic album rollout for West, the result is much more focused than his 2018 album ye. His mythical rap-camp format, popularized with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s Hawaii origin story, unifies the contributions of producers as disparate as Timbaland, Pi’erre Bourne, Boogz, and Evan Mast of Ratatat into 27 minutes of pleasant, if not entirely transgressive, textures. Some of the hallmarks of 20th-century gospel are evident, and warmly applied: the rise and fall of a formidable choir; the velvety growl of a Hammond organ; an undulating piano; rhythms that stretch through history and geography, all the way back to West Africa. It is a markedly more cohesive and enjoyable album than I believed him capable of creating at this juncture.

Jesus Is King nods to a handful of moments from the past 15 years of West’s career. The gospel-soul sample deployed on “God Is” harkens to his early days as an in-house producer at Roc-A-Fella. The maximalism of his leather-skirt phase is all over the expansive soundscape of “Use This Gospel,” whose Kenny G sax solo might be the 2019 equivalent of throwing Elton John onto a hook, just because you can. Elsewhere, the stark, confrontational attitude of 2013’s Yeezus is echoed in the battle drums that propel “Selah.” His raspy pleading on “Water” recalls the era of loosies that produced “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds.” Throughout, Auto-Tuned vocals draw a line from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak all the way through to the anguish of Pablo.

Though Jesus Is King offers some resolution to the darkness hinted at on Pablo, it lacks the deeply human searching that made that album effective and moving. Life is not black and white, and neither is the experience of communing with any god. The most interesting moment, thematically, comes in the inherent tension between a reunited Clipse—Pusha-T and his older brother No Malice—on “Use This Gospel” for the first time in several years and at different stages of self-reflection. They connect the relatable universality of gospel as delivered on Jesus Is King by Fred Hammond, Ty Dolla $ign, and Ant Clemons, whose singing collectively comes closest to expressing the inspiring, sustaining gentleness of a warmly held faith. Think, for example, of the mountain to be traversed on “Climbing Higher Mountains” or the storm to be crossed on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Whereas much traditional and contemporary gospel invokes struggle, salvation, and transformation, Jesus Is King is largely focused on the ways in which religion has served Kanye himself. “How you got so much favor on your side?/‘Accept him as your lord and savior,’ I replied,” he raps on “On God.”

If West’s mission is, as he told Zane Lowe in an interview last week, to convert people to Christianity, he’ll likely have to search a little deeper. Beyond superficial gestures at biblical references and the capitalist leanings of American prosperity gospel, there is virtually no indication here as to what it means to follow Jesus. That is, other than to perhaps sit back and wait for Him to give you a Forbes cover and a billion-dollar sneaker brand. It’s hard to take West seriously when the obstacles he distresses over are Instagram likes and steep tax rates (the IRS, he complains, wants “half of the pie”). Rather than the grace, justice, and love that characterizes faith at its most transformative, West internalizes the religious entitlement that props up the wealthy and powerful, validating months of jokes about his ambitions as a megachurch pastor.

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Revelations in recent weeks—that he admonished his wife for wearing tight clothes, asked collaborators to abstain from premarital sex, and began keeping a Christian scorecard that includes limiting himself to two curse words a day—suggest his interpretation of the gospel has been more dogmatic than faithful. Historically, it has been the vulnerability with which he expresses his own hypocrisies and moral failings that have made West a uniquely compelling artist; unfortunately, there is very little of that complexity on Jesus Is King. (An exception is “Follow God,” where an argument with his father prompts consideration, however shallow, of what it means to be “Christlike.”)

There is not enough depth here to distract from his politics, or to complicate them. It’s an album of slogans, dashed-off and too short, and as he continues to test the edge between spontaneous and half-finished, it gets harder to ignore the facts hovering outside the frame. His call for the abolishment of the 13th Amendment, for example, is in direct opposition to his avowed support of a racist, punitive, incarceration-obsessed president. Yes, the bassline on “Water” is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time, but a moment like this feels like a consolation, not a highlight. Kanye albums used to stretch our perspectives and imaginations. Now they illuminate the contours of his increasingly shrunken world.


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About Udara Madusanka

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