Album Review: Kanye West - Jesus is King
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
– Matthew 19:24
There are few statements less controversial than the statement that Kanye West is controversial. Whilst known for stirring up trouble throughout his career, Kanye’s – to put it lightly – irreverent public behaviour has reached its pinnacle in recent years. Most notably, he’s an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump (who, just so we’re on the same page here, is a very bad person) and has said some remarkably awful things regarding slavery in particular. It makes one long for the days when the worst thing Kanye did was be rude to Taylor Swift.
The most intriguing element of Kanye’s recent developments has pertained to his faith. Whilst Christianity has played a part in his music from the beginning, such as the fantastic Jesus Walks from his debut The College Dropout, Kanye has recently become a full-on Born Again Believer! His new ‘Sunday Service’ live shows have reflected this change, transforming his discography into gospel styled renditions every Sunday since January. His conversion also led him to scrap the previously planned album Yandhi and almost quit rap altogether, before his pastor reassured him he can “rap for God”. Oh how I wish he hadn’t said that.
In August 2019, Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian announced his new album Jesus is King. Now, I’m not inherently opposed to Kanye making a gospel rap album; if anything I was excited. Christianity and hip hop have often intersected in fascinating ways. Before middle-aged church leaders desperate to appeal to the youth ruined it with overplay, grime superstar Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace was a great example of this, whilst Chance the Rapper’s 2016 Colouring Book mixtape was packed with gospel influence and all the better for it. Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper working right now, has also featured his faith throughout his music, most notably in the parable-esque To Pimp a Butterfly track How Much a Dollar Cost. Kanye himself has evoked gospel music to scintillating effect with the astonishing Ultralight Beam that opened 2016’s The Life of Pablo.
Kanye credits God for rewarding his “service to Christ” with a $68 million tax refund, following that centuries-old biblical tradition of giving millionaires even more money.– Nathan Brooks
Unfortunately, Kanye’s conversion has been to a particular kind of Christianity: rich, right-wing, American Evangelical Christianity. As a consequence, he’s significantly less interested in loving thy neighbour or undertaking any meaningful spiritual self-exploration and is instead fixated on controlling other people’s sexuality and making lots of money. Kanye has confessed to forbidding his employees from engaging in premarital sex whilst working on Jesus is King (I’m sure they listened to you, Kanye) and has credited God for rewarding his “service to Christ” with a $68 million tax refund, following that centuries-old biblical tradition of giving millionaires even more money. Sadly, this is the attitude that defines Jesus is King.
One of Jesus is King‘s major problems is Kanye’s relentless corniness. Now, this isn’t a new development for Kanye but when he’s reaching for spiritual profundity it feels especially egregious. Selah reduces Jesus’s washing away of sins to “Jesus Christ did the laundry”, On God reflects on a time when Kanye thought “the Book of Job was a job” and Everything We Need posits the question “what if Eve made apple juice?” What perhaps could’ve passed as funny in the past is now played with total earnestness, undermining any moments of real spiritual significance. That said, those are few and far between. Most of the album is devoted to shallow gestures towards the most tired Christian tropes imaginable. “This ain’t ‘bout a damn religion” he declares on God Is, the mantra of every hip youth pastor attempting to convince teenagers what he’s preaching is more radical than it actually is. The final track, Jesus is Lord, just quotes Philippians 2 and passes it off as earth-shatteringly powerful, rather than a lazy and obvious cop-out.
Kanye is unable to get away with any of this because musically the album falls remarkably flat. With the exception of Water, whose chorus from singer Ant Clemons is rather sublime, nothing here lifts off the ground.– Nathan Brooks
The reason Kanye’s Christian platitudes are so empty is because they’re not what the album is really about. Like all of Kanye’s work, Jesus is King is fundamentally self-absorbed. The only difference is that this time he’s acting as if he’s doing it in service of God. On God is where the album’s true purpose is laid out most explicitly, in which Kanye effectively brags for one continuous verse but qualifies all of it by saying it’s “on God”. “The greatest artist restin’ or alive” he calls himself, as he’s been calling himself for years, but this time it’s “on God”. Why does he “charge the prices that [he] charge[s]” (i.e $20 for a pair of socks with the album title on it)? Well, that’s “on God”. Here, Kanye is performing a classic rich Evangelical con, feigning humility by showing his gratitude for all that God has given him in order to get away with the fact that he’s living a lavishly rich and exploitative life that couldn’t be any further from the example Jesus led. He might as well just ask his fans to buy him a private jet in order to “spread the gospel”.
Kanye is unable to get away with any of this because musically the album falls remarkably flat. With the exception of Water, whose chorus from singer Ant Clemons is rather sublime, nothing here lifts off the ground. The dramatic drums on Selah just ring hollow, the anthemic declarations on God Is are held back by Kanye’s weak vocals and the Sunday Service choir are criminally underused. The penultimate song Use This Gospel even has a saxophone solo from Kenny G, perhaps the least interesting saxophonist Kanye could’ve possibly employed. The tracks are also really short, rarely reaching three minutes, meaning none of the ideas are fleshed out and none of the songs have the time to be especially dynamic. This minimalist approach suited Kanye’s previous album, the underrated and introspective Ye, but when you’re supposed to be raising the roof in worship, near-unfinished songs don’t cut it. As a result, at no point does the album reach the euphoria of Ultralight Beam or even Ghost Town, the blistering climax of Ye. Instead it’s just boring, preventing Kanye from obscuring his lack of sincerity through the appearance of passion. At least at 27-minutes long the album is mercifully short, but it’s so dull it still feels like an endurance test.
Beyond the fact that “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A” is the worst lyric anyone has ever written, there is nothing more grating than listening to Kanye lecture you about not going on Instagram on Sunday.– Nathan Brooks
Despite all this, there is still one song on Jesus is King that makes the rest of it look like a masterpiece. Closed on Sunday is the worst song I have heard all year. I hate it with a passion more burning than anything Kanye produces on this album. Beyond the fact that “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A” is the worst lyric anyone has ever written, there is nothing more grating than listening to Kanye lecture you about not going on Instagram on Sunday over self-serious acoustic guitar twinkles as if it’s the most profound statement anyone has ever delivered. It’s exactly this kind of superficial holiness that makes so much of American Evangelism so infuriating, that a man like Kanye, who supports a racist, misogynistic, proto-fascist President, acts as if he holds the moral high ground because he doesn’t go on social media once a week. Perhaps it was naive of me to hope for a Kanye West album that actually examined his faith in any depth whilst belting out rapturous gospel sounds but he is capable of both those things, which makes this facile album all the more disappointing.
All you really need to know about Jesus is King is Donald Trump Jr’s glowing review, lauding it as “the epitome of fearless creativity and ‘dangerous, unapproved’ ideas”, as if the safest, most trite attempt at Christian music in a country still dominated by the religious right is anything daring. Jesus is King is a pathetic excuse for a gospel album. It’s simply another exercise in egotistical posturing for Kanye, this time channelled through performative piety and insufferable self-righteousness. At least when Kanye claimed he was a God on 2013’s Yeezus he was honest about his narcissism. Now he’s just another rich Evangelical bathing in his wealth, utterly convinced he speaks from a position of spiritual authority whilst having truly nothing of substance to say.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Kanye West – Jesus is King
With Jesus is King, Kanye West has become everything that’s wrong with American Evangelical Christianity, fixated on superficial performances of holiness and indulging in narcissistic self-righteousness whilst falling horrendously short of anything resembling sincere passion or spiritual substance.