“So here go my single, dawg, radio needs this— Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”
Have you ever gone to church and been in awe of how much you didn’t understand what was going on? The prayers, the singing, the overall atmosphere? The preacher in the pulpit making some extended metaphor about Jesus using current events and pop culture references that creates more questions than it answers? That’s the feeling I get from Kanye West’s latest album Jesus Is King, which takes listeners through a half-hour contemporary service complete with praise, testimonials, and Bible verse citations.
West is no stranger to religion. In fact, he has made a minor career out of it. In 2004, he released “Jesus Walks”, a track with gospel influences that challenged the idea that it was publicly acceptable — encouraged, even — to make music about sin, but not marketable to make music about God. Ironically, the song earned him his first Grammy and peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. West’s debut album The College Dropout contained other gospel influences outside of “Jesus Walks”, including “I’ll Fly Away”, an interlude featuring the titular hymn by Albert E. Brumley. On The Life of Pablo, West enlisted the aid of gospel or gospel-adjacent artists like Betty Wright, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin. The Chicago native took listeners to church with “Ultralight Beam”, a lo-fi declaration of living a “God dream” and asking for prayer and deliverance from the Lord. He even recently began a series of gospel concerts he’s dubbed “Sunday Service”.
West has also used religion as a point of controversy. In 2006, he posed for a Rolling Stone cover as Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he found solace in the dichotomy of sex and religion, as expressed in “Hell of a Life.” On his follow-up solo project, Yeezus, the album title clearly compared himself to Jesus (again) and it contained a song called “I Am a God” facetiously featuring God. In between the two, on the Cruel Summer track “New God Flow”, West rapped:
“Welcome to Sunday service, if you hope to someday serve us
We got green in our eyes, just follow my Erick Sermon
Did Moses not part the water with the cane?
Did strippers not make an ark when I made it rain?
Did Yeezy not get signed by Hov and Dame?
And ran to Jacob and made the new Jesus chains?”
I carried all of the above context into my listening sessions of Jesus Is King, praying for remnants of the potential features and influences that would truly pull me into West’s spiritual rebirth while avoiding mere references and his signature persecution complex. What I got was a mixture of the two, and one that took me a while to warm up to.
Overall, King feels like a cross between previous production work and recent trends in hip-hop and pop. While brevity is not something that West has delivered extremely well in his career, it might have paid off this time around. Songs like “Selah” feature captivating drums, rhythmic chanting, and the aforementioned citations. In “Follow God”, he argues with his father about living a “Christ-like” life, reflecting upon the absurdity of elders never telling you when you are “being Christ-like”. “Everything We Need”, the narrative centerpiece of the album, is a praise song featuring Ty Dolla $ign, which then transitions into “Water” where West begins to cleanse his ego and return to a place of humility in the presence of the Lord.
West has not forgotten his pop culture references, however, leading to songs like “Closed on Sunday” that attempt to make Chick-fil-A into a metaphor for…keeping the Sabbath holy, I guess? There’s also the awkward “I cannot let my family starve” on “On God,” which…come on, Kanye. Not everything is perfect, but some things definitely take you out of the experience not unlike a preacher going on a wild tangent.
One track that does work, however, is “Use This Gospel.” While I find the metronome extremely annoying, everything else I really like. West’s chorus works better than expected. I like the idea of him deferring to Clipse for the rapping, giving himself some time to breathe. Pusha T and No Malice reunite for short, confessional-style verses, the Sunday Service Choir is great, and Kenny G is a pleasant surprise.
The intro and outro tracks — “Every Hour” and “Jesus Is Lord”, respectively — perfectly bookend the album, adding to the feeling of being in church. That being said, I don’t have much of an overall takeaway from the Gospel of West.
Maybe it’s about prejudice, like when he talks about his treatment from fellow Christians after announcing his Sunday Service and album concept. I was admittedly skeptical upon first listen, but came around when I realized the album was structured like a worship bulletin.
Maybe it’s about his mission to repeal (or, rather, amend) the Thirteenth Amendment — possibly a part of his presidential platform. Maybe he just needed to testify before the Lord and tell us all to follow His example. Sometimes that’s an average Sunday.
In short, this album is for Kanye West’s catharsis, not mine — and that’s fine. It’s a bite-sized, minimalist project that publicly suggests he’s rediscovered his spirituality and, as he often does, intends to keep us posted on his journey. With that in mind, I look forward to his next steps.
- “Follow God”
- “God Is”
- “Use This Gospel”