Artist: Kanye West
Occupation: Producer, rapper
Album: Jesus is King
Originally released in: 2019
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“The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” vs “Jesus is King”. That, in a nutshell, defines the divide between Kanye West's ninth studio album and just about anything else on the mainstream radar.
Even setting aside genres like black metal for a moment, in which the contempt for religion is a thematic focal point, much of popular culture has been about rejecting Christian restrictions - their hold on sexuality and emphasis on spiritual rather than material wealth. Jesus is King wants to be the spearhead of the counter revolution, a praise of God so passionate that it feels out of time.
To be sure, this is not a gospel album. There is some preaching and quite a bit of praising, jubilant choirs and congregational handclaps congenially woven into the tracklist. There are also dramatically swelling organ harmonies, meditatively plucked guitar strings, the blows of percussion hit with so much religious fervour they could bring the walls of Jericho down twice. But this is less of a mass and more of a confession, West both acting out the role of the sinner and the priest, offering up his misdoings while handing out advice on how to repent, improve and live a more fruitful life.
It is, to put it more bluntly and to spell out one of the main criticisms of the results, about little else than West himself. Most of the lyrics deal with personal revelations and incisive situations that made him question or defend his actions, some offering headscratching justifications for bewildering behaviour. And only he could sample faith inspired soul songs like “Can You Lose By Following God” and juxtapose them with an extract from Bruce Haack's "Blow Job." The words may be devotional, but as an artist, West's inner Saul, as much as he may have tried, can not go full Paul.
I understand the issues some have with the egocentric perspective of Jesus is King. But on the other hand, what else is faith than one person's relationship with God? What else could it possibly deal with other than giving up your current life and replacing it with a different one, with Jesus “doing the laundry” and his disciple donning the dress of a new commitment, a new covenant? In fact, it is the perceived or actual contradictions that make this release so powerful in its most convincing moments. Surely, if he were using Christianity merely as a pretext and gospel as a sonic flourish only, West could have polished away these incongruencies. Instead, he left them in for everyone to see, making what could have been an exercise in style an actual account of something meaningful – regardless of whether or not the listener is always capable of relating to it.
We're living n an era where writers are taking their lyrics into ever more personal and intimate territory. But very few actually show real vulnerability. When was the last time that you saw an artist truly drop to his knees and strip naked to get his message across.? Yes, lines like “Hold the selfies, put the 'Gram away / Get your family, y'all hold hands and pray” are akward, perhaps even somewhat cringe-worthy. But it's not like West isn't aware of this. “To sing of change, you think I'm joking / To praise His name, you ask what I'm smoking / Yes, I understand your reluctancy,” he admits in “Hands On.” Simply, he can't help himself.
If you think about it, it is perfectly clear what the tone of these lines suggest. The words on Jesus is King are the words that people use who are in love, which is exactly what the album feels like in many places: A love story, a letter of allegiance. And sure, “I bow down to the King upon the throne / My life is His, I'm no longer my own” (from “Closed on Sunday”) can turn out to be empty rhetoric. But all the same, these are moments of great fragility for someone who long consider himself a ruler sitting on his throne.
Regardless of the lyrical content, the musical world that West has built here in just under half an hour is remarkable immersive. It is colourful and filled with contrast, euphoric spirituals seaguing into introspective trap passages, kicking electro grooves rubbing against classic prayer tunes, straight forward song structures merging with beatless, free-form compositions. Even the most soulful samples have all the retro-warmth and nostalgia sucked out of them, the mix is loud and almost purposefully undynamic, all sense of threedimensional space eliminated to create the acoustic equivalent of a mesmerising devotional image whose mental imprint will stay with you long after the record has ended.
That said, if Jesus is King was ever supposed to be a missionary project, then it has failed in every regard. Leaked early demos reveal that most songs were actually downgraded in terms of their popular appeal. “Law”, which initially featured Dua Lipa, was a massive, big, epic and emotionally rousing track of hip hop cinematics, a song with an instant-classic feel. Instead, West went back to the drawing board, turned down the grandeur of the original, and eliminated Lipa, one of the world's biggest stars. He did leave in Kenny G's saxophone passage, but promoted the latter's performance to solo status, increasing its lyricism at the cost of intensity.
As a result of these creative decisions, Jesus is King has confused rather than captured even some of his most ardent fans. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that its impact seems to have been minimal and fleeting. In one of the tracks here, Kanye worried about “the Christians” being “the first ones to judge me.” Instead, the album seems to have left them cold. His own disciples, meanwhile, would quickly spend more time talking about the track list changes between the original and updated version of Donda than this release.
Yet that, perhaps, is the album's biggest statement, the one that made me change the way I think about music. To sacrifice the hits and the “best versions” of your best songs for the bigger picture, to consciously open yourself for ridicule when you know you could have harvested universal admiration and praise, to go against the times when you could have continued to ride their surf – even if you really don't like this album, these facts are impressive in their own, bewildering way.