In the hours before Jesus Is King was set to drop, I found myself aimlessly listening through some of Kanye’s songs on shuffle. My phone bounced from gold-plated gems like “Otis” to the orchestral vamps of “Late,” eventually landing on those fiery martial drums and that legendary “bum-bum-bum-bumbum” sample. It had been some time since I’d listened to “Jesus Walks,” the desperate plea for salvation that shot a young Kanye West into the spotlight, and I guess I’d forgotten how good it was.
As cliche as it may be to note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the often sacrilegious relationship Kanye’s had with God. On Late Registration‘s lead single, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” West piously rapped that “my father been said I need Jesus, so he took me to church and let the water wash over my Caesar.” After proclaiming that “pussy and religion” was all he needed on “Hell of A Life,” he took the iconoclastic stance one step further on 2013’s Yeezus, proclaiming himself a deity on a song boldly titled “I Am A God,” before finally returning to the Lord with 2016’s The Life Of Pablo, a “gospel album with a whole lot of cursing.”
In the past, West has used religion not as a unifying concept, but as a way to frame personal revelations and newfound phases of clarity. A bombastic figure he may be, but he’s never been one to deal in absolutes, even if he speaks in them frequently. So, the question becomes, how does his art respond to being synthesized entirely from an “enlightened” frame of mind?
Jesus Is King doesn’t really answer this question. If a 27-minute runtime for 11 tracks indicates anything, it’s that there isn’t really enough time to answer any questions.
The record, like most of West’s late career output, is a sloppy patchwork of some good-to-great ideas that aren’t given the time to mature. While sculpting the record as a document of West’s newfound Christianity leads to a theme more cohesive than previous releases like ye, Jesus Is King seems far too centered around a more dogmatic interpretation of Christianity. This comes off as shallow — from insisting that his collaborators abstain from premarital sex to continuing to support a president whose actions couldn’t be further away from the lessons that Christianity teaches, his Godly theme is translated with rather poor taste. In turn, the record yields far too little to the sort of nuance and moral grey areas that West is so gifted at probing, opting instead to differentiate into large brushstrokes of black and white.
The result? Kanye’s weakest lyrical endeavor to date. Even if no one’s putting him up on a list of greatest lyricists in hip-hop, he’s always managed to balance his naturally goofy, inviting charm with bursts of insurmountable profundity. But he misses the mark here. The record is one of faux-enlightened platitudes and slogans, equipped with some of his most obnoxious bars.
Asking “What if Eve made apple juice” on “Everything We Need” is pathetic, a far cry from Mayonnaise-colored Benz’s. Even worse is the premise of “Closed On Sunday,” maybe the worst concept West has ever laid to tape. I could forgive the opening non-sequitur about bleached assholes from “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” for how stupidly amusing it is, but when the chorus of your song is “closed on Sunday, you my Chick-Fil-A?” Jesus Christ. When the lyrics aren’t as unlistenable as that, they’re just borderline forgettable, and all the punchlines land with the impact of a throw pillow.
Fortunately, despite all the clunkers, Jesus Is King isn’t entirely a lost cause. Kanye’s always had a stupendously astute ear for textures, and in using gospel music as a touchstone, his productions sound somewhat invigorated by the energy his Sunday Service choir brings. From the dramatic “hallelujah” breakdown on “Selah,” to the cascading, Graduation-evoking synths of “On God,” the sonic template is what steers the record away from being a complete disaster, mostly dodging the unforgivably bad for something very surface level and forgettable.
Despite this, there are a few moments that stand out. “Use This Gospel” is clearly meant to be the centerpiece here, reuniting Clipse and throwing Kenny G in the mix, but the result is less of a big-ticket showcase and more of a plodding disappointment, with middling verses that aren’t really given the space to unspool.
If you ask me, a more fitting standout track emerges in “Follow God,” one of the few tracks that finds Kanye sounding like he’s trying. The beat, unquestionably the album’s best, is also one of its most simple: a sample from Johnny Frierson and The Whole Truth placed over some tight percussion. It acts like a springboard for Kanye’s bars, some of his most energetic, detailing an argument with his father where he’s admonished over not being “Christ-like,” an impassioned verbal volley that ends in an agonized, infuriated shriek.
It’s worth noting that the song gets so frustratingly close to understanding the root of the flawed rhetoric Kanye spouts throughout the record. Like his father, West’s view of what it means to be “Christ-like” is one rooted in dogma, where being a “good Christian” carries the weight of a self-serving hypocrisy. On Jesus Is King, West rails against the IRS and preaches a capitalist prosperity gospel that ignores reflection, repentance and charitability, using biblical phrases while abandoning any sense of context. His visions of God seem to come from a place of shallow self-aggrandizing, desperately repenting for his failings through surface-level enlightenment.
With the vocal sample of “Follow God” (“Father I stretch, stretch my hands to you”), and the antagonizing presence of his father in the song, I find myself constantly thinking of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” when I listen to it. Yes, it heavily samples Desiigner’s “Panda,” but it’s also subtly one of Kanye’s most emotionally affecting songs, revisiting his abandonment issues after his father divorced his mother and left the family when he was only three. It stings, but that’s a byproduct of Kanye’s unflinchingly brutal honesty, and it makes Caroline Shaw’s ending plea to God so much more powerful.
Listening to Jesus Is King, I can’t help but miss these moments. On an album billed as a spiritual breakthrough, it’s telling how few there actually seem to be.
Score: ✝️✝️ / 5