USA TODAY US Edition
Kanye’s ‘Jesus is King’ is both holy and hollow
Another Kanye West album is here, and with it, another collective shrug of indifference.
“Jesus is King,” the rapper’s most clear-cut foray into Christian hip hop, was released midday Friday after multiple delays and tracklist changes. The 11-song, 27-minute album finds West teaming up once again with frequent collaborators including Pusha T, Ty Dolla Sign and producer Mike Dean, as well as his recently formed Sunday Service collective: a gospel group that has accompanied him throughout the past year at Coachella music festival in April and various pop-up shows nationwide in months since.
In some regards, “Jesus Is King” is West’s riskiest effort yet. Here, he completely abandons his provocative rhymes about fame, women and mental health, and potentially alienates longtime fans with chaste lyrics about God, heaven and staying on the straight and narrow. Interpolating Bible verses and Christian hymns, and frequently backed by a church organ and choir, the album suggests a bold new direction for the now-father of four (a musical path he looks to continue on with the just-announced “Jesus Is Born,” out Christmas Day.)
So why can’t we get more excited about it?
There was a time when new music from the rap legend felt like an event. Who can forget the thrill when, after widespread backlash to the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 VMAs, he emerged from hiding a year later with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his grandiose career-defining masterpiece (and arguably the best album of the past decade)? The messy rollouts and bold swings of 2013’s “Yeezus” and 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” kept fans on their toes, even if in retrospect, we weren’t nearly critical enough of West’s offensive and unwanted depictions of Swift and other female celebrities on the latter.
But in the past couple of years, West’s antics have grown increasingly tiresome. Last year’s “Ye” – which he unveiled during a star-studded listening party in his new adopted home of Wyoming – felt sporadic and unfinished; an afterthought to the string of albums he would produce and feature on for other artists that summer. His blind support of President Donald Trump and attempts to reclaim the “Make America Great Again” hat as a symbol of unity have been ignorant and misguided, while his bizarre insistence last year that slavery was a “choice” just seemed like faux provocation for the sake of it.
In terms of elaborate rollouts, “Jesus is King” is West at his most exhausting. The rapper made a 31-minute IMAX film to accompany the album, which is screening in theaters nationwide for one week only. Shot with obnoxious fish-eye lenses and shown almost entirely through circular frames, the movie mostly lingers on long shots of billowing clouds, wildlife and the backs of choir singers. West appears only in silhouette to perform a God-focused update of “808s & Heartbreak” track “Street Lights,” which serves as an emotional finale to an otherwise self-indulgent and unnecessary project.
“Jesus Is King,” the album, doesn’t fare much better. Lyrically, the music sounds as if West picked up a Bible yesterday, took everything at face value and decided to make an album about it. His rhymes are often lazy and on the nose, making broad declarations about his new outlook on life since finding religion. (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor, not divide,” he raps on “On God.” “His light shine the brightest in the dark.”)
He extols the power of forgiveness and counts himself among God’s soldiers on “Selah,” and repeatedly asks for guidance and protection throughout “Use This Gospel,” which reunites rap duo Clipse and features a saxophone solo from none other than Kenny G. “Closed on Sunday” warns against the dangers of social media and vanity, and opens with one of
West’s most cringeworthy lyrics to date: “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A,” referring to the famously religious fastfood chain, which has donated to antiLGBTQ groups through the years.
West’s trademark wit is largely absent from “Jesus Is King.” (“What if Eve made apple juice?” is the clearest attempt at humor on “Everything We Need,” but his mixed metaphor about partaking in sin ultimately goes nowhere.) And while the production is reliably stellar, there are no standout hooks that make any of these songs worth returning to.
This is in no way meant to discredit West’s recent religious awakening. Many of us will go on spiritual journeys throughout our lives, and if finding God has given him inner peace, there’s no reason he shouldn’t reflect that in his music.
But most everything on “Jesus Is King” feels purely surface level, devoid of any of the soul-searching or introspection that faith often brings.
The only exception is “God Is,” a searing confessional in which West exorcises his demons in real time. Appearing to reference his past struggles with opioid abuse, he thanks the Lord for “freedom from addiction,” and expresses gratitude for his family and health.
“This my kids, this the crib / This my wife, this my life / This my God-given right,” West breathlessly chants, his voice audibly cracking and aching as he races to the song’s finish. “Thank you, Jesus, won the fight.”
It’s a powerful example of someone being profoundly moved by spirit, and a reminder that West still has the ability to move us.