On ‘Jesus is King,’ Kanye delivers a holy disappointment

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November 8, 2019

On Oct. 25, after umpteen delays, Mr. Kanye West finally released his ninth solo studio album, “Jesus is King.” Was it worth the wait? And what’s become of hip-hop’s loudest auteur? The Hoot Arts Editor Jonah Koslofsky and staff music critic Chris de Mena discuss: 

Jonah: For years, Kanye has been a mess. Sometimes, that mess has been a grand, artistic statement: on “The Life of Pablo,” West seemed to accept that his complexity was incongruous, crafting one of the most striking works of his decade-and-a-half long career (although I know my colleague would disagree on “Pablo’s” worth). Other times, West’s mess has just been… a mess—look no further than his last outing, the half-baked “ye.” 

All this is to say I find myself almost enjoying “Jesus is King.” It’s the first time since 2013’s “Yeezus” that Kanye has actually picked an aesthetic. Yes, this is an occasionally bumpy ride: tracks like “Closed on Sundays” don’t make much sense, and West’s lyrics certainly, painfully, aren’t what they used to be. But the sincere, sweeping sound that reverberates through all 28 minutes has my head bobbing along on every listen. As a secular Jew, I can’t pretend that I’m moved by much of the faith West displays here. Still, these songs remind me of how the music I hear at synagogue makes me feel: it doesn’t mean much, but I’m kinda happy to hear it. What do you think Chris? And how do you feel about this step for West? 

Chris: This album is boring to the point of being sacreligious. I agree that it at least has a goal, which is more than we can say for “ye” (except for maybe to get on the radio). What’s weird about this album is that the reason it’s not compelling is because of its theology. Religion, or at least Christianity, is very much about something bigger than yourself. But what we get on this album is Christianity by way of Kanye, which is not a genuine expression of anything other than narcissism. What would make for a more interesting album would be Kanye discussing his personal journey to square himself with the Gospel, a la Big KRIT on “4eva is a Mighty Long Time.” But all that’s here is lip service to blind faith and platitudes. And not that I doubt Kanye’s intentions, but that’s why Don Jr. can engage with this. Proverbs 21:2!

What drives me crazy about this album is that we get two and a half minutes of what it could’ve been. The first two-thirds of “Use This Gospel” are legitimately incredible reimaginations of gospel music that draw influences from Kanye’s prior work. The juxtaposition of the two “Clipse” brothers on the track, Pusha T and No Malice the converted-Christian rapper, show how features could have been used to give this album more nuance than Kanye can on his own. But just like that it’s gone, replaced by the soullessness of Kenny G’s saxophone. Proverbs 23:4!

Jonah, what should we make of the moments on this album where the production falls totally flat, like “On God,” “Everything We Need” and “Water”? Or the abrupt ending to this album? And how much should we really be moving the goalposts for Mr. West?

Jonah: Well Chris, I’m not sure I agree in terms of the messy production—I’ve had the melodies of “Everything We Need” and “Water” stuck in my head too many times this past week to write off those tracks. I don’t think I’m as bored by “Jesus is King” as you are, but I think you’re exactly right about the album’s structure. It never really starts, never really ends and the songs have a bad habit of grinding to a halt somewhere around the two-minute mark. Simply put, this isn’t West’s redemption, and it’s probably his second worst project after “ye.” 

Meanwhile, one of the President’s idiot sons is endorsing this thing. It’s not hard to see why: there are times when “Jesus is King” sounds like the rap album for the alt-right. “Stand up for my home,” Kanye yells, “He’ll strengthen my hand / They’ll think twice steppin’ onto my land / I draw the line, it’s written in the sand.” West’s faith is nothing new, but he’s never put what he believes into such aggravating, right-wing terms. 

Then there are the moments when “Jesus is King” ignites, the rare moments of inspiration—“Use this Gospel” being the chief example (I’m also partial to “Selah,” biblical verse exclamations aside). But then I put on “Jesus Walks.” Then “Ultralight Beam.” And then I listened to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and basked in what a really, clearly quality Kanye album sounds like. No matter how much we move the goalposts, what West is making today is nowhere near as good. 

I’ll probably keep listening to this empty project—but this is an artist who used to make music that mattered. “Jesus is King” is yet another depressing reminder that guy is gone. What do you think, Chris? Any closing thoughts? 
Chris: This album and the Kanye-returns-to-God arc were never going to be interesting; it was always so obvious. But what we got was still underwhelming. Mediocre production, awful lyrics and zero perspective. The key track on this project is “Hands On,” which is both a fantastic self-own and the worst song I’ve heard this year. On it, Kanye takes a moment to whine about Christians being suspicious of him, calls them hypocrites, and paints himself as a victim, verifying whatever concerns the anonymous “they” may have had. In this respect, Kanye hasn’t changed a bit. Not even Jesus Christ can take precedence over his “persecution.” One day, the value of this project will not be seen as a testament to faith but as a quintessential example of how religion was utilized as a tool for self-aggrandizement by an ego-maniac of our time.

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