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On Jesus Is King, Kanye West Finds God, But Loses His Inspiration

7 minute read

“The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest,” Kanye West said last year on Ye‘s opening track “I Thought About Killing You.” The line essentially sums up West’s career: he’s consistently excelled while wrestling with dualities—of faith versus temptation, high art and smut, love and heartbreak. On his best songs, like “Devil In A New Dress,” “Jesus Walks” and “Father Stretch My Hands,” he paired a desire for self-betterment with the ugliest and basest parts of his psyche, making the angel and the devil on his shoulders work in concert.

But West has excised his darkness on JESUS IS KING, his latest album, which was released on Friday after several delays. With its declarative caps lock title, gospel music influences and almost exclusively religious material, West promises reinvention and reinvigoration in the wake of a troubled few years, in which he’s fought opioid addiction, drawn blowback for comments about Donald Trump and slavery, and engaged in high-profile spats with former collaborators Drake and Jay-Z. Jesus Is King is his opportunity to turn the other cheek as a chastened and reformed preacher for the hip hop age.

While the album’s concept might be lofty, it’s also his least ambitious. Jesus Is King clocks in at just 27 minutes—slightly longer than the stump of an album that was Ye—and feels heavy on shortcuts and light on tension. While there are plenty of likable elements—impassioned melodies, slick production, motivated guest appearances—the album is dominated by generic worship lyricism and overfamiliar sounds. By eschewing the paradoxes that have driven his best work, West has unwittingly put forward another one: he’s claimed God as his greatest inspiration, but made the least inspired album of his career.

The album’s weaknesses begin with West’s single-minded lyricism. The topic at hand is nothing new for West, who has explored his faith in profound ways—especially on the one-two punch of “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down” on The College Dropout. On those songs, he paints vivid narratives about personal and societal struggle, reckoning with his own complicity as he seeks salvation.

There is no such storytelling on Jesus is King. His lyrics mostly begin and end with variations on the same bland pledge: “Follow Jesus, listen and obey”; “I bow down to the King upon the throne”; “The army of God and we are the truth”; “He’s the strength in this race that I run.” His songs were once unending strings of double-entendres and cunning turns of phrase. Here he rhymes “safe” with “safe” on “Water,” and can’t be bothered to develop out a metaphor on “Follow God”: “Wrestlin’ with God, I don’t really want to wrestle.” He also has a tendency of repeating lines that are even remotely interesting, just in case we didn’t get them the first time: “I ain’t mean, I’m just focused,” he barks twice.

West’s verbal mission is more limited here compared to past records. But in his attempt to avoid negativity, he fundamentally misunderstands gospel lyricism, which is often filled with conflict and hardship. Classics such as “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” wallow in despair, while even a more upbeat hymn like “How I Got Over” derives its strength from the narrator’s lifetime of weariness. Many gospel songs are driven by transformation, in which sinners hit rock bottom before receiving a glimmer of hope.

West waves at this idea in “Hands On,” the strongest song of the record. “Told the devil that I’m going on a strike / I’ve been working for you my whole life,” he says, and integrates his own struggle with police brutality and America’s three-strikes law, which predominantly impacts communities of color. But instead of digging deeper, he raps about not being accepted by other Christians. Elsewhere, his pledges of devotion do little to convey why he has reinvented himself as a worship artist, or what’s at stake on a greater communal scale. Because most of the songs on Jesus is King don’t have conflict, they can’t achieve satisfying catharsis.

Lyricism is only a fraction of gospel music, of course; on Aretha Franklin’s hallowed live album Amazing Grace, some of the strongest moments unfold when she’s barely singing words at all–just repeating “right on” over and over, or howling pew-shaking vocal runs. Cascades of harmony, torrential grooves, or a simple mantra repeated over and over can sometimes convey faith even more strongly than complex storytelling.

And there are certainly moments of musical vitality on Jesus Is King. West’s melody on “Closed On Sunday” is one of his strongest in recent memory, while “Hands On” benefits from frenetic autotuned sermonizing by Fred Hammond. For the second straight album in a row, Ant Clemons delivers a standout verse with his wispy falsetto—first on Ye’s “All Mine,” now on the beatific “Water.”

But for the most part, Jesus Is King is even-keeled, sedate, and nothing we haven’t heard from West before. The hammering piano and autotuned harmonies of “Use This Gospel” are swiped straight from the playbook of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, while the chopped up soul sample of “Follow God” sounds like a reject from Pusha T’s “Daytona.” West is smart enough to use Pierre Bourne, one of the leading stylists in hip-hop—but Bourne’s beat “On God” is unfocused and stale compared to his loopy, unpredictable collaborations with Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert.

These retreads are frustrating particularly because West’s most impactful innovations have always been through sound. As a producer in the early ’00s, he brought chipmunked soul samples to the fore; he revolutionized the autotune and digital timbres on 808s and Heartbreak; and on Yeezus, fused rap with an abrasive industrial brutalism, setting the template for the sound and attitude of the SoundCloud rap era. Each transgression alienated many at first, but gradually became part of the genre’s lingua franca. West’s sonic choices on Jesus Is King, in contrast, are recycled from his archives.

While the best of West’s records are intensely personal and self-aware, Jesus Is King has a glazed-over quality, as if being delivered through stained glasses, or from the Sunken Place, the fictional purgatory from Get Out that West fears the most. While he professes to be “so radical” on “Everything We Need,” Jesus is King is strictly functional. It’s an album, ironically, weighed down by its lack of demons.

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