It’s that time of the year again when Kanye West, armed with another batch of outrageous quotes (“God is using me to show off”) and the usual hubristic boasts (“I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time”), makes his inevitable return to the public eye. His ninth studio album, ‘Jesus is King,’ may plough a more restrained ground than the ‘bleached assholes’ and ‘black balls’ of prior releases, but he nevertheless remains the proverbial bull in the china shop that is celebrity culture; the problem is, he’s already broken everything there is to break, and so now is just left awkwardly galloping around, trying to keep all eyes on him, but ultimately failing, as we customers gradually begin to leave, bored, uninterested and tired. Oh, and the bull now makes really boring music, too. The ‘Yeezy season’ formula of spouting the ridiculous and doing the ‘unexpected’ has grown abysmally tedious, and the inclusion of Jesus doesn’t change this.
Now in all honesty, I’d rather not talk too much about the artist, focusing instead on his offering, but with Kanye, the two are so intimately yoked together, by his own design, that this is a nigh-on impossible feat. With that said, let’s boil down Kanye’s recent endeavours to this; he’s rediscovered Christ and missed a bunch of album release dates. Now it is not at all my intention to question Kanye’s faith, but after a turbulent 2018, which involved manic support for Donald Trump, claims that ‘slavery was a choice,’ and a very strange Twitter-published entry into philosophy, a Christian redemption arc was certainly not a bad move towards saving his public persona. At this point though, I find myself rather indifferent to Kanye. Despite his formidable ability to become, seemingly at will, the most famous person on the planet at any given time, it is quite telling that the most relevant thing he’s done during these last couple of years was piggybacking Lil Pump’s hype on the track ‘I Love It,’ created for the inaugural Pornhub Awards. Sad as it may be, Kanye’s powers are waning, and this may help explain his 2019. He has always been obsessed with and attracted to powerful people, be it Bill Gates, Walt Disney or Donald Trump, and whether intentional or not, one can’t help but see this reignited passion for Jesus to be a further example of this egomaniac aligning himself with power.
Last year, he could be forgiven for his tired antics, since he produced and released some excellent music – Pusha T’s ‘Daytona’ and his collaboration with Kid Cudi, ‘Kids See Ghosts’ saw him back near the peak of his powers. The same cannot be said for ‘Jesus is King.’ Although my excitement had been significantly dampened over the preceding weeks by the numerous missed release dates, I was nevertheless eager, on the eve of the Friday 25th October as I settled down in a window seat on the 853 bus back home to the Cotswolds, cosy and warm in spite of the angry wind and keen rain, to slip on my headphones and relish in the joys of a new Kanye album. It was not to be. Within ten minutes, I was fast asleep, head bobbing against the window as Kanye’s words strolled unnoticed through my unconscious mind. Now I concede that it had been a long week and that I was exhausted, but you can be damn sure that had I played ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ or ‘The College Dropout,’ (or pretty much any other Kanye album), I’d have been subtly grooving on that bus all the way back to Cheltenham. The bitter truth is simple; ‘Jesus is King’ is a highly forgettable project.
It begins with some very by-the-numbers gospel music, that, if not particularly interesting, does at least succeed as a reasonably captivating intro to the album. From second track, ‘Selah,’ it becomes evident that although ‘Jesus is King’ may appear to be, and in many ways is, an album in reverence of Christ, it is nevertheless also an album in reverence of Kanye. From implying that he is guaranteed a place in Heaven (“I ain’t gotta peak over [the gates]”) to comparing his recent criticism to the story of Noah (“Before the flood, people judge. They did the same thing to Noah”) and finally to the admittedly very funny mispronunciation of the KJV translation of John 8:33, “Ye should be made free” to sound like his own nickname, there should be no doubt that Christianity serves as a fitting veil for Kanye’s evergreen ego. This is a shame. Oddly, one of his most endearing character traits used to be this ferocious self-confidence, but when it’s being thus disguised, it no longer carries the same impact. Musically the track is laden with interesting ideas, including a momentous organ intro, primal drums reminiscent of ‘Yeezus,’ and a spirited outro of chopped up shouts and whoops, but nothing comes together in a cohesive way; it is simply one rather cool idea after another and this is no guarantee of a good song. The terrible mixing of Kanye’s vocals certainly doesn’t help.
The third track ‘Follow God’ is by far (really very far) the best song on the album. It sees Kanye return to his signature production style, chopping up old samples to create a steady, easy-going rhythm that is extremely pleasant on the ears. It has an obvious impact on Kanye too, who is clearly more comfortable rapping on this sort of beat. His flow, so often jilted and awkward on this album, is here natural and smooth. It is no secret that Kanye’s ability as an emcee has been on a gradual decline, so it is always pleasing to see him come through with a verse of legitimate talent. Beyond this, though, it is hard to find a single other verse – be it rapped or sung – that is worth a listen; though difficult to believe now, there was a time when it was just as hard to find a verse of his that wasn’t worth a listen. The lyrical content on the track, though hardly exceptional, is also the pick of the bunch here. It sees Kanye arguing with his dad about what it is to be ‘Christ-like.’ Now there’s nothing resembling conclusion, nor are any points of genuine interest made, but it does at least show that Kanye is considering Christianity beyond the utterly superficial. The rest of the album, though, where religion is concerned, resembles nothing more than a billboard on a Louisiana highway advertising the local Christian community.
The amount of times Kanye says anything pertaining to Christianity of real profundity can be counted on one hand. What we do get is standard doctrine (“Follow Jesus, listen and obey”), corny jokes (“When I thought the Book of Job was a job”), and empty confessions, (“The Devil had my soul, I can’t lie”), all of which I could get from going to church, but with myriad times more interpretation, humour and depth. I’ve heard countless sermons more exciting than what Kanye offers here, which is hugely disappointing, especially given his knack for genuinely affecting self-evaluation in past releases (see ‘All Falls Down’ or ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’). Totally absent is any inquiry into Kanye’s rediscovered faith, or anything that would genuinely work towards persuading others to convert (a goal for which he himself has said he is striving).
Unfortunately, the odd musical flourish cannot save ‘Jesus is King’ from becoming a disgustingly long 27 minutes. Even the aforementioned ‘Follow God’ is directionless, and this half-baked approach is even more present throughout the rest of the album. ‘Closed on Sunday’ quickly engages the listener with a very dramatic opening of creeping acoustic guitars and moody choral hums, but devolves just as rapidly into farce with the aggressively stupid refrain, “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A.” How are we supposed to take Kanye seriously? ‘On God’ comes next, decked out in an annoying synth line and laboured singing. To think something so dull could end up on a Kanye West album would have been unfathomable just half a decade ago. And it is this dullness that wins the day in the end. ‘Everything We Need’ ambles along without leaving so much as a dent of intrigue. ‘Water’ rivals its namesake more in blandness than in purity, and even Kanye sounds a bit worn out with the whole Jesus thing in his central refrain. ‘God Is’ proves to be a decent little ballad, ruined completely by Kanye’s rather awful singing – and this is coming from someone who is usually a big fan of his sung verses.
Were it not for Kanye’s moans about how he’s not been readily accepted into the Christian community, ‘Hands On’ would be equally forgettable. Intent on being a victim, he begrudges “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first ones to judge me.” But did Kanye seriously expect to be welcomed into the community with open arms after previously proclaiming himself a god on the track “I am a god (feat. God)” and spending years spitting in the face of the vast majority of the Ten Commandments? Even if we forget about everything in the past (since Christianity is, after all, founded on forgiveness), he is still radically hypocritical in his practice. While being absurdly dogmatic, to the point of hilarity in some respects (banning everyone working on his album from having pre-marital sex and keeping a daily scorecard for whenever he curses), he is still the antithesis of humility in a religion that preaches being low and humble. Similarly, he has spent the last few weeks boasting about his $68 million tax refunds, rejoicing in his ignorance of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:24 that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It is such contradictions that Kanye would typically revel in exploring through his music, and would make for fascinating content, but now they just serve to remove credibility from the man.
An excellent Clipse feature and Kenny G saxophone solo in ‘Use This Gospel’ prevent the record from crashing and burning, but one can’t help but feel the former has been sold short in their grand reunion, while the latter has just been tacked on the end of the song, because why not? Clipse especially deserve better than this; Pusha T has consistently been Kanye’s best featured artist ever since his show-stealing appearances on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,’ while No Malice delivers the best verse of the album here, displaying his internal conflict of being a man of God, while also having brought such great damage to people’s lives through his past actions.
The final song ends abruptly, in one last awkward stab to finish off this long-suffering album. Kanye has managed to pull off the remarkable in making an unreservedly soulless gospel record. Considering the theme, it’s very cold and almost heartless, lacking any semblance of emotional pay-off. Lethargic and spineless, it eventually drags itself to completion. I do still have faith in Kanye West – if there’s one person you can never count out, it is he – but I can’t help but feel bitterly let down by this. His rampant egoism no longer holds much weight as Kanye here takes another kick at his own legacy. Jesus may be king, but Kanye is distinctly average. 1.5/5