Critical Voices: Jesus is King, Kanye West

November 4, 2019

I am a Christian. Growing up, my brothers and I were only allowed to listen to Christian music, excluding the occasional Whitney Houston song my dad would smuggle onto a long car ride. Harmony-driven gospel and alternative, hip-hop fusion were my Christian genres of choice, so my musical life consisted primarily of artists like TobyMac, DC Talk, and the Gaither Vocal Band. The local Christian radio station, 91.7 KBNJ, was the number one preset in every car, and we listened to it daily on the way to school.

As I got older, fewer restrictions were placed on my music consumption. As a junior high boy, I went through the same dubstep phase everyone did (oh God, please tell me it was everyone), but for me, it was a transition into the world of secular music. It had no words, so it existed in a blank space of religiosity. It was my stepping stone into this massive, artistic world, one which I soon found I’d barely scratched the surface of.

I was ravenous about music in high school, desperately clawing to make up for lost time. I was a senior the first time I listened to a Kanye West song. I’m sure there were plenty of snippets floating around on television or at school dances, but the first time I sought out and listened to a Kanye track was in my AP Comparative Government class, pretending to read my textbook while listening to “Ultralight Beam.”

I was blown away. For the next few days, it was on constant repeat in my headphones. “Ultralight Beam” was (and continues to be) an infinite well of intrigue. It’s at once sparse and lush, autotuned and authentic, commercial and Christian. I had listened to Christian Rap music before, but this was different. Here’s an album, with cover art proudly displaying someone’s whole ass, that begins, entirely earnestly, with a gospel choir and a prayer. It’s seductive and crass, but also clearly in pursuit of something greater. Faith does not provide a simple or immediate path to purity, and it’s a deceptively difficult ideal towards which to strive. It’s a path mediated by blemish and regret and a love large enough to keep you attempting, failing, and repeating the process.

My favorite Christian music depicts this messy tangle of faith. Not many Christian artists write music that functions this way—they have to think about radio plays and megachurch performances on Sunday mornings. I’m a firm believer that anything can be worship, which is why I am consistently drawn back to a Jaques Maritain quote from his book, Art and Scholasticism, about making religious art: “If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian.’” The idea that the heart will pass, and that trying to “make Christian” is futile, is so important to my conception of worship. I have worshipped to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” I have worshipped to Julien Baker’s “Rejoice.” I have worshipped to my childhood pastor’s rendition of “Come Thou Fount.” Anything that provides a framework upon which to toggle with God, to better define my relationship to him, is worship.

All of this is why Jesus Is King (2019) is so monumentally disappointing to me. It fails to be good music, and then it fails to be good Christian music.

I get that talking about this album primarily as music rather than in the context of Kanye’s public antics over the last two years is troubling. Listening to Kanye’s music right now is a complicated political and ethical issue, and it’s one I’ve wrestled with. I wish I was smart enough to make this article about the rightness or wrongness of listening to Kanye in our current landscape, or even to ethically justify my own listening, but I’m not, so I won’t. I feel like it’s already been discussed at length, ad nauseam (here are a few articles which talk about Kanye’s politics, his lack of respect for fans, and his obvious media pandering if that’s what you’re here for), and so I feel less qualified to problematize listening to Kanye than I do to problematize the quality of the music, which in many ways hinges on Kanye’s personhood and just how unavailable it is across this album. 

It’s so frustrating to see Kanye move from one of his most vulnerable projects, Ye (2018), to one of his least in Jesus Is King. It’s no secret that Kanye isn’t a great lyricist. He’s sometimes clunky and corny to the point of nausea, but in the right context, his bumbling is transmuted to charm, cleverness, and endearment, a transformation previously shepherded by a talented team of writers. Unfortunately, as Kanye has continued to alienate so many of his collaborators, he has been left to stew in his own ridiculousness, seemingly unchecked. Sometimes that can produce Ye, an album full of half-baked lyrics that, though occasionally grating, are ultimately so exposed and defenseless that you’re drawn into the portrait, eager to untangle its mess. Haunting the other end of that spectrum is Jesus Is King: an album plagued by some of the worst bars of Kanye’s career, all dripping with a profound dishonesty. It’s a garbage collage of the most obvious, well-tread lyrics of Christiandom (“I’m no longer my own,” “In the father, we put our faith”), cornball Kanye-isms (“Closed on Sunday/you’re my Chick-Fil-A,” “What if Eve made apple juice?”), and the occasional provocative political snippet with zero context (“The IRS want they fifty plus our tithe,” “Thirteenth amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me”). It’s like Hillsong United B-Sides meet “Ye Vs. the People,” which is to say you have to block out the lyrics for most of the album just to be able to stand it.

The best part of the LP is obviously its production (as is regular for Kanye), but not even that can save this album from itself. “Every Hour” is beautiful but goes nowhere. The choir is booming, sentimental, and borderline haunting in its display of power. The track is begging for some percussion, for a verse, for anything to make it into a more finished song, but perhaps its relevance could have been saved if it framed the album in some compelling way. I had high hopes that the “sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down” and the “we need you” lyrics leading directly into a Kanye verse would hold some weight over the religious complications of the album, emphasizing Kanye’s previously preferred persona as, literally, a god. Instead, it’s almost two minutes of (very pretty) squandered potential.

The beat on “Follow God,” driven by a “Father I stretch my hands to you,” gospel/soul sample, is simple, cyclical, and groovy. Its production is reminiscent of Kanye’s work on Daytona (2018), but his vocal delivery is tired, and basically just a bad Pusha T impression. Lyrically though, “Follow God” brings some interesting moments to the forefront regarding judgment (“Nobody never tell you when you’re being like Christ”) and the struggle of struggling to achieve piety (“Wrestlin’ with God, I don’t really wanna wrestle”). It’s particularly interesting when looking at it as a successor to The Life of Pablo’s (2016) “Father Stretch My Hands pt. 1,” which invokes the same image of reaching for liberation but in a less religious context. 

The closest this album gets to authentic is “Selah.” It’s arguably a little cheap to use a choir of “hallelujahs” in a rising chord structure as the engine of your track, but it is undeniably functional. It’s really a spectacular amalgam of styles. The sparse qualities of Ye (2018), the driving kicks of Yeezus (2013), the casual brazen-ness of The Life of Pablo (2016), the raging vocal percussion of Kids See Ghosts (2018), all in concert with a certain self-deprecation, or at least recognition, reminiscent of 808s and Heartbreaks (2008) and the entire Graduation era. Despite its occasionally corny lyricism, “Selah” is the best track on the album, pulling together a few coherent and interesting thoughts regarding Kanye’s personal orientation to faith—an augmentation of old ideas regarding his posturing as prophet, beneath an overcoat of humility that doesn’t quite fit right. Here he’s Noah, here he’s “screaming at the chauffeur,” but here he’s also the everyman, the “soldier.” That’s a lot of hats to wear. What Kanye is showing us is faith as a hyper-famous, hyper-talented, mentally-ill individual. That’s compelling theologically and artistically. Unfortunately, this is as close as the album ever gets to an actual excavation of faith.

“Closed On Sunday” is at best pandering and at worst a legitimate attempt at music. If you gave me this track with no context and said it was a Youtube parody, I would not only believe you, I would probably share it with all of my friends. The darkly serious beat, with its plucky guitars over brooding synth bass, is unintentionally hilarious when paired with its impossibly bad lyrics. “Jezebel don’t even stand a chance” is no better than the ridiculous Chick-Fil-A hook. The shimmering synths in “On God” are both driving and hypnotic. Luckily, Kanye made sure to pair it with the most brain-dead hook of the entire album so as not to trick us into thinking it is at all worthwhile. Using “On God” as a holy pun is the type of idea an eighth-grader might come up with on the bus home from their first church camp with the big kids. 

“Water” is an exceptionally squishy beat that commits so heavily to its chill, squelchy, vibey-ness, one can’t help but be entranced by it, even in spite of it’s boring, bordering on nonsensical lyrics, centrally anchored by a spectacularly repetitive, self-focused prayer from Kanye. This prayer is an opportune moment for the album to put forward Kanye’s personal relationship to God, his worry, his struggle, his particular praise or thankfulness, to pivot into making something good rather than just “making Christian.” Instead, we’re offered lazy images, generic desires, and a complete lack of emotion in delivery, all pulled together by a lackluster flow. It amounts to nothing more than the bedtime prayer of an eight-year-old: “gimme, gimme, gimme, amen.” 

“God Is” maybe leans too heavily on melodrama, and Kanye’s crooning is pitchy as usual, but I’m inexplicably won over by this track. I guess I actually believe him here. His smoky vocals paired with a well-executed flow and lyrics that aren’t trying to be overly clever feels like a breath of fresh air. “Jesus saved me, now I’m saved,” sounds like a wildly childish theological argument in a vacuum, but in its delivery communicates a liberation found in submission. Plus, after three tracks of absolute swill, anything remotely honest or listenable strikes a chord. 

This leads us directly into “Hands On,” which offers an atmospheric, sparse, but enjoyable beat, a great Fred Hammond feature, and, unfortunately, a lot of Kanye rapping. Here we’re offered the dicey “abolish the 13th amendment” lyric we all knew was coming, alongside some lazy examination of lack of acceptance within the Christian community. It’s not exactly revelatory to point out that a lot of Christians are judgemental and lame. In my experience, Christians themselves love to point out this fact in order to seem progressive and edgy while continuing to be judgemental and lame. Kanye’s earnest adoption of the practice isn’t complicated or critique, it’s just more pandering. “Use This Gospel” is more of the same, but the beat is backed by this terrible, pulsating, warning siren sound that your car makes when your seatbelt is unbuckled, and the features are less well realized (excluding the miraculous Kenny G solo that feels completely disconnected from the rest of the track). Finally, we arrive at “Jesus is Lord,” which has the same, glistening potential as “Every Hour,” and is marred by the same squander.

Every song (and the album as a unit) teeters on the edge of being good only to careen into a general mess. Everything is three-quarters of the way to listenable before it finds a way to “Chick-Fil-A on Sunday” itself, and at a certain point, you just can’t help but laugh.

For someone who has lived such a storied and public life as Kanye’s, it’s unfortunate that this album regarding faith is so one-note and boring. It isn’t that I don’t believe Kanye has been “reborn,” or that I think he’s just pulling this religious angle for the sake of controversy and streams. I believe in people’s ability to choose to be different, to change, to be changed. Even more so, I believe in my inability to discern someone’s internal commitment to Christ. The album is boring and dishonest because it doesn’t actually talk about Kanye or his life. Instead, it’s a random collection of religious phrases and tropes placed as lackluster as possible, one after the other in some ridiculous, meandering trudge. Am I supposed to believe that the man who called himself Yeezus has nothing to say about the difficulties of submissiveness to the divine? Am I supposed to believe that the artist who, just a year ago, opened an album with a song about suicidal and homicidal thoughts, has nothing to say about belief in God and its relationship to mental health? 

And maybe this is where I’m asking too much. Maybe all Kanye has left to offer is the whining of an out-of-touch multi-millionaire, tinged with a surface level coloring of religious aphorisms. I can’t help but feel like it’s this wet blanket of religiosity, covering the actual personhood of the artist underneath. I can’t help but feel cheated out of an album that actually discusses Kanye’s faith, rather than one that haphazardly skims across the surface of the subject without tact or nuance.

I had so much hope for this album, that I would hear something in it that stirred me. I had so much hope that I might be moved like I was by “Ultralight Beam,” or even that it might offer me some avenue back into the memories of the music that I used to listen to in the mornings on the way to school. Instead, I think it’s just made it harder to maintain the cognitive dissonance necessary to continue consuming Kanye’s work. Jesus is King is lukewarm, it’s “making Christian,” and it’s a waste of time.

Voices’ Choices: “Selah” and “God Is” (or just go listen to “Jesus Walks” and “FML” if you want something that won’t disappoint you)

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