On Oct. 25, in one of his few album releases not totally mired in public controversy, Kanye West dropped “Jesus Is King.” As his artistic career has twisted and turned, Kanye’s new musical directions have been generally unpredictable to awaiting fans. This time, however, Kanye was very forthright before his album’s release, declaring that this and all future albums would be gospel albums. Suddenly, expectations were born and memories of “Ultralight Beam” and “Jesus Walks” were evoked.
Whether or not “JIK” is truly and holistically “gospel” is up for debate, but the album does feature a unified lyrical theme and continuity of gospel/soul influences in its sound. At the very surface level, “JIK” is Kanye’s proclamation that he has found God, and his life and future are now determined by his faith. He wants to push forward the idea that God saves us and, of course, Jesus is king. Every track lyrically revolves around this idea in some capacity.
But diving deeper makes us question Kanye’s intentions and his depth as he layers his music in “faith.” It is difficult to accept the supposed credence of a man who made a song titled “I Am A God” just six years ago. It is difficult to resonate with spiritual praise followed by cheap punchlines — “closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A.” Kanye pushes us to see depth in his new identity and musical convergence but still speaks of Forbes’ covers and complains about his taxation. As a listener, it is a battle between sincerity and insincerity, trying to decipher where “the real Kanye” is speaking and what he means to say.
It feels as though Kanye’s lyrics and vocals as a whole are the least engaging aspect of the record. As Kanye seems intent on overshadowing his own production and ingenuity with this layer of superficiality, he takes a powerful theme and removes the profundity for his audience. The mixing on this project is absolutely beautiful, and the implementation of the gospel choir in songs like “Every Hour,” “Selah” and “Water” give the tracks some musical and emotional depth where Kanye can’t.
“Follow God” feels like a quintessential Kanye track, using a chopped sample of an obscure soul song, this time Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose by Following God.” He has perfected this method of production, cutting up vocals, layering organs, basses and samples over a trap beat. This song is a lot of fun, and even ends with Kanye casually telling a story about his father.
Unfortunately, “JIK” seems to fall flat through the middle, and when we finally reach “God Is” — an emotional, raw vocal performance by Kanye that should feel like the catharsis the album really needs — any momentum from the powerful gospel openings has since faded.
Second to last on “JIK,” Kanye offers us his most dynamic and impressive song in “Use This Gospel.” This track really feels like it could’ve been taken straight from “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and it brings back one of Kanye’s most powerful musical tools — his own voice as an instrument. The use of a vocoder sends us back to memories of “Monster” and “Runaway.” “Use this Gospel” finally delivers grand, meticulous, inspired sound. Pusha T and his brother No Malice reunite to form Clipse and give features on the track, both acknowledging past mistakes and encouraging the listener to look to faith for help. This is Kanye’s brightest moment, and it feels like a musical reemergence for the artist many feel is only trending downward, albeit 10 tracks into the 11-track album. Why does Kenny G have a saxophone solo? I don’t know.
“Jesus Is King” is convoluted and difficult to appreciate, especially when we attribute the same expectations we typically hold for an artist like Kanye West. From an artist as polarizing and self-righteous as Kanye, this album feels a few steps short of the grandiosity we desire. Kanye seems lost in a bit of hip hop purgatory at the moment, fighting off inclinations to write silly lyrics and non sequiturs and punchlines like the good ol’ days while attempting to steer himself totally into a new area of music and personal belief.
Looking toward the future, Kanye has announced another album, titled “Jesus is Born,” to be released Christmas Day. At that point, I expect him to fully transition into this gospel realm and bring with him the fanfare and emotion that “Jesus Is King” needed. But it’s Kanye West, and I never really know.