Considering the maelstrom that has characterised Kanye West’s creative output and public persona for the past 10 years, an album of fully-fledged evangelism is actually one of the less radical moves he could have made at this point.
He had already dabbled in this gospel-tinged sound on The Life Of Pablo’s more coherent tracks, and has been rapping about his relationship with God since Jesus Walks, so why not make a whole record out of it?
Another short release, Jesus Is King is not quite as short as his gauntlet of 2018 releases but close, and only one song breaches the 3:30 mark, with transitions mimicking the channel-hopping feel of classic Stones Throw releases.
Jesus Is King begins, like last year’s Ye, with a surprising amount of timewasting for such a brief album: a sped-up loop of the Sunday Service Choir which would be interesting if it went somewhere, but doesn’t. Selah follows with dramatic organ and lyrics that make oblique reference to past controversies and the USA’s increasingly fractious culture war (“if you woke then wake up”), then spoils the mood with gimmicky noises. It’s not the only time an ill-advised decision derails a song; Kenny G’s solo on Use This Gospel, while technically impressive, is glaringly unnecessary.
The production is lush and minimal, with tracks like Closed On Sunday and Hands On being completely beatless. Follow God is a more traditional hip-hop beat accompanying the most enjoyable verse of the album, while On God dazzles with shiny synth textures and Everything We Need is the closest to modern-day trap. Kanye West’s lyrics are sometimes effective in their simplicity, particularly his list-style verse on Water, but can also veer into unfocused rambling, and at one point during Hands On he starts to resemble will.i.am at his most awkward (“Only if they knew what I knewuhh / I was never new ‘til I knew of / true and living God, Yeshua”).
One method of damage control Kanye has employed since his comments about slavery being a ‘choice’ is referring repeatedly to the Amendment 13 of the US constitution, and a perceived loophole in which slavery is not abolished for prisoners. It pops up again and again on Jesus Is King, the implication throughout that Kanye feels a personal responsibility as an ally of Donald Trump to reform the amendment. Whether this was the plan all along is unclear, but it’s delivered with enough conviction to let that water go under the bridge for the time being.
The collaborations are well-judged, with Timbaland, Pierre Bourne and Labrinth a few of the names in the production credits as well as Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons on hook duties. The biggest spectacle of the album is Clipse reuniting on Use This Gospel, with Pusha T making self-deprecating references to his own morality and No Malice repenting for past sins. The verses go over well, but Kanye’s digitised vocal harmonies are a little clunky and threaten to overshadow the proceedings.
For the past few years Kanye has been spinning his wheels somewhat with his solo work, and by that measure it’s very encouraging that he has found an interesting avenue to go down. The concept pays some dividends, with production that frequently finds a pleasant hybrid between gospel and contemporary production and subject matter that surprisingly doesn’t outstay its welcome. The big problem is Kanye’s lyrics, which have lost a lot of the charm they had in the early years without improving in technique, and at various points the tracks have a big hole where a genuinely powerful verse should be. Nonetheless, Jesus Is King is certainly an improvement on Ye, and a purposeful if novel release.