On Kanye West’s 2016 experimental release The Life Of Pablo, West mocked the rap fan discourse about his winding musical direction with “I Love Kanye,” a 45-second freestyle on which he imitated the oft-repeated phrase “I miss the old Kanye.” Since then, he’s gone on a political, spiritual, and musical journey that has many fans pining for the days of that Kanye, one who was at least self-aware enough to be able to accurately pinpoint the complaints against him and sum them up: “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye.”
Both of those Kanyes are long gone on his latest project, the full-on dive into gospel, Jesus Is Born, which was fittingly released on Christmas and billed to his Sunday Service Choir. It’s almost ironic that Kanye sublimates himself so much on this project, because it’s something the Old Kanye would never do — not even in the service of a greater sound or stylistic ideal.
Consider his original foray into gospel music, when he sampled the ARC Choir’s “Walk With Me” for his College Dropout single “Jesus Walks,” which was a stylistic risk at the time, something he alluded to in the lyrics: “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus.” A lot has changed since then, and while Kanye’s bullheaded, singular guidance elevated past material, the core of Jesus Is Born lacks an idea anywhere near as daring. Fans can stop waiting for the old Kanye to come back; he is, to quote the artist’s lyrics from bygone days, “Gone.”
The contrast between Old Kanye and New is stark and stunning. In the past, Kanye was still egotistical, sure, but that egotism was measured by his creativity and confidence. Recently, he’s sounded less and less sure of exactly who he is, hiding that creative insecurity behind walls of bluster and bleats of “genius.” By comparing his work to that of Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney, he primed the public, setting up expectations he probably knew he couldn’t fulfill so when his big swings struck out, we’d all say, “At least he takes big swings.” But are they really?
Take his recent swing to gospel music. On the surface, it seems like a smart and unusual gambit. He’s one of the top producers in hip-hop music and arguably molded the sound of modern pop on his truly risky R&B experiment, 808s And Heartbreak. Making such a sharp left turn seemingly out of the blue appears to be the mercurial shift of artistic direction that a genius would make, but too many of the circumstances surrounding the shift raise questions about its sincerity. When Kanye made 808s, he was truly going through a heartbreak: His mother had died, he’d broken up with his long-term girlfriend, and he’d completed his “College Trilogy” with Graduation, leaving him somewhat rudderless when it came to his next musical evolution. He needed to shake things up.
And when he did, he did it his way. 808s was ostensibly his R&B album, but it was also quintessentially Kanye in execution. He warbled despite the fact that no one would call him a songbird. He indulged in dark, jarring, moody production that reflected his state of mind — there weren’t any “traditional” ballads. The songwriting, rather than offering moony-eyed professions of undying love, addressed his anxieties and the pain of losing his closest family. It was an album only Kanye could make. Jesus Is Born isn’t that.
I don’t claim to be an expert in gospel music — my churchgoing days are long behind me. But what I do remember from that time singing solos for the youth choir is that we changed up popular secular music to fit the more holy setting all the time. In fact, Kirk Franklin started the crossover gospel trend over 20 years ago with “Stomp” and God’s Property. Kanye doesn’t reinvent the wheel here and he doesn’t have to — but he acts like he did and we the public indulged him for far too long with his cynical, touring pop-up revival Sunday Services.
He may be sincere in his spiritual awakening but the timing reeks of attention-grabbing and distraction from his political missteps. He backed — and from all appearances, still backs — Donald Trump despite feebly acknowledging the ways in which his support hurts many of his fans. His touted Wyoming projects kinda bricked — especially his personal entry, Ye, which came and went without leaving much of a mark on the zeitgeist as his projects usually do. And seemingly every news report about him for the year prior involved either a mental breakdown or commentary making fun of his super-dressed-down aesthetic after years of hyping up his own fashion sense. He needed an objective win.
He got it with the oldest hustle around: Religion. His Sunday Services offered him something like the praise he’d received before all the emotional turmoil surrounding Pablo and his first associations with Trump. The problem is, unlike before, he was no longer putting his personal spin on classic ideas and music to create something new. He was mining Black culture and shilling it to those most unfamiliar with its traditions and history to look like he was inventing — or re-inventing, at the very least — something new. The timing of Jesus Is Born is similarly suspicious, coming on the heels of the lukewarm reception of its predecessor, Jesus Is King, and his weird, semi-inscrutable church pageants, Nebuchadnezzar and Mary.
So, the Old Kanye is definitely gone and for all appearances, might be gone for good. There doesn’t seem to be any way for Kanye to buy back the goodwill he lost over the past four years, so instead he’ll keep trying out new lines of credit and new hustles to keep himself afloat, trading on his name and unearned claims of genius to buy in and cash out before anyone catches onto the grift — sounds familiar, right? The real shame is, unlike his phony billionaire buddy, he always had the blueprint and the talent to truly pull off the reinvention fans really want from him. He proved it in 2004, when he rhymed that “they say you can rap about anything except for Jesus.” It’s too bad it turned out he was right — and it’s his own fault.
Jesus Is Born is out now. Get it here.