Kanye West is not a gospel artist. Jesus Is King is not a gospel album. Despite his efforts over the past several months to convince the public of a creative pivot, both of these things remain true throughout his latest album’s 27-minute running time. If either or both of those facts were reversed, Jesus Is King and Kanye would both be middling examples of their respective categories. But because Kanye isn’t a gospel artist, nor has he made a gospel album, Jesus Is King is something more interesting — more messy, muddled, and controversial, but more engaging as the work of an artist grappling with himself, his faith, his understanding of the world, and his legacy after spending the better part of the last three years stumping for sympathy for the devil.
Kanye’s last year has raised a lot of valid questions about the efficacy — indeed, even the veracity — of so-called cancel culture, even as Kanye himself continued — continues — to duck equally valid questions about accountability. It’d also be remiss not to mention the long legacy of controversial Black figures retreating to the security of the Black church once the mainstream public whose good graces they sought turned against them. It’s not my place to question the sincerity of Kanye’s religious beliefs, but it’s probably fair to wonder how much of it is genuine when a significant amount of snake oil is also being sold as a counterpart at his Sunday Services — again, a long-practiced, much-debated aspect of so-called “megachurches” who preach prosperity while selling bottles of “blessed” oil for $20 a pop.
So, when Kanye opens Jesus Is King with “Every Hour,” a call-and-response choral chant that would sound familiar to any child of one of the denominations of the Christian church embraced by the Black American community, it’s easy to see why all but the most well-versed would mistake this album for a gospel album. However, for even a lapsed churchgoer like this sinning critic, it sets off my skepticism for nearly all things rooted in religion but flowering in something other than faith.
Take “Closed On A Sunday,” on which Kanye admonishes listeners to “Raise our sons, train them in the faith,” and “When you got daughters, always keep ’em safe.” Those seem like admirable goals, but look at the inspiration behind the title: The family-owned corporation Chik Fil-A, whose “closed on Sunday” policy stems from its founder’s religious principles. Again, on the surface, admirable. But then, you remember that the corporation has donated millions to Christian “charities” which fund hideous conversion therapy practices and oppose same-sex marriage.
How might Kanye’s gay cousin, whom he’s repeatedly used as a prop to demonstrate his own growth and empathy, feel about the song? What faith are we supposed to train our sons into? What if we have lesbian daughters? How do we keep them safe? Like his opposition to the 13th Amendment, which he mentions again on “On God,” the driving, Pi’erre Bourne-produced mission statement song that follows “Closed On A Sunday,” he doesn’t provide much explanation beyond the initial mention.
To be fair, there is passion and a genuine sense that Kanye is sharing his beliefs. His verses throughout, especially on “Water” and “God Is,” are some of his most straightforward, featuring pleas for protection, healing, direction, forgiveness, and strength. But nowhere does he provide any evidence that he’s completely sure what he does believe. His stances remind of a fervent, vocal believer who is always quick with a Bible verse or one of the church’s many catchphrases, but who doesn’t much consider or critically think about what they actually mean. Kanye has always been something of a parrot, reflecting and repeating the beliefs of those around him without seemingly understanding exactly how those ideas breakdown and work on a practical level; here, he’s just found a new set of charismatic figures to echo.
That’s why the flashes of self-awareness Kanye shows on songs like “Follow God” and “Hands On” work counterproductively. On the former, he asserts that “I’m just tryna find, l’ve been lookin’ for a new way / I’m just really tryin’ not to really do the fool way,” yet, doesn’t acknowledge much of what that looks like or how relates to the fact that he’s looked foolish more in the last two years than in the past 15 combined. On “Hands On,” he nods to the skepticism of his Black listeners for his increasing devotion to religion, but he also deigns not to address their concerns. If he has had so much as an inkling that so many would interpret his latest endeavor so cynically, then surely he should also understand why he comes across so disingenuously with his $60 Sunday Service t-shirts.
Heading into the album, one of its most anticipated tracks was “Use This Gospel,” because it marked the first on-record reunion of onetime coke rap torchbearers Clipse. It’s also a microcosm of the album as a whole. My own hangups regarding the public perception of hip-hop aside, a Kenny G solo should probably never be the highlight of a rap song featuring two of the most heralded rappers of the last two decades coming back together for the first time in almost 10 years. Jesus Is King sets up expectations that it refuses to live up to, either by accident or by design.
The thing is, a secular artist attempting to do a gospel album can work: Just look at Snoop Dogg’s 2018 album Gospel Of Love. While it received mixed reviews from mainstream publications — many of which never actually cover gospel music — actual gospel publications praised it. Likewise, there are plenty of gospel rappers who’ve shown adeptness at blending the two genres — Lecrae’s collaborative project with Zaytoven being a recent example.
Jesus Is King is a lot like Kanye himself; a project trapped between two worlds that perhaps wants to be a member of the one it least belongs to. It doesn’t have the substance to carry the themes of a true gospel album, and his insistence on aping the substance of a gospel album saps his raps of their vibrancy and urgency. The closest thing to social commentary is an ill-begotten misunderstanding of the 13th Amendment. The closest thing to vulnerability or emotional honesty is his admission that fighting with his father over faith is hurtful. Kanye looks for redemption, without the soul-searching, truth-telling, and sin-baring that would make it possible. Maybe only God can judge Kanye the man, but as a musician, Kanye’s divine inspiration leaves a lot to be desired.
Jesus Is King is out now via Getting Out Our Dreams II and Def Jam Recordings. Get it here.