There are several unsuccessful songs on Jesus Is King, Kanye West’s slightly delayed and thoroughly undercooked 1-percenter rap-gospel opus. But let’s focus for now on the ninth track, “Hands On.”
The purpose of gospel historically has been to provide spiritual uplift. This is supposed to be buoyant, transcendent music, all splashy piano chords and ecstatic voices and syncopated, heart-racing rhythms. The kind of music that shoots into your body and chases the bad feelings away, the Holy Spirit miraculously made incarnate. “Hands On” is decidedly not that. Like, at all. It’s a sullen dirge, voiced by a self-pitying narcissist. It sucks the life out of you. It’s dis-spiritual music.
“Said I’m finna do a gospel album / what have you been hearin’ from the Christians / they’ll be the first one to judge me / make it feel like nobody love me,” Kanye whines. There will no be peace in the valley for him, no sir.
When I listen to “Hands On,” I don’t feel the presence of God or a surge of joy or even a faint, temporary relief from the troubles of the world. I am bored, annoyed, and … admittedly, also pretty intrigued. Those first two adjectives apply to my experience as a present-day music listener, but the third adjective — the one that doesn’t seem like it belongs — stems from my fascination with the so-called “wilderness” periods of great artists.
I’m talking about those times when the public and the media turned against iconic musicians — including everyone from Bob Dylan to Prince to Neil Young — due to some dramatic, polarizing change in their professional and/or personal lives. Maybe they embraced some terrible political or cultural position. Maybe their music just started sucking really bad. Whatever the specifics are, they alienated millions of people. This is Dylan and Young in the 1980s, Prince in the 1990s, and West right now. In the moment, these greats were reviled during their periods of upheaval. But now, we look back at the unusual — if not downright perverse — choices they made back then with a certain fondness. Or, at least, a newfound appreciation separated from the context of their times.
While I don’t like listening to Kanye’s music at the moment, I do enjoy thinking about it, because it appears to be a textbook wilderness-period-in-the-making, going back to at least 2018’s Ye. (Though I would also include 2015’s shambolic The Life Of Pablo.) So, while I believe that Jesus Is King stinks in 2019, I suspect that in 20 years it might sound kind of … good?
“Good” might be the wrong word. I prefer to classify an album like Jesus Is King as a potential “good ‘bad’ record.” I’ve used this term to describe albums by other legacy artists that were received poorly in their time but were subsequently rediscovered and rehabilitated by future generations.
Why does this happen? Sometimes, the critical and popular consensus on a particular album is unduly influenced by a larger narrative that makes it difficult to appreciate the music for what it is. I think that applies to a record like Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram, which was dismissed upon release in 1971 as a lazy and slapdash patchwork unworthy of a former Beatle by critics still grieving the break-up of Paul’s former band. But now Ram is rightfully regarded as one of McCartney’s greatest solo works, to the surprise of no one more than Macca himself. “I thought it was dead and gone, stinking over there in the dung pit,” McCartney told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So I listened to it. ‘Wow, I get what I was doing.'”