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.'”
Sometimes, an album suffers because the artist who made it has completely fallen out of fashion. A prime example is Various Positions, a 1984 LP by the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen that was essentially left for dead by Cohen’s record company, which predetermined its utter commercial failure. However, one of the highlights of this little-loved after-thought, “Hallelujah,” went on to become Cohen’s most celebrated song.
And then there are the albums that are so misunderstood, so rejected, so loathed in their time that younger listeners decades after the fact are drawn to them, like rubberneckers to the scene of a historic accident, and determined to find greatness in them. This even happened to Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed’s grating noise-rock experiment from 1975 that was likened by Rolling Stone in a contemporary review to spending “a night in a bus terminal.”
For years, Metal Machine Music was a punchline, an easy answer to the “worst album of all-time?” question. But by 2017, 42 years after the album’s release, the tide had turned: Pitchfork called Metal Machine Music “the product of genuine love and passion, still exhilarating and bursting with possibility four decades on.” (Perhaps in the year 2053, a music critic will avenge Pitchfork’s unkind 1.0 review of Lou Reed and Metallica’s controversial collaboration, Lulu.)
Actually, it will likely happen much sooner than that. In 2019, this sort of revisionism happens all of the time. It’s so common that even artists themselves have encouraged it, reminding the public of their biggest failures rather than hiding them. This fall, two of the most beloved bands of ’80s and ’90s alternative rock, The Replacements and R.E.M., put out extensive boxed sets that attempt to rescue the reputations of two of their least well-regarded albums — 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul and 1994′ s Monster, respectively — with remixes, outtakes, and live tracks. And you know what? It actually worked!
As a student of wilderness periods and an appreciator of good “bad” albums, Jesus Is King seems like the kind of record that will be appreciated retroactively for all three of my previously stated reasons. Kanye has bankrupted his critical goodwill, which makes pleasing the media all the more difficult. He has clearly fallen out of fashion as a pop star — when was the last time he had a true monster-sized hit? And Jesus Is King already stands as one of his most loathed records. All of these things work against him right now. But they also will likely create a perfect storm of wilderness-y intrigue in the future. In time, audiences might love Jesus Is King for all of the reasons that many people now hate it, as a bizarre but heartfelt curio that reveals some deeper truth to West’s overall career, at a time when his ultimate trajectory is clearer than it is now.
Plenty of people have already connected Jesus Is King to Dylan’s Christian era in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he refused to play his secular hits and ranted at his concert audiences about the evils of Kiss concerts. These parallels go beyond the superficial — “Hands On” resembles the lyrics to the beautiful “I Believe In You,” from Dylan’s first gospel-era LP, 1978’s Slow Train Coming, in which he similarly slips into a persecution complex about his publicly professed Christianity. (“I believe in you even though I be outnumbered / Oh, though the earth may shake me/ Oh, though my friends forsake me / Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back.”)
Dylan’s Christian period is the last era of his career that I checked out. For many years, I couldn’t get past the strident lyrics. But eventually I came to appreciate how those records fit in the overall arc of his career. I even started to see the logic in Dylan, a Jewish man, converting to Christianity after losing his marriage as he approached middle age. And I could also hear how this period informed later Dylan records like 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and 2012’s Tempest, which are intensely spiritual though not overtly Christian. In the end, I came not only to like the Christian records, but I understood them as essential in understanding Dylan’s artistry. Sure, they’re not as good as Blonde On Blonde, but what is?
You could also liken Kanye’s flirtations with MAGA-ism to Neil Young voicing conditional support for Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, when he was making bonkers records like 1982’s Trans and 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin.’ (The latter album is the shortest of Young’s career, clocking in at 25 minutes, comparable to the threadbare likes of Ye and Jesus Is King.) As for West’s massive self-regard and apparent insularity, I can’t help but think of Prince in the latter half of the ’90s, when he lost interest in engaging with the larger pop world, catering more and more to the die-hard Prince fans as he drifted further into religion. The point is, the public eventually moved on from being angry about this stuff to finding it, well, sort of interesting.
When Gen-Xers and millennials learned about pop and rock history from our parents, we rebelled at the suggestion that certain albums by legendary artists weren’t even worth hearing. Their dislike made the music fascinating to us. We decided that the records that were, so to speak, stinking in the dung pit deserved another chance, just as we dug out the clothes and vinyl that the boomers had shipped off to the secondhand store. And we found a lot to love, because we weren’t shackled to any of the timely baggage from when that music first came out. Ultimately, it was just more fun to talk about the genius of Ram or Metal Machine Music than to once again pay homage to The Beatles or The Velvet Underground. Those dung-pit albums were ours.
I don’t see why this won’t happen with Kanye West. Future generations will read our listicles extolling the virtues of The College Dropout in the aughts, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the 2010s. And they will seek out those albums first, as they should. But once they’ve fully absorbed those masterworks, they will want to know what happened next. And when they learn that in the late ’10s Kanye got super Republican and then made a Jesus record … well, who wouldn’t be interested in hearing that?
And maybe — just maybe — they will hear Jesus Is King and Ye and decide that all of us in 2019 are dead wrong, and those albums are actually worth hearing.