Kanye West is enigmatic. The Grammy Award-winning Chicago native has spent the past 15 years as one of hip-hop’s protagonists, using his station to influence the overall sphere of rap and create a catalogue more intricate and dense than his predecessors, contemporaries and protégés. His most critically-acclaimed albums find themselves at the top of “Best of the Decade” lists from critics and fans alike, and his entire discography is enough to make a serious case to crown Kanye as the greatest musical mind of our generation.
If this is the case, why is there such public distaste for West? Well, for starters, West has made a career by compounding his artistry with controversy. From his constant and ongoing feud with Taylor Swift to his more recent support of Donald Trump and rebuke of the Democratic Party, he has learned to thrive off of the press he gains and use the media coverage to promote upcoming projects. These tactics, as well as a completely opaque process and sloppy album releases, have drawn his fan base thin, asking for glimpses of the “Old Kanye.” It turns out Kanye heard his fans’ prayers and on his newest LP, “Jesus Is King,” Kanye attempts to get back to his roots and to his faith.
“Jesus Is King” is Kanye’s take on Christian music, using influences from old African-American hymnals and mixing it with contemporary melodic rap. The album does have some high points. The cut “Everything We Need” emulates classic gospel recordings with layered vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, and a lyrically dense performance from West, reminding the listener that the Lord provides. Similarly, in the track “Hands On,” West describes a feeling of alienation from the majority of the Christian faith, pleading for forgiveness from God as well as acceptance back into the Christian populous. These two songs are executed well as they display a side of West that retains his musically ambitious style while remaining vulnerable and meaningful. These songs are not subversive, they’re intentional.
The issue with “Jesus Is King” is that West’s intentions do not align with his delivery. When referring to an album as contemporary Christian and marketing it as a return to form for Kanye and his faith, it seems it would be imperative to deliver just that. However, while a fine LP, “Jesus Is King” is a watered-down amalgamation of West’s least ambitious moments strung together by a loose Christian influence. In Kanye West fashion, he frequently uses the album to air personal grievances while also managing to remain topical and controversial. On the cut “On God,” he adamantly defends his merchandise price claiming he won’t “let his family starve” while he mentions his support for repealing the thirteenth amendment. The vast majority of the album feels vapid and weightless when you analyze the lyrics. The way Bible verses and biblical references are sprinkled in between Kanye’s aired grievances and general knowledge detracts from the gravity of the album and make it feel more like a dissertation masquerading as a Christian set.
Songs like “Water” or “God Is” feel carelessly arranged, with rudimentary rhymes and shallow concepts added only for the sake of Christian content. Additionally, the opening and closing tracks of the album are equally as lackluster. The opener, “Every Hour,” is a clip of Kanye’s Sunday service choir singing a hymn for two minutes while the closer is West repeating a stanza echoing the song’s title, “Jesus Is Lord.” These two songs add to the album thematically, but add nothing topically or through their content.
Kanye West will always be considered one of music’s most influential figures; however, it may take some time for him to perfect the formula when it comes to making Christian music. With listeners blinded by his past actions and his abrasive public persona, some may be unwilling to listen to the gospel from someone like West. Kanye’s attempt to enter the gospel sphere was adequate, and it’ll be exciting to see where he goes from here. “Jesus Is King” seems to be a true turning point for Kanye in his career. After doing everything a musician can dream of, he’s turned to his faith for the answers he can’t find himself. Will he continue to make music with evangelism as the goal? We’ll just have to see. But if he does, Kanye should know that James 2:20 gives the most pertinent advice in saying “faith without works is nothing.”