Halfway through Jesus is King, a certain track begins with an acoustic guitar playing an eerie riff, slow and steady into each note. It’s mixed really well, and the riff is more akin to “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin than “Gorgeous,” a guitar-focused track from West’s landmark My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It sounds new and exciting, and I’m excited for the track to keep layering on. What was next? Drums? Vocals?
“Closed on Sunday/You my Chick-Fil-A,” Kanye sings. “You’re my number one/With the lemonade.”
By this point in the album, I want to say that my jaw dropped in surprise. Was this really happening? Were these actual bars being spit? Sadly, though, it wasn’t as much of a surprise as much as it was an extension of the discontented sigh that accompanied many other tracks on the album.
Kanye West, with his ninth studio album and his seventh solo effort, has turned to the church for a professional and personal tune-up, leaning into his gospel influences more so than ever before. Since his five-album run from last summer, he’s now a born-again Christian and still an outspoken Trump fan.
Jesus is King, however, contains only glimmers of his previous sense of innovation, audacity and refinement. All at once, the album attempts to push the gospel boundaries of hip-hop, to return black music to its roots and to add another exciting genre to West’s ever-expanding palette. It fails on all three fronts.
Based on soundscape alone, Jesus is King contains a fiery mix of tools and instruments. Within its short 27-minute runtime, the album executes a fair amount of good ideas. Whereas West’s ye album compiled some of his inspirations from his collaborators and the music around him, Jesus is King strives to be a more singularly focused product of immaculate conception, and for the most part, it succeeds.
“Every Hour” is a strong opening track, with a choir and piano taking center stage. If anything you had heard about this album didn’t convince you that this was going to be a gospel album, “Every Hour” is dripping in holiness. Then, “Selah” adds in an organ, hard-hitting drums and West’s voice into the mix. Later, “On God” focuses on synths to set the tempo with arpeggio phrases.
“Follow God” and “God Is” pitch gospel samples as a melodic foundation, which is essentially West’s signature trick that he has utilized from his Jay-Z production days (“Izzo (H.O.V.A)”) to The Life of Pablo’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.”
"His latest experiment of gospel rap won’t be remembered with the same gusto of his albums of yesteryear."
“Hands On,” which features gospel singer Fred Hammond, has some clever vocal effects for the chorus, layering and distorting them to warm, instrumental-like tones that sound more like power chords on an electric guitar than vocals. It’s a clean transition into the subsequent track “Use This Gospel,” which features Clipse and Kenny G, and uses that same effect for the melody.
What’s disappointing about the production is that the good ideas like in “Selah” and “God Is” are cut short or stay stagnant. “Use This Gospel” ends with some added production layers, yet that spruce up could have been executed about a minute earlier to give the track more motion. Closing track “Jesus is Lord” has some solid horns, but the track is barely 50 seconds long.
The caveat to wishing for more production, however, is that West would probably be laying down more vocals, and West’s lyrics are what drags this album so far down.
“Closed On Sunday” is the most extreme example of Jesus Is King’s lack of imagination and creativity, but no track on the album comes close to the quality of religious songs earlier in West’s career. “Jesus Walks,” “Ultralight Beam” and “Devil in a New Dress” combined West’s audacious personality and sound with more conflicted versions of West wrestling with evil. Jesus is King attempts to be firm in portraying West’s complete admission to Jesus. More accurately, it portrays the same few lyrical ideas about giving up to God over and over again to the point that the album’s 27-minute runtime is exhausting compared to the 40-minute spring of Yeezus.
Having only a few ideas to unite an album is a common problem in popular music. Where West fails, though, is that his few ideas flounder track after track, and Jesus is King quickly loses steam. Plenty of other hip-hop albums have had just as few things to say, thematically, but have said them in so many more creatively fulfilling ways. In the same way Chance the Rapper became a meme over loving his wife in The Big Day, West just as much overkills his devotion to Jesus without substance or originality.
The discography of Kanye West is ever-growing, wide-reaching and, for a time, representative of an unprecedented run of successful endeavors in different genres. From The College Dropout to KIDS SEE GHOSTS, West delivered product after product, often exceeding expectations as an artist who knew how to bring out the best in his collaborators and synthesize numerous ideas into polished songs.
His latest experiment of gospel rap won’t be remembered with the same gusto of his albums of yesteryear. West’s erratic personality has always been nearly impossible to separate from his music and lyrics: his wild claims and unfiltered outbursts have and will continue to be controversial. However, Jesus is King is a serious setback for West, as his born-again Christian status and his continual attempts to make productive political dialogues have poorly translated to making quality music.
Final Grade: C-
Carl "CJ" Zabat is a music columnist for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.