Review: Kanye West puts gospel message ahead of musicality on 'Jesus Is King'
Kanye West brings together the mellow saxophone wallpaper of Kenny G and the unsparing rhyme skills of reunited street-life chroniclers Clipse for a track on his new album, “Jesus is King” (GOOD/Def Jam). It’s not quite a miracle, but the pairing’s very improbability points to West’s ability to do the unexpected, a trait that has turned him into a celebrity and a pariah.
Unfortunately, that element of surprise, conflict and musical tension is largely missing from much of the rapper’s version of a gospel album, a pedestrian effort from an artist who was anything but for the first decade of his career.
For a time, West’s music spoke louder than his provocateur’s instincts; his first five studio albums remain new-century landmarks of pop invention. But lately his music has felt increasingly labored and solipsistic. West’s albums never felt like a chore to get through, but that changed with a string of increasingly self-indulgent releases: “Yeezus” (2013), “The Life of Pablo” (2016) and “ye” (2018). On the latter, West was beyond transparent in sharing his struggles with mental illness, even as the music sputtered.
Earlier this year West began holding a weekly outdoor “Sunday Service” in California, and eventually replaced his in-progress album “Yandhi” with what would become “Jesus is King.” A few weeks ago he announced that he would no longer be making secular music, and has already said that he will release a second gospel album, “Jesus is Born,” later this year.
West has been making biblical allusions in his music from the start in tracks such as “Jesus Walks,” “Ultralight Beam” and “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.” He once posed on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns, and his “Life of Pablo” album invoked the first century prophet Paul, the biblical figure who experienced a religious conversion on the road to Damascus.
“Use this gospel for protection, it’s a hard road to heaven,” sings West on the new album in his latest journey-to-Damascus allusion.
West is nothing if not earnest in his gospel homage, with tracks featuring choirs, churchy keyboard chords, frequent allusions to biblical verse and a cameo from gospel vocalist Fred Hammond.
In keeping with recent tradition, West spends a few bars lashing out at critics, with desultory impact. He references past controversies in which he grossly misinterpreted the origins and impact of slavery (“slavery is a choice”) and embraced a certain right-wing politician (“You make a Superman cape for me,” he told President Donald Trump). But his robotic delivery falls flat. “Closed on Sunday” finds him praising a fast-food chain for its religious observance on the seventh day of the week even though it’s embroiled in a long-running controversy over LBGTQ rights.
The gospel-singer moments (the stirring intro to “God Is”) and the verses by the Clips’ Pusha T and No Malice on “Use This Gospel” provide most of the musical sparks, with West allowing message to trump musicality. He samples Whole Truth’s pleading “Can You Lose by Following God” on “Follow God,” which evokes the early West’s knack for astutely reviving and recontextualizing snippets of soul “dusties.”
Otherwise, this sounds like a walk-through to West’s next destination, a tentative step that feels neither accomplished nor particularly memorable. As Pablo/Paul found, the road to Damascus is long.