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Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

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