Joy to the world, the album has come!
Much anticipation, anger, and fanaticism surrounded the missed release date of Kanye West’s new album, Jesus is King, which was released several hours behind schedule on Friday, October 25. Clocking in at a mere 27 minutes long, West has managed to produce some of the least stylistically interesting music of his entire career with a heaping dose of hamfisted blathering about God on top. West seemed only to have two points of reference for the creation of this album – namely, his previous work and the Good Book – and the end result is dire. Not even Jesus could have saved this album, despite Mr. West’s insistence otherwise. Between passing references to Amazing Grace and themes he explored both more adequately and enjoyably in previous works, the listener is treated to abrupt transitions and a soundscape that comes across, in many ways, as either unfinished or deliberately unsatisfying. Jesus is King, an album that is supposed to be exalting a power capable of forgiving even the most heinous of sins, is a heinous sin itself.
The album was promoted and packaged using the least visually appealing material that Kanye has ever presented to the public. Gone are the evocative and genuinely descriptive covers of his previous work; his first three albums famously featured a bear icon, affectionately known as Dropout Bear, in varying states of emotion that reflect the nature of the music within. What shell does Jesus is King come within? A photo of the royal blue vinyl record. It’s almost insulting to the minimalism of Yeezus’ cover, which prominently featured a compact disc – albeit somewhat fitting, given that the lyrical content of Jesus mirrors that of Yeezus in an unfortunate, orthodox manner. The excitement of Pablo and all of the myriad lore surrounding the album’s contents (the cover for which asks the listener, “Which one?”) is gone; the candidness about mental illness that marked ye and Kids See Ghosts, gone; the bravado of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, gone; the youthful optimism of his debut, gone; the entire reason we ever bothered to listen to Kanye West in the first place, gone. All that’s left is a black man ranting about Jesus, his dad, and begging for forgiveness over the sins he once reveled in not one record ago.
“Every Hour” is the album’s opener. It’s graced by the exuberant voices of the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye toured with promoting this record, over the top of the most plainly gospel piano of the project. The only thing that marks this track as being out of place in a Baptist church is the production treatment given the choir, a vaguely screwed approach reminiscent of the work that West had put in on College Dropout. It was on Dropout and Late Registration that West primarily made his “chipmunk soul”-production style famous – and interestingly enough, also where he left it. In successive works, West has developed a habit of only making reference to his old ways within the style and context of the album in which he does it. “Every Hour” feels cheap, overdone, and even somewhat derivative of the style that West perfected, and then left alone, a decade and a half ago. This gives “Every Hour” the unfortunate attribute of feeling like it drags on, until the jarring transition to the next song.
The second track is “Selah,” snippets of which Kanye has released in the past to much fanfare. It begins filled with atmosphere – albeit predictable atmosphere in an immediately recognizable key. When West begins rapping, it’s in a hackneyed cadence that combines accidental boasting about his faith (“When I get to Heaven’s gates, I ain’t gotta peek over”), jabs at the audience and their anticipation of the now-believed-to-be scrapped Yandhi, Bible verses, and the “Amazing Grace” parable about the love of God saving a wretch like him. When that’s finally over, a few dramatic thuds of the drum gives way to a choir singing “Hallelujah” in a manner only dramatic if one is willing to ignore what comes next. This recurring theme of creating tension and then leaving it unresolved shows up over and over in this album, and “Selah” is one of the first examples. There’s little else on it to take note of except for another West verse regarding the army of God and an outro full of whooping and whoahing. Kanye didn’t even produce this track himself, begging the obvious question as to why it even exists in the first place.
“Follow God” comes next, immediately on “Selah”’s heels in an upsetting pattern this album will repeat more than once. A sample of Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose by Following God” opens, and then is quickly chopped up over the top of a particularly groovy trap beat. Compared to Kanye’s previous works, “Follow God” isn’t out of place, being very similar in structure to “No More Parties in LA.” This track at least contains some degree of originality in flow and verse structure, but closer inspection causes it to fall apart. After West finishes discussing why he and his father used to get into fights (hint: a lack of God), he concludes the track with a scream we haven’t heard since Feedback. This song feels like nothing other than a small, somewhat traditional trap-rap concession to listeners on an album that bucks just about all common sense as it pertains to songwriting in favor of something unpleasant, rather than revolutionary, as is seen on the track that follows.
When “Follow God” is suddenly cut off, “Closed on Sunday” comes next. It’s the song in which Kanye appears to have exhausted all his original material, deciding instead to make puns about the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A (“You’re my number one, with the lemonade”) and copy both the musical leitmotifs and themes of “Wolves” off of Pablo and reinterpret them in a manner infinitely less inspired than the original. Similar expressions of love and the desire to protect that were once quite haunting (“Cover Nori in lamb’s wool” comes to mind) now become lines that border on comical in their lack of imagination or substance. The initial ambience is replaced by a sort of radioactive pulse that could have been ripped directly off of “Say You Will,” if given the pitch-shift treatment. The song ends with West squealing, “Chick-fil-A!”
In the stunted style this album loves to repeat, “On God” starts immediately after. It’s an arpeggiated, electro-style track that commits the same sin of other songs on this album by being nearly indistinct from another corpus of Kanye’s – in this case, the energetic Graduation. The song consists entirely of one verse, and it’s deliciously ironic in the sheer lack of self-awareness West has in defending the prices he charges for his clothing line with a plea to religion and the IRS. There is little variation, little inspiration, and little to redeem this track; were any other POC to have released this, it would have gone unnoticed.
“Everything We Need” features two other artists and begins with a choral refrain and flourish before slipping back into the tried-and-true formula of syncopated kick drums and snares on the 2nd and 4th. It’s full of even more ridiculous lines, such as “What if Eve made apple juice?” and thankfully ends just as soon as it began, in 1 minute and 57 seconds. If one is to charge Jesus is King with being unmemorable, then “Everything We Need” would be the poster track. A grand total of one irrelevant verse and some harmonization between West and his collaborators is hardly enough with which to grace a song, and yet here it sits on this album, an infuriating piece of filler on a record that was repeatedly delayed due to West’s perfectionism. It’s here on “Everything” that much of the Kanye West brand falls to pieces; where we once forgave the man for taking so long to produce albums because they were finely tuned tours de force, we now must pretend that an insulting series of missed release dates and an absurd insistence that West devoted all of his time and energy to this album are excusable even when the final product holds no water. Kanye is still being an egotistical black man; he just has nothing to show for it now, especially since he’s elected to let his once-intoxicating braggadocio take a backseat to half-baked mysticism.
“Water” is built around a wah-wah-drowned beat with a futuristic bassline. Hats gently rustle in the background over an ode to the cleansing powers of water, indubitably a reference to the holy water of Christian myth. After the choir sits down, West then lazily speaks one of the worst verses on the entire album, each line making a different request from Jesus to save, give health and wealth, to clean, and so on – almost ad nauseum. There are few changes in the song’s structure as it proceeds, and it’s certainly not catchy or atmospheric enough to warrant its length. “Water” finally ends with some ad-libbing, and nothing gets better for it.
“God Is” is the most uninspired gospel-backed track on this album, the only musical toppings being a millennial whoop and some kick drums. West also puts on a crackled falsetto that feels decidedly wrong coming from his mouth, creating one of the most uncomfortable moments on the record. A few choice lines include “this submission, not a show,” as if Kanye feels the need to prove he’s genuine about this whole thing and not just making a scene. If that were the case, one can’t help but wonder why he’d need to make a statement, even one as small as that line. Much like anything else on this album, it adds little to the overall theme. Yes, Jesus is King is a gospel album. But it’s not even an interesting gospel album; we’re this far in, and all that can be taken away is “Kanye loves Jesus now.” It’s a record that rests on the artist’s laurels, and eats up a significant amount of his social capital in the process.
“Hands On” – aside from a disjointed production style that makes it feel more like an interlude were it not for its length – also contains the single most annoying whine on this entire project. Three times, Kanye kvetches:
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me.
While the inescapable ego of Mr. West marks other tracks, it’s most plainly apparent – and frankly, most frustrating – on this song. Given that this was the man who used to attack his critics with some kind of insult, to hear him instead lamenting that he’s afraid nobody likes him is jarring at first, and increasingly aggravating each time you hear it again. Did Kanye simply run out of material to level against his detractors? Did his attitude finally lead to some kind of falling out with his writing team, his now rusty lyricism forcing him to resort to religious self-victimization? Is this all just a ploy for attention? There’s little left of the Mr. West that one can even respect. Surely, he’ll find something more interesting to try out next time; after all, the primary motivation of any POC is for someone to praise him, and it is a powerful motivation indeed.
“Use This Gospel” is the final complete track of the album. It begins sounding much like the alarm that sounds inside a car when the door is left open, before a wordless intro that sounds like it’s taken from “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” rings out over the top of it. West only speaks the chorus of the song, imploring the listener to “use this gospel for protection,” leaving the rest of the song to his collaborators “Clipse,” Pusha T and No Malice’s working name when they’re on the same song. They both bring an unneeded level of aggression to an otherwise solemn track, managing to rap about cocaine on a “gospel” album, in many ways proving that there is simply no way to save this kind of music. It is intensely boring at its most unassuming, and off-putting at its proudest. In some kind of statement about Kanye thinking he can do whatever he wants, the track ends with a Kenny G saxophone solo that comes out of nowhere, and finally meshes with a hip-hop rhythm at the end. The saxophone and trap beat ultimately prove to be the most sonically interesting component of this record.
Jesus is Lord contains a few synthetic brass instruments and a proclamation from West that Jesus is Lord. The track ends just as soon as it begins, without so much as an outro after the exuberant tension created by the brass and bassline. Much like West’s religious philosophy, this album is unfinished. It’s a shame we had to hear it regardless.