Review: 'Jesus Is King' lacks Kanye's usual brilliance
For fans of Kanye West, there is nothing in the world more stressful than when he announces a new album. Kanye’s album rollouts are never anything less than a full-blown spectacle, often containing controversial statements, ill-conceived actions, pushed-back release dates and even major changes made to both the album’s title and content. After scandals like the “Imma let you finish” fiasco with Taylor Swift leading up to 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the numerous name changes to 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” and Kanye’s public embrace of Donald Trump before 2018’s “Ye,” veteran Kanye fans thought that nothing else he could do would surprise them.
The outright catastrophe that was the rollout of “Jesus Is King,” however, tested the limits of fans’ loyalty further than ever before. In mid-2018, Kanye announced that he would be releasing his ninth studio album, entitled Yandhi, on Sept. 29, 2018. The date came and went without any album or any comment from Kanye. A few days later, his wife, Kim Kardashian-West, tweeted that Yandhi was unfinished, and that it would be released on Nov. 23, 2018 instead, and that Kanye would be moving to Africa to work on it. The couple made no statement when Nov. 23 came and passed without a new album.
In January 2019, Kanye began hosting what he called “Sunday Service,” where he and a gospel choir would perform a music-centered church service every Sunday. A few months later, Kardashian-West announced on her Twitter that Kanye’s album would be titled “Jesus is King” and would be released on Sept. 27 through a photo of the tracklist. After the third delay, she announced that it would actually come out on Sept. 29. Again, no album. Finally, Kanye himself tweeted that the album would be released on Oct. 25, 2019 at midnight, and, this time, it actually was (albeit 12 hours late). After all this build-up, fans were desperate for something spectacular, something that justified the long wait and all of the missed release dates. Instead, he delivered a modest, 27 minute-long Christian hip-hop album that feels unfinished.
Now, don’t get me wrong: “Jesus Is King” is a good album. The opener, “Every Hour,” features the entire Sunday Service Choir with a resounding vocal performance about worshipping God every second of the day. This song confirms that Kanye wasn’t kidding when he said he was making a gospel album, and it also proves that he can do it well. The singing is beautifully done, and it provides an immediate entrance into the almost overwhelmingly Christian tracks that follow. Kanye has always been a maximalist, and “Jesus Is King” is no exception.
In the next song, “Selah,” Kanye begins the fusion of gospel and hip-hop that can be heard throughout the album. The beat is a fantastic, modern-sounding hip-hop beat, and yet it is entirely made up of samples of a church organ. On his first verse of the album, Kanye reflects on his past behavior, saying, “Keepin’ perfect composure/When I scream at the chauffeur/I ain’t mean, I’m just focused,” referencing his temper and poor impulse control. To end his verse, Kanye says, “He saved a wretch like me,” at which point the Sunday Service Choir quietly enters with a repeated “Hallelujah” that slowly crescendos into a yell. This song exemplifies exactly what Kanye does well on the album: a perfect marriage of rapping and hip-hop beats with gospel singing.
The next track, “Follow God,” is built around a sample of an old gospel song, specifically the line “Father I stretch/Stretch my hands to you.” To fans of Kanye’s previous work, this will sound very familiar; it calls back to his 2016 single “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt.1,” which, while a Christian-themed song, contains descriptions of some very un-Christian actions. “Follow God” also contains a line that may very well describe why Kanye behaves the way he does: “Screamin’ at my dad and he told me, ‘It ain’t Christ-like’/But nobody ever tell you when you’re being like Christ.” Here, Kanye laments that he is only ever compared to Christ in a negative sense — when he does something wrong — rather than being praised for what he does right.
The album contains plenty of high points on other songs. The track “On God” features production by Pi’erre Bourne, one of the best producers in hip-hop right now. Kanye raps about issues with prison labor and mass incarceration over a triumphant beat. “God Is” features a beat that calls back to the “Chipmunk Soul” days of Kanye’s debut, “The College Dropout,” although Kanye sounds like he needs to clear his throat on his verse. The song “Hands On” is one of the better tracks on the album, featuring a slow beat and Fred Hammond’s autotuned vocals. Here, Kanye says, “I deserve all the criticism you got/If that’s all the love you have, that’s all you got,” acknowledging his past wrongdoings while asking for love and forgiveness.
“Use This Gospel,” the penultimate track, is effectively the climax of the album. The only guest rap verses of the album can be found here, with brothers Pusha T and No Malice reuniting as hip-hop duo Clipse and performing one verse each. In classic Clipse fashion, they manage to rap about cocaine in a way that fits with the Christian theme of the album. They reflect on the damage that may have been caused by their former days as drug dealers, with No Malice providing the most poignant lines: “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those/And in my arrogance, took a camera pose/Caught with a trunk of Barry Manilows.” Using “Barry Manilows” as a euphemism for cocaine, No Malice laments the people whose lives were ruined by cocaine and his involvement as a part of the supply chain. This track also contains quite possibly the strangest moment on the album: near the end of the song, Kenny G comes out of nowhere with a saxophone solo, which works surprisingly well in the context of the song. The only problem with this track is an incessant beeping in the background that is reminiscent of the sound a car makes when the door is left open.
Despite all the good moments, “JIK” has many problems. One major one is the poor lyricism exhibited by Kanye throughout the album. This is most apparent on the song “Closed on Sunday,” which contains a haunting guitar background and one of the best beats on the album. However, this is absolutely wasted on a song built around the line “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A,” which is just an annoying, uninspired line, and the entire track suffers as a result. The worst track on the album is easily “Water,” which has a forgettable beat paired with what is quite possibly the worst Kanye verse of all time.
Due to its Christian nature, the album is also free of profanity, which is a shame because Kanye is an absolute poet when it comes to filthy words. In addition, the songs on the album are far too short. All but three are under three minutes long, and the longest track only runs for three-and-a-half minutes. It feels as if every song ends just as begins to pick up steam, resulting in a very unfinished quality about the entire album.
By far the biggest problem with “JIK,” however, is that it in no way feels personal to Kanye. I am not in any way doubting that Kanye’s faith is genuine; anyone familiar with his career knows that this devotion to Christianity isn’t coming out of nowhere. In fact, the single that made him popular in the first place, 2004’s “Jesus Walks,” details his relationship with Christianity throughout his life, and he reflects on a very intimate and human level.
“JIK,” on the other hand, feels like it was made for children in a Sunday school. It is filled with surface-level proclamations of love for Jesus, and throughout the album Kanye claims that his faith has saved him. But he never goes deeper than that. He never reflects on what it is about his faith that has apparently changed him so much. He provides no real stories about what caused him to have such a revelation. Kanye is clearly trying to convince his listeners that turning to Jesus will fix all of their problems, as he claims it fixed his. However, he provides no compelling reason to believe this; instead, he delivers a message that is devoid of any soul and does not succeed in conveying his message in a mature way.
Despite flashes of his former brilliance, “JIK” is a thoroughly underwhelming album completely overshadowed by the circus that was its rollout. For anyone who followed everything that has happened over the past year and felt the bitter disappointment that it caused, there is nothing on this album that remotely feels worth the wait. Like any other Kanye project, the production is stellar, but that alone can’t make up for everything else the album is lacking. Instead of being a masterpiece on the level of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “Jesus Is King” is only okay, which makes it the worst in Kanye’s discography.