Fifteen years ago, he told us Jesus walks. Now, Kanye’s got a new message: Jesus is king.
It’s been a crazy few years since the 2004 release of hip-hop artist Kanye West’s breakout album, “The College Dropout.” Ten albums, canceled tours, political controversy — Kanye’s seen it all, and that includes musical styles.
From co-writes with Elton John to grungy rap collaborations with Jay-Z, he’s done his time with almost everything hip-hop has to offer, and now he’s moving into a new genre completely — gospel. West started it with “The Life of Pablo,” and now, he’s all in.
The man known for his narcissistic self-love is putting someone else on the pedestal for the first time with his newest album, “JESUS IS KING.” The record isn’t popular with West’s fanbase by any means, but I disagree with that judgement. Pablo walked so Jesus could run, and this is one of the most interesting albums to come from a hip-hop artist in the last 10 years.
West has long been known for blending genres and switching his sound every few years. “JESUS IS KING” is no different, and it might just be his largest shift ever. When I hit play on the record’s first song, “Every Hour,” I thought I’d accidentally clicked on a Kirk Franklin record. From the get-go, the Sunday Service Choir of West’s famously obscure “Sunday Services” is at full-bore, shouting exultations to their lord. “Every hour, every minute, every second,” the choir sings; it’s joyous and exuberant, and it’s nothing like anything West has produced before.
Complemented by a prominent piano played in the style of the Southern Baptist gospel tradition, it’s a perfectly clear message to listeners of what’s to come. This isn’t the expletive-loving, promiscuous-themed, hard-hitting Kanye who fans may have come to expect. This is a new man screaming “Hallelujah” from the top of his lungs.
Immediately out of the Sunday Service Choir’s last chord, the record drops into the second track, “Selah.” It might start at a soft dynamic, but it doesn’t stay there, quickly ascending into a repeated chant of “Hallelujah” by a choir. It’s all accompanied by a drum machine and organ that repeatedly create and release tension, giving the song an element of continuity amid a host of constantly evolving pieces and parts. While still not the traditional Kanye writing found on albums such as “808s & Heartbreak” and “The Life of Pablo,” it’s a clue that the old Kanye is still in the studio somewhere.
West follows “Selah” with the most typical Kanye-sounding track on the album, “Follow God.” For a brief minute and 44 seconds, West lets his tongue flow in verse over a typical hip-hop drum pattern, and it’s glorious. “Follow God” harkens back to the early 2000’s “Late Registration” Kanye, but the constant organ presence and lyrical content keep the album’s theme central to the track. For fans of old Kanye, “Follow God” is the track to listen to.
While I think the album as a whole is a success, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some highly regrettable moments. “Closed on Sunday” comes to mind.
“Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-Fil-A” — there’s no way to defend the opening line of the album’s fourth track or call it anything but a mistake that should’ve been cut before the song even made it to the studio. And the first minute and a half of the track follows that pattern. Admittedly, the latter half of the song is intriguing, well-produced and suggestive of some ideas that could’ve been formed into a much better track, but it’s not enough to save “Closed on Sunday.”
“JESUS IS KING” finds its footing again on the sixth track, “Everything We Need.” An elegantly harmonized vocal riff by Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clements brings the track in, promising the perfectionist production West is known for. The drumbeat following is again reminiscent of the old Kanye — a consistent theme on the album — and the song’s lyrics are full of biblical allusions, including a line where West raps, “What if Eve made apple juice / You gon’ do what Adam do / Or say ‘Baby, let’s put this back on the tree.” A unique flow from Kanye and the repeated vocal break by track’s featured artists make “Everything We Need” one of the album’s strongest moments.
West fully embraces the ecclesiastical themes of the record on its eighth track, “God Is.” Once again taking a note out of gospel legend Kirk Franklin’s book, the song opens with an intro that’s strikingly reminiscent of Franklin’s number, “Silver and Gold.” There’s a choir, an easy drum pattern, a piano, a string section and harmonically complex chord progressions, but on top of all those elements, for one of the first times in his career, West really sings. It sounds like there’s no autotune, no phasing, no distortion; it’s West’s unadulterated voice speaking a message that feels like it comes from within. While “God Is” is the farthest departure from the traditional Kanye sound, that’s what makes it one of the most unique and memorable points on the album.
Following a penultimate track that opens like West’s single “Runaway” off “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and closes with a gorgeous Kenny G sax solo, West closes the album with “Jesus is Lord.” The less than a minute-long track isn’t an independent song so much as it’s a wrapup of all the themes the album has touched on.
Similar in its writing to the end of Post Malone’s “Internet,” which was co-written by West himself, “Jesus is Lord” is a fitting end to an album that says one thing above all: Kanye West isn’t living for Yeezus; he’s living for Jesus.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture