Kanye West is pretty indisputably the most well-known music artist alive. Despite our best efforts to forget, ignore or even boycott him, he leaves an indelible mark on each calendar year. Of late, such persistence has only increased, tenfold: in 2015, he declared that he’d run for president in 2020; in 2016, masterwork The Life of Pablo was released after a tumultuous roll-out including multiple delays and title changes; he spent the rest of that year and much of the next outspokenly supporting Donald Trump, deleting and re-activating Twitter, and also had a heavily publicised stint at UCLA Medical Center after suffering from “temporary psychosis”. In 2018, not one but five Kanye-affiliated projects dropped in as many weeks, and ninth studio album Yandhi was announced, delayed and ultimately postponed indefinitely; and since January this year, Kanye has been putting on weekly “Sunday Service” events (including one at Coachella, after pulling out of his headline set at the festival). The new ninth studio album – Jesus Is King – was also announced, delayed more than once, and finally released last month.
This is just scratching the surface. Few are as busy as this man. It’s impossible to simply forget the monumental amount of context surrounding a Kanye release, but it’s productive to at least try to. In 2019, the latest thread to the narrative is a self-proclaimed religious awakening, which of course comes tied to the release of Jesus Is King.
The wealth of hypocrisy irritating the current claim is irrefutable. It’s also not worth the bother of getting too annoyed by. The most rewarding approach to Kanye West is to talk about the music – invariably, his helps shape the landscape, for better or for worse. This has been the case since he exploded onto the scene with 2004’s The College Dropout.
Each release since has been worth anyone’s time, even if (for my money) Late Registration and Graduation could’ve benefited from being shorter or even combined as one… even if Yeezus was necessary creative step rather than polished or comprehensive piece of work… and if ye was clearly a shade of the project it might’ve been had it more substantially tackled the bi-polar subject. Jesus Is King is again worth the outrageous hassle that brought it into being, just about.
But it’s very flawed. Kanye was setting himself up for failure: by design, something as topically ambitious as this needed longer than a 27-minute run time, as well as more than nine full tracks (‘Every Hour’ and ‘Jesus Is Lord’ are an epilogue and prologue really). His approaches to song writing and production also demand tracks that are over the three-minute mark; but this only has three, as well as two under the two. As I’m sure is the case for many: I’d love to hear the epic, expansive version of this album that we’ll probably never get.
The promise of a gospel album is as unfulfilled as you’d expect. Coloring Book this ain’t – Kanye spends as much time talking about himself as he does God and supplies more evidence that he’s not a particularly good Christian than he does to suggest the opposite. This usually manifests in wordplay, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Examples of the former include “When I get to Heaven’s gates / I ain’t gotta peak over” (‘Selah’) and “Cut out all the lights, He the light” (‘God Is’). Examples of the latter are as bad as “What if Eve made apple juice” (‘Everything We Need’) and “I thought the Book of Job was a job” (On God’): the Christian update of “Well, I guess a blowjob’s better than no job”, back on ‘30 Hours’.
Generally, even if Kanye is clearly not as pun smart as he thinks he is, the conceit of play on the gospel album rather than straight example of it does work, though. It’s the only way he could have ever done it, which he of course can’t help but tell us: “I’m so, I’m so radical” (‘Everything We Need’). Just in case we’d forgotten, he also reminds us that he’s “the greatest artist restin’ or alive” during ‘On God’, which he echoed in a recent interview with Zane Lowe. So yes: his music is still a vehicle for unthinkable levels of arrogance.
But Kanye’s abrupt career gear changes rely on it; it’s the only constant in the career meta-narrative. Therefore it’s frustrating when this is at the centre of a track which doesn’t have much built around it. Take ‘Closed On Sunday’, which feels like the skeleton of something that would’ve had six other things going on three years ago. ‘Water’ disappoints similarly. On more than one occasion, Kanye forgets how to end a track – ‘Follow God’ for example ends with an abrupt shriek reminiscent of ‘Yikes’, but here comes a whole minute earlier. Last year on Teyana Taylor’s ‘Hurry’, he declared there would be “no fade outs”; he seems to have become too taken with the idea because Jesus Is King doesn’t favourably reject the technique so much as overdo the alternative to exhaustion.
Yet sometimes Kanye gets things so right. Even if ‘Selah’ doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, the progressive build of “Hallelujah” from the Sunday Service Choir establishes surely the most inviting tone for the beginning of an album: equal parts grand and sinister. And the beat in ‘On God’ is strange and ethereal, with an intensity that brings ‘Love Lockdown’ or ‘Black Skinhead’ to mind. ‘Use This Gospel’ is frankly great – it may have taken the whole album to get here, but it’s the kind of layered, dynamic, exciting music Kanye has made a career from, complete with inspired use of auto-tune and even a Clipse reunion. The moment when Kenny G’s sax comes in, then leaves as the track’s beat finally kicks in at 3:08, is nothing short of magic.
In short, the album needed more of these, which is exactly what previous releases would’ve given us. It’s somewhat reductive to use that comparative model, as each project is so different from the previous, but for sake of argument: this album’s ‘Runaway’-esque sentimental epic (‘God Is’) was dull and only “epic” on the new relative terms (three and a half minutes). ‘Selah’ echoes ‘Ultralight Beam’ – and even references it – but falls a little short of being the kind of big statement it should’ve been. ‘Follow God’ is perhaps the most unforgivable: it starts great, is structured around a characteristically obscure sample (1974’s ‘Can You Lose By Following God’, by Whole Truth), but devolves into irritating, borderline offensive lyrics: “I tried to talk to my dad / Give him some advice, he starts spazzin’ on me / I start spazzin’ back.” The tone-deaf outro is a sad comparison to the feeling Kanye so often captures when talking about his parents, see ‘Hey Mama’ for the best example of him getting it right.
Another glaring flaw is the lack of a banger. It’s not as if Kanye needs radio play these days, but putting out tracks with irresistible replay value is something he’s always done so well – Graduation had five singles but could’ve easily released about eight; Pablo brought ‘Famous’, which was everywhere for a few weeks, even spawning DIY celebrity music videos; even ye, for all its disappointments, gave us the phenomenal ‘Ghost Town’. He may well release singles in the months to come – having played ‘Closed On Sunday’ on Kimmel, perhaps it’s the most likely contender – but there’s nothing here that’ll be inescapable, which never used to be the case.
Oddly, there was also a lack of the Sunday Service Choir. TIDAL credits their appearance on only four tracks, when it felt necessary for them to be on at least the majority. Even if this isn’t a straight gospel album, it’s disappointing that he didn’t take the spirituality to more interesting places thematically. ‘Jesus Walks’ so abrasively externalised (and politicised) the space in which to talk about God; whereas the only additional idea in the conversation here is Kanye himself. That track may well “convert atheists into believers” – this album just won’t. It also acknowledged that he may not actually be the greatest: “The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now”. This will also probably never happen again, at least on camera or in his music.
If the recent “Airpool Karaoke” spot with James Corden is anything to go by, it does seem like Kanye’s calmer and more at peace these days, whether we choose to believe the religious awakening claims or not. Here’s to hoping that no matter how much he juggles, the range of outlandish things he says, the sheer amount of music he attempts to put out, he returns to some form of creative coherence too. There’s always been the risk that he’ll burn out, and ultimately that’d be pretty detrimental to the industry he’s constantly helping take in new directions; so hopefully when we get that next, fully realised, unequivocally finished project it’s something special. It probably won’t be the case, but it’d be a shame if Pablo is the last great Kanye West album.