In September of last year, Kanye West announced his ninth solo album, titled Yandhi. It was to cap off what had been a very busy year for West; a solo album, a collaboration with Kid Cudi, executive production on three albums and a slate of singles and features, not to mention all the provocative interviews and generally bizarre things he was getting up to. Yandhi, however, never materialised. Instead we received over a year of leaks, near media blackouts, random snippets from West’s Sunday Service and a series of changing tracklists and release dates, before finally ‘Jesus is King’, a gospel album, was released on the 25th of October.
Where West merely paid lip service to the idea of a gospel album on The Life of Pablo, he fully embraces it on Jesus Is King. Religion is no longer relegated to a supporting role, it is the core of the album, permeating into the lyrics and musical style of every song.
This new and rather serious subject matter rubs right up against West’s trademark lack of subtlety. His corniness normally gives a light-hearted edge to his work, but here gives us a healthy dose of eye-rolling and preachy bars. There is, however, some nuance on display. West does, at multiple points, address his less than saintly past and the recent tension with the Christian community over his renewal of faith, but never quite reaches the heights of self-reflection or emotional openness shown on his 2018 album, Ye.
One way that Jesus Is King does match West’s recent work is that instead of the sprawling indulgence of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The Life of Pablo, Jesus Is King is only 27 minutes long. Despite this, West and a selection of big name producers, including Pi’erre Bourne, Timbaland and Ronny J, provide an impressive range in production.
The opening tracks, ‘Every Hour’ and ‘Selah’, use West’s Sunday Service Choir and booming drums to great effect, building to an epic chorus of “Hallelujah”, whilst ‘Follow God’ uses West’s classic technique of flipping soul samples into dynamic and driving beats for one of the best songs on the record.
The fifth track, ‘On God’, features an almost Graduation-era instrumental of upbeat synths as a backdrop for Kanye’s most interesting array of lyrics on the project. West emphatically discusses his near death experiences, his mixed past, the prison-industrial complex and randomly throws in the proclamation that he is “The greatest artist restin’ or alive”, showing that despite the delve into scripture, he’s not quite mastered the virtue of humility.
‘Everything We Need’ is adapted from the leaked Yandhisong, ‘The Storm’, stripping back some of the layers of instrumentation and probably wisely cutting an XXXTentacion feature to leave a laid back song that flows nicely into the Lo-fi ‘Water’, both of which feature well fitting vocals from frequent Kanye collaborator Ty Dollar $ign and singer Ant Clemons.
Then, after the song most likely to remind you of a mandatory Christmas service, ‘God Is’, and the subdued, meditative ‘Hands On’, comes the final full track and the highlight of the whole album. ‘Use This Gospel’, sees the reunion of the Thornton brothers as the duo, ‘Clipse’. The first collaboration of repentant Christian rapper, No Malice, and his younger brother, Pusha T, since 2013 provides an apt metaphor for the bringing together of West’s newfound religious fervour with his long-dominant Id. Accompanying Clipse’s two thunderous, if sparingly short, verses, is a rather bare instrumental mainly consisting of a heavily autotuned choir used for a powerful, surging beat, interrupted only by an inexplicable Kenny G saxophone solo.
West often projects a chaotic persona, but on Jesus Is King, there is a distinct feeling of calm. West seems as peaceful as he did on his last full project, 2018’s Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi, a short but focused and complete project. In stark contrast however, the reworkings of Yandhisongs, discarding of features and entire concepts, plus the last-minute remixing of tracks seem to have left Jesus Is King a confused and sometimes unfinished sounding album.
Despite that, there are moments of pure genius and whole sections of fantastic energy, underpinned by a sincere devotion that shines through even the clumsy delivery. Jesus Is King represents a new shift in an incredibly varied career and with the follow up, Jesus Is Born, already scheduled for Christmas, God only knows what direction this new, devout, family-friendly Kanye West is going to take us next.