In the wake of Kanye West’s most turbulent year of his career, the artist has released his most unique and polarizing record yet. JESUS IS KING (JIK), an 11-track and 27-minute project, exists in a political climate where Christianity has been weaponized as another division between left and right, and ultimately, Trump fans versus opposers.
This, however, was not Kanye’s vision. For over 15 years, he released gospel-influenced tracks such as “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam,” so this shift should come as no surprise. With JIK, Kanye’s ninth studio album, the legendary artist departs from “the devil’s music” that has consumed his career, in favor of gospel and religious art. Kanye’s redemption arc takes the next step.
Structurally, the album is formatted into a 5-1-5 narrative, with “Everything We Need” serving as the transitional point. In Part One, Kanye continues to deal with egotistical and societal hurdles that have plagued his previous few projects, as he strengthens his faith with God. After the transition, Kanye purifies himself through God, preaches God’s glory, and repents for his wrongdoings.
“Every Hour,” from Kanye’s sensational Sunday Service team, serves as a pleasing and fitting introduction to this new era of Kanye’s discography, showing us that this project will be an experience to behold. Kanye lets his listeners know in “Selah” that JIK explores his personal rise to religiosity. The dramatic production leads into the religious pinnacle of the project, as the choir sings “Hallelujah.” “Follow God” continues to explain the narrative of our protagonist, citing Kanye’s lack of peace as holding him back from salvation. In the most controversial hook on the album, Kanye calls for Sunday to return as a day of rest, with a shout out to Chick-Fil-A, on “Closed On Sunday.” “On God” features innovative production from Pierre Bourne, and then details West’s mania which has been cleansed by God. Kanye defends the prices of his sneakers and attacks the IRS’s apparent greed in his battle with the public and God.
After the revelation that faith and family are Kanye’s only true essentials, “Water” exemplifies a baptism or cleansing of Kanye’s soul, accompanied by whimsical production and imperfect mixing. “God Is” praises the Lord through Reverend James Cleveland’s hypnotizing sample and Kanye’s atypical bare singing. Kanye addresses the “Christians” who he believes have been hypocritically criticizing him on “Hands On.”
On the album’s grandest record, “Use This Gospel,” Kanye reunites Pusha T and No Malice, formerly known as Clipse, and concludes the piece with an incredible Kenny G saxophone solo. “Jesus Is Lord” provides a proper conclusion to the jam-packed and inventive experience that is JESUS IS KING.
Overall, the album was quite enjoyable. As always, Kanye produced a sonic gem that blends mainstream sounds with gospel choirs and religious overtones. Criticisms of the piece included the rushed nature of the mixing and audio quality. In the days following the release, however, updates to the tracks have been made, patching errors from the original release.
While Kanye’s performance is admirable, he is outshined multiple times by his features and his lyrics lack a certain depth. The shorter lengths of the tracks also lead to some abrupt endings and transitions, a mistake that West has not made much in the past.
Part of Kanye’s inspiration for the project was the opportunity to foster innovation in an institution that has been so deeply bound to its past ways: the Christian Church. In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Kanye argued that “God doesn’t exist only in four walls. God is everything and everywhere,” and the Church has been “extra traditional to the point of blocking innovation.”
Kanye’s drive to create a revolutionary atmosphere to the Church, albeit not completely original, is certainly an outlier amongst artists with his credentials. If nothing else, JIK serves as a moment in time. With 94.6% of the lyrics being about religion, JIK is the most religious hip-hop album to ever reach #1 on Billboard’s charts.
No matter what type of album Kanye released, a certain portion of the public was ready to disagree. Critics have deemed Kanye’s transformation as insincere and commercialization of his faith. Much of the criticism arises from the name that will forever be associated with Kanye: Donald Trump. West’s support of Trump has been well-known and extensively chastised. Kanye has been purposefully ambiguous regarding the reasons for his support, perhaps to champion his ideas of free thought and expression while dissing his neo-liberal elite counterparts in Hollywood. Kanye has been critical of the Democratic establishment in the past. He’s spoken about the injustices in the criminal justice system, the ways in which the Democratic party has taken Black voters for granted, and the false perceptions that politicians display to their constituents.
Kanye’s personal opinions have jeopardized the future of his appeal to the mainstream, and whether we like him or not, that fact is telling of our current society. He stated, “We’re in an age where someone can get fired for what they think if they say it out loud.” “We’ve been herded into the ideas of blue and red,” and crossing the line results in ostracization. Kanye has been exemplifying his critiques of “Cancel Culture” through his freedom of expression, and it has cost him the support of “liberals” as he likes to say.
Kanye’s actions should not come without repercussions, however. His ignorant comments regarding slavery will always disappoint listeners. Although it may not seem true sometimes, Kanye has always preached messages of unity, and he does so on JIK while maintaining his personal political beliefs.
Kanye’s lack of clarity when articulating his positions deserves critique. Even though much of Kanye’s narrative has been driven by media headlines, he has never been the greatest communicator. He uses his faith as a cop-out for his mistakes over the past year, and his decision-making seems to be too deeply drowned in divinity for the average listener. Most of all, the controversy surrounding West sums up this era’s political sensitivity and division. Despite Kanye’s mental health issues and chaotic persona, he was able to craft an innovative, entertaining, yet controversial record which will potentially stand the test of time.
Favorite Tracks: “Selah,” “God Is,” “Use This Gospel.”