Gospel music is the beaming light at the end of the tunnel — the manner in which churchgoers, singers and listeners alike can join hands and climb the stairway into the heavens. From the charismatic Fred Hammond to the ever-arresting Aretha Franklin, the legends of gospel have cemented their imprint on music culture by not just being impeccable vocalists — but an inspiration for those seeking a closer relationship with God. The goal isn’t self-righteousness, but self-realization and a belief of serving something bigger than themselves. The spirit of gospel music can embody the soul of many genres — from jazz, country and hip hop — and it carries with it an overwhelming sense of hope and connection to a higher power.
When Kanye West first proclaimed his next project, Jesus Is King, would be a gospel record, I wasn’t too worried about how the sonic shift would affect his quality of production. This wasn’t Kanye’s first rodeo with reinvention. Who could forget the sparse, melancholic change of pace that 808s and Heartbreak was in his discography? What about the abrasive middle finger that was Yeezus? Plus, flipping and manipulating gospel and soul tracks into his very own beat recipes is what defined Kanye’s ascension into stardom in the first place. “Jesus Walks” is one of the crown jewels of West’s catalog, pairing marching band percussion with a hypnotic gospel chant sample to achieve audio bliss. A more recent example would be the gripping Life of Pablo opening song “Ultralight Beam,” which included a choir of gospel legends conducting a dramatic build-up that culminates in an explosion of emotion.
My worry didn’t stem from the sound that Jesus Is King would bring — but the message and motivation behind it. Kanye and controversy have gone hand-in-hand for the better part of the last decade, mostly deriving from mental conditions he touched upon on his last major release Ye and a level of fame that has caused him to lose all touch with reality. A few ill-advised comments about slavery here. A couple of Twitter blowups there. A condemned endorsement of Donald Trump over here. As the negative headlines continued to stack up, I began to theorize that the sudden switch to fully embracing Christian ideals with a gospel album came with some caveats. Don’t forget, this is the same guy that titled an album Yeezus, housing a track fittingly titled “I Am A God.”
Would Kanye use Jesus Is King as a vehicle for his continued egotistical comparisons to something larger than life or has he sincerely been reformed as a devout follower — a quality deeply rooted into the core of gospel music itself?
The opening track “Every Hour,” although notably devoid of Kanye, is a powerful introduction into the entrancing gospel aspects Jesus Is King is attempting to accomplish, featuring a sped-up excerpt from one of his Sunday Service worship events. The choir is roaring. The voices are warm and welcoming. The message of the importance of the Lord in every waking moment of his followers’ lives feels straight out of a church sermon. Even West’s first vocal appearance on the following cut “Selah” doesn’t hinder the strong 20th-century gospel vibes exuding from the production. The rise and fall of the Sunday Service Choir chanting “hallelujah” is an epic touch. Every reflective Kanye bar is followed by a thunderous pounding of drums. The first few tracks of Jesus Is King successfully sets the tone by transporting the listener into the harmonious atmosphere of a gospel church — and Kanye assists in this by taking a back seat to the angelic world he and his choir created.
Unfortunately, as Kanye’s voice becomes a more prominent focal point in the project’s ethos, the true spirit of gospel music seems to become lost in the fray. Casting aside the usual cringe-worthy bars that regularly populate West’s recent material such as “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A / You’re my number one, with the lemonade” and “When I thought the Book of Job was a job,” among many others, the rapper can’t help but make the album’s message about himself. On the track “Hands On,” while disguised as a performance highlighting the role God plays in his life, it instead morphs into a confusing rant bashing the Christians who criticized him for deciding to make a gospel album in the first place. “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me / Make it seem like nobody love me,” he repeatedly snarls. Not even Fred Hammond’s distorted crooning, asking listeners to come together and pray can save the track from Kanye’s incessant victim mentality.
The complications continue on the cut “On God,” where West justifies the outrageous prices of his clothes by claiming it’s the result of him refusing to let his family starve. Considering Kanye was just listed as the highest-paid hip-hop artist of 2019 by Business Insider and is married to Kim Kardashian, a makeup mogul worth a measly $350 million on her own, I refuse to believe the overpriced merch is what’s separating his family from financial hardship. The placement just feels odd on an album meant to preach faith and a rebirth of Kanye’s worldwide perception. For every admission of wrongdoing and claim that his religious renaissance reveals a changed man, West falls back into the usual self-centered tropes that have followed his music career like a shadow.
While I normally wouldn’t have much of a problem with Kanye’s tendencies, a gospel album requires a selflessness and an unwavering focus on Christ — something West struggles to grasp throughout Jesus Is King.
The curse words may be removed and the references to biblical passages and themes may be prevalent, but the aspects that give gospel music that ethereal feeling are glaringly missing. The emptiness makes Jesus Is King feel like a one-dimensional offering masquerading as a layered work of gospel art. With the announcement of an additional gospel album, titled Jesus Is Born, slated for a Christmas release, Kanye has another chance to prove to his doubters that he is prepared to release a true gospel project stripped of his typical self-absorbed nature. Judging off West’s previous track record, I’m not going to hold my breath.