Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kanye West Jesus Is King

Fifteen years ago, nobody could’ve possibly predicted it: Kenny G not only appearing on a Kanye West album but having the single best moment on that album. That’s what happens on Jesus Is King, the exhaustedly awaited gospel-rap album that West finally released on Friday afternoon. Kenny G — former Barry White sideman, current best-selling instrumental artist in history, favorite musician of circa-’92 Bill Clinton, rich celebrity happy to make fun on himself in Super Bowl commercials, living symbol of neutered vitality and watered-down mass-culture tastes — shows up at the end of Jesus Is King and blows that motherfucker wide open.

Kenny G is only on “Use This Gospel,” the last real song on Jesus Is King, for about 40 seconds. But in those 40 seconds, he sounds spectacular. Up until his appearance, “Use This Gospel,” like so many other Kanye West enterprises, is fun on paper but clumsy in execution. On that song, West reunites Clipse, the great ’00s Virginia rap duo who splintered a decade ago, when Pusha T’s elder brother Malice had a religious epiphany, changed his name to No Malice, and gave up glorifying his drug-dealing past.

When he returns on “Use This Gospel,” now given his biggest-ever platform to talk about his Road To Damascus conversion, Malice raps with the same hard precision that he used to bring when rapping about having rivals’ body parts mix and matching, fella: “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those / And in my arrogance, took a camera pose / Caught with a trunk of Barry Manilows / They sing a different tune when the slammer close.” He is such an author, he should smoke a pipe.

And yet “Use This Gospel” still lies inert until the sudden appearance of a lion-maned saxophone angel. Pusha and No Malice deliver their words with graceless bluster, almost yelling over the track. The problem might be that the beat has no pocket for them to ride; Kanye West, the greatest producer of his generation, has simply supplied them with what sounds like the pinging door-ajar car alert. (The track has five credited producers, including West and Timbaland, and it’s tough to imagine what all those people were even doing.) So when Kenny G arrives — catching the hook’s melody and dancing around it, embellishing it with a smoky lushness that feels effortless — he handily walks away with the song, and with the album. It’s the one moment of genuine inspiration on a record that’s supposed to be about genuine inspiration.

Putting Kenny G on the same song as a reunited Clipse is a classic Kanye West provocation, a reminder that West has always blurred lines and challenged unseen boundaries. It’s the same kind of thing that West was doing more than 15 years ago on “Two Words,” when he had Mos Def and Freeway — then thought to be representatives of opposite sides in an imaginary rap culture war — on the same song with the Boys Choir Of Harlem. (West is not new to this gospel-choir business.) “Two Words” worked on paper, and it also worked when it came out of your speakers. It was tough, strident, anthemic — a gamble that paid off. Jesus Is King is something else.

Jesus Is King doesn’t suck. It could’ve sucked. It seemed like it probably would suck, West’s legendary track record notwithstanding. West’s own religious awakening seems genuine, but it arrives scarcely a year after West served as creative director for the first-ever Pornhub Awards. It would be easy to understand Jesus Is King as a simple publicity move, a way for West to atone for his unhinged embrace of Donald Trump without actually apologizing for that embrace or even changing his public stance on the man. And the album’s rollout was so slapdash, so unbelievably halfassed, that it was fair to expect a murky, thrown-together nonentity on the level of last year’s ‘Ye. Jesus Is King is not that.

Instead, Jesus Is King is a full-throated embrace of the gospel strain that’s been running through Kanye West’s music since the very beginning. West has, of course, been doing Sunday Service shows with a full gospel choir since the beginning of 2019, and that choir is all over Jesus Is King. Opening track “Every Hour” is a straight-up old-timey voices-bass-piano worship number. Long-tenured Michigan gospel luminary Fred Hammond shows up on “Hands On.” (It’s probably notable that Hammond, not West, is the one who sings the line “I deserve all the criticism you got.”) And West does interesting things with those gospel voices — sometimes slathering them in Auto-Tune, sometimes contrasting them with the empty-space minimalism that’s been a part of his own music since 808s & Heartbreak. This isn’t a case of West chasing the gospel market, pandering to it. It’s West internalizing and adapting old gospel traditions, running them through his own aesthetic filter.

Some of the moments on Jesus Is King are truly striking. On “Selah,” a “Hallelujah” chorus rises up out of bass-toned nothingness. On “Closed On Sunday,” those voices encircle a tender, plaintive acoustic-guitar figure. On “God Is,” West pushes his own (admittedly not great) singing voice, letting it crack and rupture as he wails about devotion and family and “freedom from addiction.” And he’s still capable of making straight-up rap music, too; he hits the dusty “Whole Truth” sample on “Follow God” with some of his old ferocity.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the convictions that West expresses on Jesus Is King. West has been through real traumas — the opioid addiction he’s yelled about in the TMZ offices, the death of his mother, the armed robbery of his wife. For the past decade and a half, West has been subject to levels of attention, scrutiny, adoration, and contempt that would’ve driven the best of us absolutely bugfuck insane. If West has found some sense of inner peace in his religious beliefs, then good for him.

But listening to Jesus Is King, it’s clear that West’s religious moment hasn’t really changed him. He spends much of “Hands On” fretting about Christian backlash, just as he once fretted about rap backlash on “Jesus Walks.” On “Follow God,” he lets us in on uncomfortable family conversations that maybe should’ve stayed private: “I was looking at the ‘Gram, and I don’t even like likes / I was screaming at my dad, he told me, ‘It ain’t Christ-like.'” On “Closed On Sundays,” West finds the corniest, dumbest way to salute his wife and her no-Instagram-on-the-sabbath policy: “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-Fil-A.” (Also: “You’re my number one, with the lemonade.” Kim isn’t even the spicy sandwich. That’s rough.)

A couple of lines show just how much Kanye has not grown from this experience. On “Selah”: “Keeping perfect composure when I scream at the chauffeur / I ain’t mean, I’m just focused / I ain’t mean, I’m just focused.” West says this as a boast, not a confession. His focus is so great, so important, that it requires him to be an asshole to the people who work for him. And on “On God”: “That’s why I charge the prices that I charge / I can’t be out here dancing with the stars / No, I cannot let my family starve.” We are to understand, then, that West is out here selling $50 socks, at events marketed as church services, because it’s the only way to keep his family out of poverty, or to keep himself from reality-show humiliation. (Kim Kardashian competed on Dancing With The Stars in 2008. She was the third contestant eliminated in the season that Brooke Burke won.) On that same song, West complains about taxes. I do not sympathize.

West is not alone in this rich-guy prosperity-gospel thing. It’s a whole popular wing of American Christianity. If West is trying to refashion himself as a boutique Joel Osteen, a religious leader who sees financial success as the will of God rather than as direct contradiction of Jesus Christ’s teachings, that doesn’t necessarily make West’s newfound religious devotion any less sincere. But it does make it less inspiring. The ongoing public soap opera of Kanye West’s life has certainly been fascinating, if dispiriting. And with Jesus Is King, he’s simply given us the religious episode of it. I can’t imagine anyone who is not Kanye West feeling any real solace, any sense of uplift or identification, in this album.

It wasn’t always this way. West was always a narcissist and an oversharer, sure, but his music had a way of transcending his personal circumstances. As a rapper, Kanye West arrived on the public stage already talking about himself in mythic terms. “Through The Wire” was an extremely specific song about a car crash, written and recorded when West was still recovering from that car crash. And yet West made that song resonate as something larger. He turned it into a song about overcoming adversity, about asserting your will and appreciating the continuing miracle of your own life. He’s done that again and again. 808s & Heartbreak is a document of a dark period, and it’s full of plenty of asshole sentiments. But how many times have you turned to it in your own dark moments?

West doesn’t do that anymore. In the past few years, West has used his albums as product-line updates and information dumps. Music is no longer the most lucrative source of revenue in West’s creative life. It shows. West has lost all sense of how anyone outside his admittedly huge cult will receive his music. He isn’t making music to get anyone through anything anymore. The music itself is almost an afterthought. Jesus Is King is an interesting detour, a thoughtful genre experiment. But what are you going to get out of it? Is it going to teach you anything about yourself or the world? Or is it simply Kanye West showing everyone what he’s into this year?

Maybe I’m wrong. Jesus Is King has only been in the world a few days. It’s certainly possible that the album’s hidden depths will reveal themselves over time. But unlike something like 808s or Yeezus, Jesus Is King, after a weekend of repeated listens, feels thinner and less substantial. And its one moment of contemplative beauty and melodic richness — of actual surprise and challenge — comes from Kenny G.

Jesus Is King is out now on G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam.

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