(October 26, 2019). There’s no parental advisory sticker on Kanye’s new Jesus is King album. None was needed.
There are no F-bombs, no B-words, no N-words and no ho references. (The more biblical “damn” appears though.)
There are no lewd descriptions of sexual acts, no references to gun violence, no excessive boastfulness or contrived struggles with fame. There’s no irrational bashing of enemies – real or imaginary.
There’s very little, if any, self-indulgence – unless you call a man’s newfound immersion in Jesus Christ, and the expression thereof, overly self-promotional (I don’t).
There’s plenty of self-reflection, however, mainly in the form of repentance, like on the album’s best cut, “Follow God,” in which West speaks of his previous obsessions, like social media, and his struggles with his earthly father, who apparently admonished his son’s non-Christ-like behavior more than once in the past.
There’s also redemption on “Hands On,” where West addresses his previous life of sin as well as his hypocrisy and that of others – namely fellow Christians – who admonished him for even daring to make a gospel rap album in the first place.
Using their logic, Kanye and his community would be better served if the rapper just continued feeding fans misogynistic tales of loose women and what he and other men do to further degrade them.
In the past, when West invoked religious or gospel themes, it was juxtaposed with explicit verses that called into question his legitimacy by even the most casual of Christians who cared enough to listen (or by critics in general, this writer included).
On Jesus is King, West does none of that. The album is singular in its focus – his most cohesive work to date in that regard – with all the attention being given to his Heavenly Father. If there’s any doubt of his sincerity – and there’s still plenty of doubt based on some reviews I’ve read – JIK continues a new spiritual journey the rapper has apparently been on all year (on that note, he even explains in the album’s second track “Selah” why last year’s Yhandi album never surfaced – “God did the laundry” he explains – in case folks were wondering).
It’s a consistency in message that folks have rarely seen from the duplicitous rapper who has, in the past, shunned one Republican president and praised another for the same type of behavior (or worse), who has waffled in his off-on-and-off-again association with pop singer Taylor Swift, and who has even given different accountings of his own mental state – particularly his alleged bipolarism – in the past.
He even atones for his previous controversial statements about slavery and the Thirteenth Amendment – twice – on Jesus is King.
But perhaps most importantly, this is a clean hip-hop album the likes of which are rarely seen these days, and one that would seem to be pleasing to hip-hop’s staunchest critics whose biggest – and most legitimate – complaint about the genre is its often violent, often misogynistic, and often self-aggrandizing culture.
Yet Jesus is King is still not enough for Kanye’s harshest critics.
The album has been called “holy and hollow,” an unflattering headline assessment by one USA Today writer (Patrick Ryan) who on Friday said that it sounded as if West had just “picked up a bible yesterday, took everything at face value and decided to make an album about it.”
Others have said the album was “frustrating” and “incomplete,” like an unfinished product. That criticism has to do with the fact that its eleven songs clock in at a measly 27 minutes (notably, I finished the whole album from taxi to takeoff during a flight on Friday).
But really folks? Could you actually stand to hear Kanye go on for 20-plus tracks and a whole hour or more about how he’s found God and wants listeners to do the same? Imagine what the criticisms would be then. Be glad in knowing that he tempered his enthusiasm just enough to spare listeners that fate.
And, as for the recency of Kanye’s salvation, did USA Today’s Ryan or anyone else really expect the rapper to come across as a religious scholar on his first gospel album? Kanye says he found God, not a Doctorate in theology.
A legitimate criticism might be for the Chick-fil-A references in “Closed On Sunday,” which no doubt sound more like typical hip-hop brand name-dropping than any kind of spiritual rebirth, although the somber song is otherwise consistent with the concept in Christianity that one day of the week should be remembered as the sabbath, the seventh day, and a day of rest (Saturday is that day in some religions, but I doubt anyone would criticize Ye for that perceived slight, would they?).
Musically, at least, the album is well-produced, and critics have mostly agreed on that.
The tracks “Follow God” and “On God” employ enough of a trap beat so as not to alienate hip-hop fans completely.
“Water” sounds ethereal and alluring, while the minimalism of “Hands On” (there are no beats used on the track) is surprisingly captivating.
As for Kanye’s rapping, the alliteration on “Follow God” is the artist at his most-recent best. On “God Is,” the most traditional sounding gospel track on JIK, Ye is in a falsetto-like singing mode where he gets more hoarse as the song wears on.
That arrangement is actually pretty effective, as much for its lack of reliance on the perfection of voice-altering programs like Auto-tune, as it is for showing the wariness and intensity of a man who seems to be testifying with growing conviction with each bar he spits.
And the album’s brevity is also noteworthy. There are four tracks that clock in at less than two minutes and only three songs that are longer than three minutes (with none more than four).
In other words, Kanye keeps it short and sweet, which is a refreshing change from what many evangelists do (and the shorter tracks do translate to more streams – something about which West and his people are certainly conscious).
To that end, Kanye is still concerned about acceptance – not on Judgment Day – but by those here on earth. Otherwise he wouldn’t continue to rail against the Grammys, against his dad, against others in his industry, and against fellow Christians in general – all of whom are addressed on this album.
But that makes Kanye more like us than not – a man who is as flawed in his spiritual journey as we are, no matter where we fall on the faith spectrum. It’s a point that Jesus is King makes clear in its short 27-minute span.
So a theologian, Kanye isn’t, nor is he proclaiming himself to be.
But is he a man who is born-again spiritually? Only Kanye knows that for sure. Besides, I was taught that it’s never good for one man to judge another man’s faith anyway.
And finally, is Kanye an artist who is at least spreading the gospel through his latest music?
Well, as they say on Sundays, even if just one member of the congregation is moved by the sermon, the answer – for that person, at least – would be a resounding yes.
And besides, what more do we really want from Kanye at this point?
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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