The idea that Kanye West does gospel to re-endear himself to his black fans feels pat. It’s too legible of a scheme for an artist whose grand gestures are regularly PR messes. And though his discography is chameleonic, Christianity has been one of its most consistent undercurrents. It was there near the bottom of his mania, during the ill-fated The Life of Pablo era. Chance the Rapper rapped a compelling hosannah on “Ultralight Beam” and Kanye delivered “Fade,” an ecstatic melange of gospel and Chicago house that naturally combined two havens for black worship, plus Post Malone. The point wasn’t to convert atheists into believers — but if it did, cool.
Kanye hasn’t always secluded himself in a $240 million ecclesial echo chamber, though, and he hasn’t broken this many of his longtime fans’ loyalty with his increasingly elliptical political views. His slavery “sounds like a choice” proclamation was the blow that rung loudly and brutally enough to smack some of the most well-intentioned of his decade-plus of work with retrospect cynicism. Whether his renewed quest for spiritual triumph on Jesus Is King carries weight depends on your faction. They include the black intelligentsia that’s sighed “No” in a continuous three-year exhale. There are the hypebeasts at the pews. Kanye has made it clear who he sees.
The gospel of Ye is that the red hat did fit him. Both represent a perverse evangelism valuing gut feeling that purports its detachment from reality as radicalism. Jesus Is King has the Job puns, verse references, and the sky-reveling choir. Ye explores the hedonism West has spent this press run distancing himself from, but it becomes clear very soon that Jesus Is King is ultimately about Kanye West, too.
The vocal embellishments and autotuning that Kanye West has used to make himself superhuman lays his presence bare, as if to purposefully convey a born-again purity. But his shortcomings as a vocalist muffles any emotional resonance and further exposes a pen that hasn’t been consistent since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Closed on Sunday” is the album’s immediate meme thanks to the banal refrain “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A.” It’s virality has less to do with it being words of faith than how it sounds like the raving of an altar boy getting in his last chuckles before mass. One might reasonably suspect that doesn’t matter to Ye as long as he remains ubiquitous.
Jesus Is King is arranged to emphasize that clumsiness. Right after “Closed on Sunday,” Kanye spends “On God” delivering I’ve-seen-the-mountaintop style preaching. The glitzy synths co-produced by Pi’erre Bourne recall Graduation, but Kanye is prodding and unconvincing in a soundscape where he was a compelling idol. His scripture has the calling cards of pro-black goodwill — yes the 13th amendment is bad and Chief Keef is good — but the main takeaway is Kanye West absolutely must be richer than the clergy. “The IRS want they fifty plus our tithe/Man, that’s over half of the pie,” Kanye yells, head likely in palms. “That’s why I charge the prices that I charge I can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars.” It’s akin to the prosperity gospel — no wonder Joel Osteen wants to build.
The penultimate song “Hands On” is unsurprisingly also about Kanye. He delivers a testimonial over warm chords and coos, but he lacks the self-reflection needed to give his words emotional depth. “Said I’m finna do a gospel album/What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?” Kanye asks in a call-and-response with himself. “They’ll be the first one to judge me.” It’s his insecurities as heathen dressed in an alb: There’s always some supposed righteousness in Kanye’s struggle against any institution, Nike or otherwise. His mythology’s rhetoric — that a black Polo-wearing kid from Chicago’s wins are also ours — sells that conceit. On Jesus Is King, it’s his crutch — the production is too inoffensive and its lead’s singing is too frail for the truisms to lean on much else.
Jesus Is King also continues to erode the perfectionism that’s been one of his reputation’s last vestiges. For a project delayed by “final mixes” and made of a narrow sonic palette by Kanye’s standards, there is an aggressive amount of seams. Coming halfway through the album, “Water” is positioned as Jesus Is King’s baptismal centerpiece. There’s not serenity: Kanye genuinely sounds strained praying atop the bubbling keys.
Even more haphazard is the Clipse reunion on “Use This Gospel.” The brothers’ verse work well enough — Pusha-T reining in his trademark ruthlessness does sound believable with No Malice’s “faith talk” — but it’s mixed like they found really good gospel hums online, not like they’re veterans making a song. Kenny G’s appearance is clipped on and needless, as if to argue you can listen to too much jazz. These shortcomings are frustrating because Jesus Is King does flirt with the sublime when the productions sound at least 70 percent realized. “Everything We Need” skates on Ty Dolla Sign and Ant Clemons rapturous vocals; they even give the Kanye-isms (“What if Eve made apple juice? You gon’ do what Adam do? Or say, ‘Baby, let’s put this back on the tree’”) levity.
The parts that do succeed are the ones were Kanye West steps out of the way. He wisely leaves the full-throated choir alone in the jubilant opener “Every Hour” and to awe in the climax of “Selah.” Jesus Is King is also merciful: It’s as unimaginative about its hollow ideas as Ye, but it is a comparatively tuneful 27 minutes that isn’t as crippled by prideful ugliness. That improvement from teetering on repugnant to okay means Kanye gets it together at least once. “Follow God” has by-far Jesus Is King’s best verse, a surreal stream-of-conscious sprint where his brattiness (“I was looking at the ‘Gram and I don’t even like likes”) does carry an urgency. It’s Kanye’s most palpable post-Life of Pablo thriller. This is the Old Kanye track not only because of the lean sample loop — it’s the sound of someone obsessed with trying instead of the weight of his significance. C+