The last Kanye West lyric that got stuck in my head was “You’re such a fuckin’ ho, I love it,” from his 2018 track with Lil Pump, “I Love It.” So, like many West watchers, I was surprised to hear that he had become a born again Christian who did not want his collaborators engaging in premarital sex and that he was making a gospel album called Jesus Is King.
There are many who have sworn off West for his MAGA hat-wearing, "slavery was a choice," bizarre last 36 months. If this describes you, this album will not change your mind on Kanye West. Check out the tracks “Follow God” and “Use This Gospel” and go back to your life. Yet, for those who continue to wrestle with Kanye as one of the most brilliant artists of our time who seems determined to implode his own legacy, there is much to glean from his latest album.
There's a great tradition of gospel music and secular music intertwining in traditionally black music genres. Perhaps the greatest album of Aretha Franklin’s career is her gospel album Amazing Grace, and after listening to that masterpiece, hearing someone call Jesus Is King a gospel album is like hearing of a New Yorker grilling a hot dog and calling it "barbecue."
In North Texas, the tradition of gospel music going secular runs deep: Kirk Franklin, God’s Property, and more recently, Christian rapper Trip Lee. West himself has produced better gospel-influenced tracks, from “Jesus Walks” to “Ultralight Beam,” than anything on Jesus Is King. That being said, he is still probably the greatest producer of his generation, and a throw-away track like “On God” is a pleasure entirely for his production details. The best track on the album, and probably his best track since releasing The Life of Pablo, is “Use This Gospel.” Similar to the standout track on Ye, “Ghost Town,” “Use This Gospel” allows the guests to do the heavy lifting, this time with verses by Clipse and a glorious extended outro provided by Kenny G.
To be fair, Gospel Kanye is preferable to MAGA Kanye. The most controversial lyric in Jesus Is King is “Closed on Sunday/ You’re my Chick-fil-A” from “Closed On Sunday.” For comparison, the title track from West’s last album Ye was titled “I Thought About Killing You” and got much, much, darker from there. And to understand the context for Jesus Is King, it's important to start with the cover art from Ye, which includes West's own scribble: “I hate being bi-polar, it’s awesome” on a picture of Wyoming mountains. As a person who's been diagnosed as bipolar, I remember crying when I saw that art because I have felt that way countless times in my life. It's impossible to consider West without having compassion — if not empathy — that he is a person grappling with a serious mental illness and dealing with it very publicly.
Kiana Fitzgerald wrote about the connection between bipolar disorder and a feeling of being close to God, in a September article for Vibe:
“We’ve both been diagnosed as bipolar, a mental condition characterized by manic highs and depressive lows. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, mania can either make you feel mildly irritated and erratic, or a deep, yet deceiving, purity that makes you think you’re in touch with God Himself. I fall solidly in the latter group, and my condition began with a grand epiphany that didn’t feel like a mental disability at all.”
For many people who are wondering if Kanye West’s turn to Christianity is real, it would seem that yes, it is. At least it is real for him, at this moment. If you can listen to West’s off-key, auto-tuned singing on “God Is” you will find a very sincere testimony: “Jesus saved me, now I’m sane/I know that God is the force that picked me up/I know that Christ is the fountain that filled my cup.” This should be an uplifting and transcendent moment, yet it rings hollow. It is as if West is trading one addiction (porn/materialism) for another (Jesus) — swinging from one extreme to the next, and that is not sanity.
Unfortunately, Jesus Is King ends up reading as a cry for help in the same way that Ye was a cry for help. West is still stumbling to fill the voids in his life, to find something that grounds and centers him, and the musical product suffers from being mostly gloss and surface with no real depth.