Kanye West has been, still is, and always will be one of pop culture’s most polarizing figures. Some say he’s a genius, others call him a buffoon. At 42 years old, society is still struggling to make up its mind on Kanye. With a life story stained by events such as the interruption of Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA acceptance speech and a controversial endorsement of President Donald Trump, Kanye just added his newest chapter: a deeply religious gospel album, Jesus is King.
The album marks Kanye’s first foray into a full-length religious album. Though it runs just 27 minutes, Jesus is King is 11 tracks of spiritually themed lyrics. The record opened at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, West’s ninth album to do so, and has been a commercial success. However, one question has lingered in the mind of Kanye’s fans, critics and general onlookers of his pop culture phenomenon: is it good?
The short answer is not quite. The long answer is much more complicated. Throughout Kanye’s entire career he has been an innovator, affecting rap similar to the way the Beatles affected pop, and that skill doesn’t go away here. Kanye is still doing a lot on this album that set him apart from the rest of rap. For one, his beats and production work are still impressive. Kanye is also clearly influenced by his past work throughout the record, most notably returning to a style similar to 2004’s “Jesus Walks.” While Kanye has been Christian his entire life, he did not practice as devoutly as he does now. Kanye experienced a religious transformation this year, ultimately dubbing himself a born-again Christian.
There are undeniable high points to Kanye’s album. However, there are still many clear shortcomings on Jesus is King. One of these is somewhat arbitrary but still really harms the experience of listening to the album: the songs are way too short. The record’s longest song is just over 3 minutes, 30 seconds, and six of the album’s 11 songs clock in at 2 minutes, 30 seconds or less. The fervent pace that the album moves between songs makes it hard to settle into the album and, due to its short total runtime, the record is over before it even feels like it has started.
To its credit, the album starts big with “Every Hour,” an interesting opening that doesn’t even feature West, just a gospel choir. The second and third tracks of the record, “Selah” and “Follow God,” might be the album’s peaks. These are two strong songs, both featuring vintage Kanye elements of excellent production, compelling rhyme schemes and good lyrical themes and flow. These tracks depart from classic Kanye in the frequent biblical references within the lyrics, a theme that continues through the entire album.
However, after these two songs Jesus is King really begins to drag. “Closed on Sunday” is not that bad of a song, but the hook line of “closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A” is so ridiculous that I can’t take it seriously. The next couple of songs aren’t terrible, but they are repetitive to a fault. “Water,” a collaboration with musician Ant Clemons, is compelling thanks to the lyrical themes of purity in God’s world as well as a fabulous bass-line from Kanye. The song’s production is outstanding, but the actual content of the song finds itself a little lackluster.
Following “Water” is “God Is,” which is an incredible song. “God Is” is an emotional track about Kanye’s newfound spirituality and is right up there as one of the album’s peaks. After this, Kanye concludes with three more songs that are largely mediocre. “Use This Gospel” is an interesting song, featuring a reunion of Pusha T and No Malice in their rap duo Clipse as well as a saxophone solo from Kenny G.
The biggest negative of Jesus is King is that the album as a whole works without a narrative other than simply being about religion. The biggest theme is just repeated references to God and the Bible, which isn’t bad, but also isn’t enough of a narrative structure. Jesus is King is a mediocre album that falls short of the lofty expectations associated with West’s previous career.
We have seen a figure of Kanye’s pop culture stature undergo a religious revival in their music just once before: Bob Dylan in 1979 was at a similar age as West is now and had a career that has been paralleled by that of Kanye. Dylan abandoned his evangelical Christian career after three years as if it never happened, so it remains to be seen how long West will persist with his. Regardless of his future with gospel music, this is not Kanye’s best work, and if he is to stick with this new awakening, he can no doubt perform better than Jesus is King.