The Empty Innovation of Kanye West’s Gospel Album

Late one night last month, in anticipation of Kanye West’s ninth major-label release, which was reportedly due in just a few hours (it was ultimately stalled by delays, and didn’t arrive until last Friday), Twitter user @FrankieComedian posted an image to his timeline. “Me waiting for Kanye West’s album,” he wrote, adding the hashtag #jesusisking, the title of the rapper’s hotly awaited first gospel project. The general sentiment of the image was explicit, the clearest distillation of the difficult fascination fans continue to have with West. In it, a man slowly applies clown makeup to his face; by 12:01 am he is fully outfitted in a wig and red nose—just in time to stream the album on Spotify or Apple Music.

I was suddenly full of uncontrollable laughter because its truth cut like dog teeth to the bone. Were we clowns for continuing to engage with a man who readily sold self-interest as love, who preached open-mindedness but often supported people who practiced division? Yes. Once again, the joke was on us.

No one wanted to believe it. In the lead-up to Jesus Is King, and even before, fans thought maybe, in spite of his faults, West’s music could absolve his mania, even as he courted public contempt with a kind of paradoxical glee. He’d vocalized support for President Trump, called for the annulment of the 13th Amendment, championed conservative firebrand Alex Jones, and likened slavery to “a choice,” all while urging us to be more accepting of “free thinkers.” But, even as critics and fans—myself included—were quick to cancel him, they held out hope. But absolution never came. It didn’t on yehis derisory album from last year on which mental health and family life were anchoring themes—and it doesn’t on the facile Jesus Is King, a patchy, sometimes remarkable, mostly unexceptional interpretation of the black gospel tradition.

Like the bulk of West’s work, the theme of self-optimization becomes his primary pursuit. He’s consumed with search, and with Jesus Is King he wants listeners to believe he’s stumbled into a holy awakening—and that you can too. “I’m just tryna find, I’ve been lookin’ for a new way/ I’m just really tryin’ not to really do the fool way,” he raps on “Follow God,” a song that sounds more like a leftover from Yeezus, his raging opus from 2013. Because West never shies from complete musical upheaval—as a rapper-producer-provocateur he doesn’t merely want to govern the industry’s landscape; he wants to totally remake it in his mad and divine image—he surrounds himself with a savvy crew of collaborators. There are guest verses from Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons, as well as production from Pi’erre Bourne, Timbaland, BoogzDaBeast, and Budgie, the Los Angeles beatmaker who actually developed the experimental strand of gospel West is striving for (seriously, if you take nothing else from what I’ve written, listen to Budgie’s album Holy Ghost Zone).

But where past records found West battling a more tangled interiority, Jesus Is King, despite its occasional bright currents—a reunited Clipse, saxophone virtuosity via Kenny G, and an Auto-Tuned Fred Hammond (!!!)—is an album of simple Christian platitudes. Thematically, it has little of the signature complexity of West’s early years. Subject matter oscillates between deep seriousness and devout levity—a tear that begins to threaten the purity of the mission. The chorus for “Closed on Sunday” includes the line: “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A/ You’re my number one with the lemonade.” The old Kanye West, the fearless innovator who, in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina, told the nation “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and the new more dogmatic Kanye West—the father, the faithful conduit—are jockeying for placement on the same album. Them trying to exist together, old versus new, weakens the project’s aim. As the writer Julian Kimble perfectly styled it on Twitter, the album exudes “Big Janky Evangelical Pastor energy.”

Anyone privy to West’s music since his generation-defining debut, The College Dropout, knows he has always created with biblical scope—the music wasn’t just grand and sweeping, so were the tales of its hero. West has flirted with Christian themes since the very beginning, shuffling identities as he sees fit: from martyr to prophet to god to humble steward. One of his first breakout singles, 2004’s “Jesus Walks” (it peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100) found West wrestling with his own faith, sermonizing on politics, rap, and media. By 2013 he fancied himself an all-powerful deity. “I am a god/ Hurry up with my damn massage/ Hurry up with my damn ménage/ Get the Porsche out the damn garage/ I am a god,” he rapped on Yeezus’ “I Am a God.” On “Ultralight Beam” he returned to his roots, seeking deliverance, calling on Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin for what ended up being one of the most important songs of the decade.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired