At least Kanye’s given us something more interesting to talk about than himself.
The nice thing about Kanye West making religious music is he has too much respect for the subject matter to undercut the music with his wanky humor. His ninth album Jesus is King was released with the intent of being a piece of music rather than a meme, unlike last year’s Ye. That’s a low bar for a man who belongs on any list of pop’s greats, but the Kanye cycle has been so toxic and exhausting the least we can hope for is that it’ll spit out a good album.
Jesus is King isn’t compromised. It doesn’t seem to have been made for shameful reasons. I’ve heard people say there must be an agenda to Kanye’s religious epiphanies, but I think he’s trying God on to pump some guidance back into his life. His Christianity seems more focused on behavior and rules than anything else. “Every man, every woman/ There is freedom from addiction,” he raps on “God Is” (as in “that’s what God is”); it’s telling that this well-known porn addict forbade his collaborators from having premarital sex while working on the album. This is isn’t an album about making a mess but cleaning one up. The only time the trollish Trump energy that defined Kanye’s Wyoming work creeps in is “Closed on Sunday.” The man who surrounded Teyana Taylor with voguers on “WTP” surely knows Chick-fil-A funds conversion therapy, but such concern is sadly far beneath a man who demands the right to not give a shit.
Miss the old Kanye? Jesus is King is basically the most avant evolution of what he was doing on The College Dropout, taking lush, communal, church-derived black music and running it through the shredder of his racing brain, chopping and dashing it up into something joyful and perverse. The difference is the massed voices are the focus. Kanye raps, not terribly well, but the spotlight is just as much on his Sunday Service choir, especially a promising singer named Ant Clemons. The music is extremely experimental, and while it’s rather ramshackle in its construction, that helps it; it has things on its mind besides selling us Christ in a neat package.
Twenty-seven minutes of uncompromising, crudely made, avant-garde digital gospel music might seem like a paltry payoff for the torture Kanye fans have to endure every time our hero blurts out a new album title and a new release date before bailing on them and driving us into a masochistic frenzy. But he didn’t half-ass this one. It’s lush and often pretty. “On God” is one of the great Pi’erre Bourne beats, and Ye’s flip of synth hermit Bruce Haack’s “Blow Job” on “Water” is a deliberate sanitization that actually improves the work. There’s a richness, a sense of immersion, that belies how fidgety and aggressive the music is. Minimalism is often more convincing than maximalism at suggesting something staring back at you out of the metaphysical. It’s as true here as it is of Arvo Pärt or Alice Coltrane’s trio records.
Where Jesus is King falls short of Kanye’s great work is in the subpar quality of the rapping—a problem that’s plagued Kanye at least since Yeezus—and its lack of personality, which maybe is a blessing we ought to count given how awful he’s been lately. Kanye’s never been more muted or subdued than he is here. The lack of starting-shit-because-I-can braggadocio on the one hand keeps Kanye from lapses of taste like Ye’s “without cum” line or empty trolling like “I Thought About Killing You” or “Famous.” On the other hand, it means there’s no clash of sacred and profane like what electrified 2016’s The Life of Pablo, the first album where church music really started to drift into his work. Kanye sounds cowed and vulnerable on Jesus is King, relieved to prostrate himself in the service of something bigger. “Told the devil I’m going on a strike,” he raps on “Hands On.” “I’ve been working for you my whole life.”
It’d be a lot easier to swallow this album if it wasn’t by Kanye West, which is an interesting thing to say about a pop star whose music and public persona have been in dialogue for his entire career. If this were a release by an unknown experimental artist who happens to be really into Jesus—a new PAN signee, perhaps—it’d probably blow our minds. As it is, it’s a confounding, often disappointing, and always interesting work by somebody who continues to fuck with our expectations at every turn. Was it worth enduring the torturous, endless rollout? That’s up to you, but at least Kanye’s given us something more interesting to talk about than himself.