While the lack of West’s voice on Jesus is Born is refreshing, the lack of his fingerprints is disappointing.
For all its foibles, Kanye West’s Jesus is King was a fascinating album—as much a Christian rap album as a meeting of deference and auteurism in the vein of Mary Lou Williams’ masses or Duke Ellington’s sacred concerts, which likewise abstracted church music into bold new shapes. It worked best when it sounded like a gospel choir warped and twisted in the editing room into something slightly inhuman. It worked worst when Kanye was rapping. His devotion to God seemed dogmatic, more about setting rules for himself than throwing himself at the mercy of a higher power. The clash of sacred and profane that animated his best verses was gone.
When a full-length album from Sunday Service Choir, the white-robed group of singers that backed him on Jesus Is King and most of his live appearances last year, was announced, it sounded promising—the same sound minus the blowhard at the bullhorn. But while the lack of West’s voice on Jesus Is Born is refreshing, the lack of his fingerprints is disappointing. He hasn’t written any new songs here, and what we’re left with is slim pickings: a competent band bashing out a thin backing, a lot of anonymous voices bleeding together into a 2D din, lyrics unyielding in massed devotion to God.
There are a few interesting moments, stemming mostly from its mischievous choice of covers. Sunday Service reaches back into the ‘90s R&B many of its members may well have grown up on, acts like Ginuwine and Soul II Soul. “Rain” and “Weak” come from the New York vocal trio SWV, and though they’re gorgeous, they’re worth it more to remind us how good the originals are. “Follow Me” turns an old Strictly Rhythm track into something alive with convivial chatter, more like a Moodymann cut than anything else. Best of all is “Lift Up Your Voices,” which starts off as a riff on Sia’s “Elastic Heart” before yielding to nearly eight minutes of variations on two chords; it’s a hint of the more avant possibilities the “produced by Kanye” tag implies.
But the only obvious sign of his presence is in its reinterpretations of three older songs from his catalog. When he said he wanted to go back and change the lyrics of some of his secular songs, we all knew he wasn’t simply going to re-record his old verses over the same beats. But the bowdlerizations are ludicrous (“your love is favor!”), and the space on “Father Stretch” where we expect to hear his famous bleached asshole line is gaping. The only people who will prefer these versions to the originals are parents, though I imagine their kids will use Jesus Is Born to prove to them he’s a “Christian artist” before sneaking a listen to “Gold Digger.”
The choir sounds good. It’s well-rehearsed. But is that something we want to applaud? Here is a man with the money and resources to put together two full operas no one gave a fuck about within weeks of each other. He hadn’t blown a deadline in a while, but maybe that’s because now he cares more about not blowing deadlines than putting something complete together. Of course he’s going to produce a good gospel album. He has the right people to make it happen for him quickly and efficiently without being much involved himself. The choir director is a man named Jason White, the bowdlerizer is a woman named Nikki Greer, and together they’ve made a competent Christian pop album. If you’re going to sit through it, do it as a fan of gospel, not as a fan of Kanye West.