There is not much one can say about Kanye West that has not already been said. Either way, I will try my very best. Kanye West is a man of extremes. There’s no other artist that has demonstrated the stopping power, relevancy, and unprecedented talent that he has. Consistently he has set the bar, raised it, lowered it, and bent it to his will. The industry winces when a powerhouse like him comes around because the rules they set in place don’t seem to apply to them.
I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people who believe Kanye West is some sort of “musical God” no matter what some burning critics would have you believe. However, going forward without properly acknowledging his legacy would be a horrible misstep on my part. People like Virgil Abloh, Drake, and thousands of other young artists have all taken inspiration from West and prospered from it. It is nearly impossible to find a contemporary artist who isn’t influenced by Ye in some fashion.
So let’s talk about what West is doing in present times. The year is 2019 and he’s been pulling his classic trick of delaying and canceling albums for some time now. Yandhi is dead, but Jesus is King lives. A tweet was finally delivered on Oct. 20 which announced that it would release on Oct. 25. On Oct. 22 the album was made available for preorder further confirming the upcoming release. To incentivize its purchase the promise of tickets to an exclusive Kanye event that very same week was made to the fans who supported its release. No phones were allowed at the event, very little planning was involved, and its exclusivity was stern.
I was one of the lucky people who got to attend this event. It was rather strange taking a short notice trip up to LA to hear an album I wasn’t completely certain actually existed, but the whole endeavor was exciting nonetheless.
When I arrived at the Forum in Inglewood, Los Angeles everything felt bigger than it actually was. The words “Jesus is King” illuminated the pillars holding the arena up. Behind it, the gigantic new Rams stadium was slowly being pieced together. It should have made The Forum look smaller, but it didn’t. When we finally set foot inside my focus began to tighten. All I wanted to do was hear the album.
The event started over an hour late. The rest I can’t really describe for you. I felt a lot of confusion, morbid curiosity, and I was probably anxious too. It was well worth the drive and the wait. However, its presentation failed to hit the mark for most people. For what it is, I enjoyed it. That was my experience just watching the film. After it ended Ye emerged from the foliage and the album began playing. I honestly couldn’t believe it was real. It’s not worth depicting every moment during that performance. I think everything that happened that night was meant to stay there. The album was performed in its most primal state. After the night was over and one final delay later, the album was released. Like a prisoner finally being exonerated.
Jesus is King was met with mixed reception from critics and fans alike. I was happy with the end product but it was certainly one of those cases where the hype built around it was simply too great for what it was. West has a habit of doing this, the same thing happened to The Life of Pablo. However, this album feels different than the others. I noticed while researching and talking to a few of my friends that some criticisms were more valid than others.
So that’s my personal experience with the album. Now that you understand my stance on it, for the remainder of this article, I’m going to pull a few choice critiques out of a couple high-profile reviews and attempt to refute them. I’m not trying to be overly sympathetic when I admit that in recent history the world has not always been fair to Kanye West. This record is one of those times where people are turning a blind eye simply because they weren’t completely enthralled with the album. So here I am eight-hundred words into an article that has the capability to destroy whatever credibility I may or may not built over the time I’ve written here. All in the defense of a piece of art I genuinely found enjoyable.
The final paragraph of NPR’s review of Jesus is King discusses the insincerity of the record. NPR writer, Oliver Wang, says: “On one of the most traditional gospel songs on the album, “God Is,” he sings alongside the Sunday Service choir, his voice wavering and warbling. It’s an imperfect performance, but it feels like this is West trying to bare himself, to put aside ego and perfectionism in the face of something greater. For a moment, you can almost believe him.”
It’s a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one but it’s also the most common criticism that has appeared. Sincerity is inherently subjective. Anyone can read Kanye’s tone however they wish to. What Wang ignores is the bigger picture. West has gone to great lengths to change up his act. Take out the press, take out the hype, and look at what he’s saying. There’s no cussing, no provocative lyrics, no premarital sex, it’s as sacred as Sunday school. At this point in his career, there’s no way he could be doing this as an act even for publicity’s sake. Assuming this new persona is a product of his bipolar disorder isn’t a solid argument either. He’s stuck with this new character for quite some time, reportedly since April of this year and people with bipolar disorder usually don’t have episodes that last this long. Going as far as College Dropout which had a single literally titled “Jesus Walks” it’s clear West has always had at least one of his hands on the Bible. At the very least, it’s clear West believes what he’s saying even if all of still weighs down on his massive ego.
Moving onto Slate’s review, writer Carl Wilson touches on the lack of focused production on the record. Wilson says, “His main error, I think, is in not relying even more extensively on the choir and developing Jesus Is King into more of a complete gospel album, at the expense of being quite as much of a true Kanye record.”
The sonic aspects of Jesus is King has been highly contested among fans. Is this really a Gospel album? Why didn’t Kanye do X or Y? Let’s be frank, Gospel is a highly malleable genre. A simple look at Gospels Wikipedia page explains Gospel music is vocally focused, with Christian lyrics, utilizes choirs and instruments ranging from simple drums to electric guitars. Just because Jesus is King does not confirm your preconceived notions about what Gospel is or should be doesn’t mean it isn’t. Limiting Kanye as an artist into the confines of a single sound isn’t fair in the slightest. West maintaining his production style isn’t a stylistic choice either. It sounds like a “Kanye record” still because it is one. This is his interpretation of the Gospel and should be taken as such.
By far the worst criticism I’ve heard levied at this record is one of pure ignorance. Time and time again I’ll hear the phrase “I’m not really religious, so this album isn’t really my thing” or “I don’t really agree with what Kanye says on this album.” It’s not so much that the statement itself is ignorant. Anyone can believe what they want to believe in. However, not being able to enjoy something simply because they don’t share the same beliefs as you is the definition of hubris. Hundreds of other rappers talk about God in their music and feature religious themes prominently. Perhaps not at the same level as Kanye, but many of them aren’t making any attempt to hide it. Kendrick Lamar, for instance, has dedicated much of his discography to glorifying God. In an interview with The New York Times, he even stated that he believes for many of his fans he is “the closest thing to a preacher that they have.”
So what’s the point of singling out West in this case? In any circumstance, an argument from ignorance is completely unacceptable and invalid. I implore everyone to listen to all music with an open mind. Whether you agree or not shouldn’t be the crux of your opinion, even for a Gospel album.
Now please don’t let my previous statements make you think I’m blinded from the fact that Jesus is King is far from perfect. That is not what I am trying to say here at all. The sad truth we all must face is that it isn’t. Much like most pieces of art, it’s flawed. West, like in most of his previous works, delivers some very interesting hot takes on his tracks. In Anthony Fantano’s review of the release, he justifiably criticizes West’s loose statements. He notes that West seems to use his faith to “indulge his persecution complex.” The parallels he draws to himself and Jesus Christ on “Selah” are not only completely tone-deaf but contradict the fact he also calls himself a “wretch” on the same track. These are just some of the flaws I’ve found while listening to Jesus is King a few times over. Nonetheless, I believe it’s still possible to appreciate this unusual little release.
It’s okay to recognize the issues of a piece of art while also enjoying it. While Jesus is King is far from a perfect record, that doesn’t make it a horrible one. Kanye West is always attempting to innovate in the music industry. In order to do that one also needs to fail. Perhaps this record is a failure, but its a positive one at that. I’m confident he will take this as a learning experience and continue to progress his sound. For now, we see through a glass darkly.