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Friday, April 19, 2024

“Jesus is King,” lyrically lifeless and saved not by God, but collaborators

Ye is overpowered by a world of his own creation

Draped in a baby blue shroud, Kanye Omari West stood tall, rapping, singing and praising alongside one of Los Angeles’ finest gospel choirs during the Inglewood leg of “Sunday Service” — a sermon-infused concert to worship God and promote Kanye’s new album “Jesus is King.” 

The scene was fervent, as hundreds raised their hands to the heavens singing, swaying and shouting in blissful conviction. During the two-hour set, the ensemble worked through 20 songs, varying from gospel standards, to nostalgic Kanye hits, to tracks fresh off the new 27-minute album. An event centered around religious camaraderie was a new look for an artist who, in the past, has opted for solo performances on massive glowing platforms hanging above the outstretched hands of his own devout followers.

The “Jesus is King” journey from studio to stream has been fraught with drama. West’s personal life has been the center of an onslaught of criticism after he aligned himself with President Trump, proudly donned a MAGA hat and told his wife, Kim Kardashian West, that her Met Gala look was too sexy for a mother of four. West caught an immediate backlash, as many in his fanbase felt betrayed by the cultural icon who has previously promoted himself as a champion of the Black community and empowerment. 

This past July, an unfinished bootleg of “Yandhi” leaked, leading to increased public speculation and interest until the project was scrapped for “Jesus is King.” Then, right before the album was scheduled to drop in September, West continued to tantalize his fans by pushing back the release date another month. Compared to fragments heard on “Yandhi,” which where all “Ye, Ye, Ye,” “Jesus is King” aims to draw from an even higher power.

At the intersection of gospel and hip-hop, “Jesus is King” delivers heavenly production with insipid lyricism. West flexes his production chops by harnessing the power of soul and gospel (two long-time influences) in the Sunday Service choir’s punctuating chants, flowing crescendos and lung-busting climaxes. The instrumentals included rippling organs, pounding drums and a spattering of horns. Blanketed in a storm of gospel and soul, Kanye sings and raps along on the periphery with fleeting intensity and beleaguered focus.

“Every Hour,” a traditional gospel piece set to double speed, establishes the album’s reverent and rejoiceful tone to a higher power. The project pivots into the visceral “Selah,” which is the standout in the 11-track list. If anything can accurately convey the power of the gospel through a contemporary lens, it’s “Selah.” Kanye opens the track rapping over a foreboding church organ, expounding his place in society and faith. War drums accentuate his every word. The choir kicks in and drives the rhythm with swelling hallelujahs, culminating into one of West’s few, untempered passionate moments: a wall-busting war chant capable of rousing even the coolest of cucumbers.

In most of the album, Kanye is sonically overpowered in a world of his own creation. The full-body spirit of the chorus dwarfs Kanye’s ho-hum intonations. “Water,” featuring Ant Clemons, speaks directly to West’s lyrical inadequacies. Clemon’s refreshing voice meets a bubbling baseline and cooing chorus that washes over the listener, only to be abruptly ousted by West’s blunt preaching, “Jesus, flow through us. Jesus, heal the bruises. Jesus, clean the music,” and so on. 

We get the point, you’ve found God — but don’t tell us, show us. Gospel can transcend its religious origins. You can be secular and still revel in its uplifting characteristics, but Kanye barely attempts to address this in his flow. We see flashes of it on “God Is” as he exclaims, “This my kids, this the crib! This my wife, this my life! This my God-given right!” 

The majority of Kanye’s vocal expression, however, fails to match gospel’s spirituality. The frustrating thing is that he is fully capable of rising to its level of intensity. We’ve all seen it dozens of times before, whether it’s in the defiant snarls of “Black Skinhead” or in the wounded vulnerability of ”Roses.”

The penultimate song on the album is “Use This Gospel,” a three-minute piece of barebones production predominated by autotuned humming. Lyricists cycle from West on the chorus to verses from his longtime friend and collaborator Pusha T and Virginia-based (and recently converted Christian) No Malice. Not a single memorable bar is uttered. Despite the track’s misgivings, it includes perhaps one of the most memorable snippets of the album — a gliding 30-second saxophone solo from none other than Kenny G himself. It seems to perfectly reflect the gospel’s intimate spirituality — what West’s lyricism and delivery were desperately lacking. Once again, a supplementary musician saves the album from resounding mediocrity.

I commend Kanye for his bold plunge into gospel. In stereotypical fashion he keeps us on our toes while prodding at his own musical capabilities. This time, however, he misstepped. Outgunned by his own devices, West was lyrically lifeless on instrumentals that demanded the best from his talents. I wouldn’t chalk up the album to a failure, but for West it signals an emotional slump for an artist who has hallmarked his name as a super-charged provocateur.

Written By: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org


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