‘Jesus is King’ — Kanye West’s Evangelical Burnout

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  • Kanye West
  • Jesus Is King
  • (Getting Out Our Dreams II)
  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

At points in his career, the shortcomings of Kanye West’s brilliance are exposed like shadows on a wall — his creative light blocked by objects beyond his control. 

Those objects might be anything: a financial repercussion; a perspective of anyone less fortunate than he; the exploitive intentions of a smirking world leader. Over the last three years, his missing piece seems to have been an ability to successfully communicate his thoughts about himself, and that is, historically, the sign of a functioning Ye.

From his out-of-left-field, right-wing boosterism to long, tangled onstage rants proposing corporate anarchy, somewhere along the way his accessibility began to dissolve into enigma. Is this arm-flailing jabroni pushing his philosophical cornmeal on daytime TV the same musical genius who can rightfully plant flags in every major hip-hop trend between 2001 and 2013? Is what he’s saying valid, or a shadow on the wall?

Jesus is King, West’s ninth long-player which dropped last Friday, puts a stamp on this convoluted era of his career — like his recently unpredictable behavior, it departs from what we’ve come to expect from him: gut-born artistry which connects on a human level. With this LP, he comes off concerned with fitting into an ideological mold, leaving no room for honest feelings and guided prose. 

This is not a critique of his Christianity — just his musical rendering of it, which lacks the spirit of his best works. Listening to West was once a cathartic experience able to rumble some of our oldest, strongest, immovable emotions. His righteous angst (“Crack Music”), avarice (“Good Life”), libido (“Devil in a New Dress”), and confidence (“I Am a God”) were contagious, because he expressed them with words and sounds more precisely than anyone else in the game. 

So why now, when he’s pushing a message already embraced by much of the globe, does it fall so short of resonating?

A good deal of the lyrics on Jesus is King, for one thing, are prosaic, too matter-of-fact to be remembered. West punctuates his bars with bible verses several times in “Selah” — cool moments, but they’re watered down by surrounding lines: “when I get to Heaven’s gates, I ain’t gotta’ peak over, keepin’ perfect composure, when I scream at the chauffeur, I ain’t mean, I’m just focused, I ain’t mean, I’m just focused.” 

He delivers these with an overexerted effect, like he’s running out of breath and the words make it out just in time. It amounts to heavy stuff, but compared with his past songs exalting the divine, it’s less gripping. “Ultralight Beam,” for example, accomplishes more by saying less: “We don’t want no devils in the house, God, we want the Lord, and that’s it.” It’s not a sales pitch for the Gospel. It’s West speaking from the heart as a Christian man. That’s it.

In Jesus is King, rather, West is speaking as a proselytizing Christian man — pushing the the gospel, sermonizing, and drawing links between himself and Old Testament figures. He has, for the first time in his career it seems, a rubric which suppresses his creativity in service of someone, or something, else. On “God Is,” he announces he’s “letting go” of “all his idols” as he pursues living a life for Christ. In an interview with Zane Lowe released last week, West revealed he asked people working on the album with him to refrain from premarital sex, and he repented his “sex addiction,” which he claimed has chartered his career thus far.

In short, it’s a noble endeavor for anyone, perhaps especially celebrities, to embrace ideals and celebrate faith, but to allow new belief systems to narrow their vision is a recipe for stifled creativity. How will this new direction inform West’s singular ambition? Will he still be guided by ego, his license for so many past artistic freedoms? What about his politics? 

For instance, Kanye has said he aligns with Donald Trump because of “what he represents,” not because of his policies. Does he now align with Christianity for the same reason?

How can we know, when his involvements with both have been so similarly disjointed? How can we trust he won’t suddenly become obsessed with something else and condemn his evangelistic art like he’s now condemned his past materialistic art?

I don’t know. I don’t miss the old Kanye, but I do miss his music.

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