This weekend we witnessed an internet-breaking album release. Kanye West, one of the most prolific hip hop artists of all time, fulfilled his promise to release a gospel album. Leading up to the album’s release, there was much speculation about the content and legitimacy of the album. Due to the indefinite postponement of Yandhi (an album set for release in 2018) and the delay of Jesus Is King last month, there were concerns the album would never drop. On top of that, were the circulating rumors of Kanye’s spiritual journey – but most of that, admittedly, was based on second-hand information. The world has been patiently waiting to see what Ye had to say, and boy, did he blow everyone’s expectations out of the water. What we got was not just a “culturally Christian” record with some theist themes, but instead, a raw, passionate album sprinkled with scriptures and fervent prayers.
Clocking in at 27 minutes, Jesus Is King puts on display Kanye’s newly found passion for God. This is a radical change for someone who, just a few years ago on one of his records, claimed to be a god. Not only is his love for the real God made clear on this album, but also is his desire to reach the lost. At this point, there should be no doubt about genuineness of Kanye’s desire to know Christ and make Him known to the world.
The production on this album is clean and consistent, yet full of variety – not unlike previous West releases. You can hear echoes of his previous album all throughout Jesus Is King going all the way back to his college trilogy. Though Kanye is a changed man, he remains the talented artist, producer, and lyricist we have come to know. Thankfully, his venture into Christian music does not sacrifice production value, lyrical authenticity, or the unique character of Kanye’s music.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at each track, individually.
You sit down, plug in your headphones, and flip on Jesus is King for the first time. Where is Kanye? This is the first of his albums that have opened without him. Up until now, every album has started with a song including him, or a skit about him (as on his first two albums). This seems an important departure from his old format. The spotlight is no longer on him, but on the God he worships. Following the tradition of his “Sunday Services”, this song is simply a gospel song. While having a gospel choir may not be new to Kanye (as it was featured on The Life of Pablo), this is the first time he’s used them as the basis for an entire album. Previously, gospel choirs were used only as a means to accent his hip hop.
Channeling the same energy as “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, Kanye builds up from a minimalistic organ track to a choir heavy, charged song. Interestingly, he even makes reference to “Ultralight Beam” in the first line of “Selah”, a good contrast to this song’s predecessor. Instead of the generalized statements of a spiritual experience, instead, you hear about the testimony of Christ working in his life, expressions of his salvation, and direct quotes from scripture. Kanye also cleverly uses the KJV translation of John 8:33 (“Ye shall be made free”) by mispronouncing the first word like his nickname “Ye” (pronounced like yay) to personalize the scriptural truth unto himself.
If “Selah” is a follow-up to “Ultralight Beam”, then “Follow God” is the follow-up to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” also from the album The Life of Pablo. As with the last comparison, there’s a direct lyrical connection between “Father, stretch my hands to you” and the chorus to “Follow God”. Likewise, there’s also a interesting distinction between his previously general theistic lyrics (“I just wanna feel liberated, who can I turn to”) and the lyrics of “Follow God” which describe the struggles of living the Christian life. Kanye remains personal and even dives into how his relationship with God has affected his relationship with his father. Stylistically, this song is very reminiscent of his college trilogy, complete with samples, and groovy beats.
Closed On Sunday
We learn here that Kanye has discovered Chick-fil-a, The Lord’s chicken. Beyond that, this song is a minimalistic musical track with rich lyrics. This song is largely about raising his family in the Lord and protecting them from those who would seek their destruction. Both lyrically, and stylistically, this song is very evocative of “Violent Crimes” from his release, Ye – another track about protecting his family. However, it seems his views since last year have grown from wanting to protect them from the dangers of the world to a desire to train them in the faith.
Have you been waiting for the synth-heavy, energetic hip hop that Kanye fans love so much? Well here it is. This is a pretty straight forward track that goes through a variety of Christian themes, and the things Kanye finds important. Notable lyrics include “When I thought the Book of Job was a job, The Devil had my soul, I can’t lie.” and “Accept Him as your Lord and Savior, I replied Thou shalt love thy neighbor, not divide”.
Everything We Need
This is the first track that was scrapped from the Yandhi record last year. Much of the song has been redone from the leaked version, including changing a chorus line from “girl, you owe it to yourself” to “we have everything we need”. This song features Ty Dolla $ign and Ant Clemons, both artists who were featured on “All Mine” from Ye. In both songs, the collaboration has led to some great tunes. I hope we will see more collaborations between these three in the future.
Coming in with another track featuring Ant Clemons, “Water” is a very groovy, synth-heavy song with a nice spoken word section in the middle. The spoken word section stands out on this album as one of the areas where Kanye speaks directly to Jesus. He continually prays to God to forgive, heal, and clean himself, as well as those who can say, along with him, “Jesus is our safe, Jesus is our rock”. This is a very spiritual and deeply personal track for Kanye.
“God is” is a bit of a conundrum in Kanye’s Discography. Kanye rarely sings as he does on this track. Truly, this is a Kanye ballad, unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. The first half of this song borders on being a hymn. As the lyrics get more personal, his voice gets more and more strained. There is no point in putting the notable lyrics here, as the whole song is so rich. If you haven’t already, go listen to it.
This track opens with an eerie vocoder style instrumental that carries throughout the song. The style of this track, both sonically and lyrically, is reminiscent of “Today I Thought About Killing You” from the album Ye. Some notable lyrics: “Told the Devil that I’m going on a strike, I’ve been working for him my whole life” and “But if I try to lead you to Jesus, we get called halfway believers, only halfway read Ephesians”. Overall, I would call “Hands On” the lyrical high point of the album.
Use This Gospel
Originally titled “Law of Attraction”, this is another track scrapped from Yandhi. Featuring Pusha T and No Malice, this song is one of the more highly produced tracks on the record. It stylistically calls back to his song, “My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Fantasy”. The hook on this track is probably the best on Jesus Is King. He sings: “Use this gospel for protection, it’s a hard road to Heaven, we call on your blessings, in the Father, we put our faith”.
Kenny G decided to show up on this song, a welcome surprise.
Jesus Is Lord
This is a short track to close out the album. The abrupt ending, right as the song builds strikes me, not as an ending, but a beginning. This is not his magnum opus, but the start to something new; Kanye is signaling the start of a new journey for him and his music.
Not just for rap fans and not just for Christians, this is a solid record for everyone. I would have liked to heard a couple more of Kanye’s fantastic hooks, but overall, this album will be remembered as an important album not just for Kanye, but also for Hip-Hop. The world will have to wait and see what the future has for Kanye, but for now, we have Jesus Is King to spin in the lobby of every hip church in America.
This is guest post from Nick Iles. Nick is Hip Hop fan and music enthusiast from Waukesha City, Wisconsin. He is a member of Waukesha City Church.