Can Kanye's West's Jesus moment resurrect his career? He is without question an artist requiring divine intervention. Once the hip-hop maverick who could do no wrong West has lately stumbled from crisis to self-inflicted crisis.
He's cosied up to Donald Trump and doubled down on his one-way feud with Taylor Swift – and somehow too managing to spend part of his honeymoon with Kim Kardashian attending an afternoon screening of X-men: Days of Future Past in a cinema in Portlaoise.
Another act of self-sabotage threatened as Jesus is King was pushed back from its original September 28th release date. This week, at the literal eleventh hour, Kanye hit the brakes a second time, explaining he needed to tweak with the production on three tracks. But now finally – slightly surreally – here it is in all its genuflecting, gospel-slathered 26-minute glory.
Kanye West, 2019 vintage, clearly neither has the inclination nor wherewithal to create a masterpiece in the image of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or even a delightfully angry gut-punch such as Yeezus. In his partial defence, 2018's Ye, one of several projects produced at West's new rural Wyoming HQ, was slight and wacky but often agreeably so.
Yet the follow-up lacks even those eyes-rolling-its-head charms. Jesus is King – and nobody could accuse West of misleading his fanbase with the title – is instead one giant and ultimately exhausting shout-out to the Lord. The college dropout has signed up for the man upstairs.
Setting aside the novelty of Kanye's ego finding space to acknowledge the existence of a higher power, the record has a few things to recommend. Soul singer Ant Clemons – a standout during his cameo on Ye – is back for two numbers and owns the high-point, Water. Elsewhere, alas, Gospel Kanye is exactly what you would anticipate from an artist who found religion after – as revealed to Zane Lowe in a new interview – losing himself to sex and pornography addiction.
The cult-robes dangle heavily on opener Every Hour. Here West allows himself be overshadowed by his Sunday Service Choir (with whom he’s performed at events across the US). It’s beatific and soporific. Kanye sounds at peace. But the song is uncomfortably numb. Kanye is asking nothing of us but to bow down and be sermonised to. It makes you grateful that on this side of the Atlantic we are for the time being spared the tie-in Jesus Is King movie that opened in cinemas across America ahead of the LP.
Better – angrier at least – is Follow God. This is one of the few moments where it occurs to West that religion can be a call to action as much as tranquilliser for the soul. He rants about his father: “Arguing with my dad/ said I wasn’t Christlike”. However, the pay-off is redemptive as West appears to acknowledge that religion can heal even the deepest wounds.
He isn’t entirely through being controversial though. On Closed On Sunday, West continues his flirtation with the American right, heaping platitudes on a conservative fast-good chain. “Closed on Sunday/ You my Chick-Fil-A… You’re my number one, with the lemonade.”
Those who make it their business to know about these things assure me the fare served at chicken sandwich chain Chick-Fil-A is indeed delicious. The company is also notoriously conservative, staying shuttered on the Lord’s Day and facing calls for a boycott over its ties to anti-LGBT groups. Kanye’s a fan. But of the tasty burgers or the side salad of fundamentalist evangelicalism?
There’s further low-key trolling as he repeats his call for the repeal of the American constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. This he combines with a critique of the alarming incarceration rates for young black men (a pet cause of his wife). “And all my brothers locked up on the yard/ You can still be anything you wanna be/ Went from one in four to one in three/ 13th amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me.”
It has been reported that West contemplated giving up rap music after finding religion (in addition to banning his daughter from wearing make-up and insisting collaborators abstain from pre-marital sex). His personal pastor, Adam Tyson, has spoken of talking the artist out of renouncing what he had taken to calling the “devil’s music”. “I said, ‘Hey, man. Rap is a genre. You can rap for God.’ I think he was already thinking about it a little bit, but I just definitely said, ‘Hey, bro. I think you need to use your talents that God’s given you and use that platform for God’.”
West returns to this spiritual struggle throughout Jesus Is King. “The devil had my soul, I can’t lie,” he confesses on On God. “I bleached my hair for every time I could’ve died.”
The beats., meanwhile, are unhurried. Ululating choral singers roam the landscape. West’s flow is mid-tempo, neither angst-ridden nor especially urgent. When he does take a break from rapping about Jesus it is to address the pressing issue of the high price point of his Ye fashion line. The blame apparently lies with the American taxation system: “The IRS wants their fifty plus our tithe,” he says on On God. “Man, that’s over half of the pie/ That’s why I charge the prices that I charge.”
A few idiosyncratic moments twinkle amid the earnestness. Alas, the anything goes irascibility of his past several records is absent. One theory is that the album was pushed back from its original late September date so that he could bring in some big-name collaborators. Did Kanye truly delay Jesus Is King to tack on the pointless Kenny G solo act the end of Use This Gospel?
It’s possible. Anything is, where Kanye is concerned. A more pertinent question is where next for a performer who with a straight face described himself to Zane Lowe as “the greatest human artist of all time”? As Jesus Is King finally takes its leave with Jesus Is Lord, fans will indeed wonder if Kanye might not have done better overruling his pastor and hanging up his mic.
Yet they may also recall that several weeks after dropping Ye last year he put out a collaboration with Kid Cudi under the title of Kids See Ghosts. It was extraordinary – weird, restless, visionary. On Jesus Is King, by contrast, he sounds like an artist trapped in a cage of ego, guilt and insecurity. Can he break free and reclaim his position as mainstream hip-hop’s innovator-in-chief? That would be the real miracle.