We’ve seen two Kanye Wests in the past year alone. The greatest rock star of the 21st century gives interviews only rarely, offering litmus tests as to where he – and by extension the culture around him – is at. Well, recently he’s been in the wilds of Wyoming, recording – gulp – a gospel record.
Back in June he sat down with David Letterman for an uncomfortable hour-long Netflix special in which he was surprisingly meek – almost apologetic. Yet this week, in a blockbuster interview with Zane Lowe, he described himself as “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time”. That’s iconoclasm: wrong-footing fans at every turn.
The most disarming moment in that Letterman chat came when the veteran interviewer asked of West’s infamous political allegiance to America’s dear leader, “Did you vote for Trump?”, to which West replied, “I’ve never voted in my life.” When Letterman parried, “Then you don’t get a say in this”, the studio audience whooped and cheered as though they were watching The Jerry Springer Show. The rapper raised his hands in mock-surrender: “Oh – you got me! You got me!”
It was disarming because it felt extraordinary to witness Kanye West, once a fearsome force of nature, do anything in surrender, mock or otherwise. But in recent years he’s courted so much controversy – claiming in a TMZ interview that slavery was a “choice”, targeting #MeToo on XXXTentacion’s posthumous album – that perhaps even he couldn’t help but feel bowed by the criticism (especially as he’s also struggled, he’s said, with his mental health).
And it’s in this climate that he began to host his Sunday Service sessions, gospel get-togethers – often broadcast via Kim Kardashian’s Instagram stories – that provided the framework for his starry (and polarising) Coachella show. He reworked his own songs as gospel numbers, inviting friends and relatives to be saved as he has been; the sense of community is captured in a film of the same name as this record, also released today.
Here, perhaps, is a clue as to the reasoning behind West’s recent return to chest-beating, self-aggrandising proclamations. His developing faith has afforded him a new sense of purpose, he explained to Lowe: “As a God-fearing, married, Christian innovator billionaire founder, no-one’s gonna take my opinion away from me”. And so he let rip at so-called “liberals” and revealed his addiction to sex, which he claims was sparked by a copy of Playboy he discovered aged five.
Now, finally, after what have seemed like endless delays (tweaks were still being made to the mix 11 hours before the album dropped), we get the ninth Kanye West studio album, ‘Jesus Is King’. Where last year’s truncated, seven-track ‘ye’ largely felt sterile and unfinished, a collection of messy, half-realised conceits, here is an album with absolute clarity and confidence. At just 11 tracks and 27 minutes long, it’s concise by West’s standards – the days of sprawling masterworks such as ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and ‘The Life Of Pablo’ are perhaps behind him – but there’s density and focus throughout.
Opener ‘Every Hour’ is the track that comedy song ‘Lift Yourself’ pretended to be before Kanye trolled us all with the borderline-unforgivable “poopy-di scoop” lines. A gorgeous collection of voices – his Sunday Service Choir – implores us to “sing until the power of the Lord comes down.” The track’s dappled with hand claps, warm piano notes and a sense of euphoria, yet cuts out abruptly, a stylistic touch that also heightens the drama that follows. Over the dour organ of ‘Selah’, West insists that he “won’t be in bondage to any man” and, as intermittent percussion begins to thunder, reveals “He saved a wretch like me”.
A chorus responds: “Hallelujah!” There has never been a great deal of subtlety to Kanye West’s work – therein lies much of its joy – but ‘Jesus Is King’ isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as the pre-release hype implied.
‘Follow God’ rolls in with a bouncing beat that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Ye’; ‘Hands On’, featuring the praise singer Fred Hammond, weaves illegible autotune through watery sound effects; and on ‘Use This Gospel’, Pusha T – appearing here as one half of the brotherly rap duo Clipse – admits, “Who Am I to judge? I’m crooked as Vegas”. ‘On God’ shimmers with space-age synths. So this isn’t exactly a straight-up gospel album.
Still, there is plenty of unambiguous deference to the big man, with sometimes wince-inducing results. On ‘God Is’, West drags out the lines “every time I look up I see God’s faithfulness / And it shows just how much he is mir-ac-ulous.” There’s often been an endearing goofiness to his rhymes (from ‘Bound 2’: “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink / After that, give you something to drink / Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink”) but the clumsiness is easier to forgive when he’s funny.
What’s likeable about ‘Jesus Is King’, though, is its sincerity, and the sense of peace it conveys. 2016’s ‘Pablo’ may be West’s greatest – and most enduring – album, a wild tapestry of ideas that, even more than ‘Fantasy’, refuses to age because it pulses with audaciousness. It didn’t, though, sound like someone at ease with themselves. Yet there are glimpses of darkness here, too.
‘Closed On Sunday’, wrapped around a muted acoustic guitar and eerie backing vocals, will draw jokey headlines for its reference to an American fast food restaurant (“Closed on Sunday / You my Chick-Fil-A”), but its message – that we should focus on family and not whatever nonsense is happening on Twitter – is actually quite humble and grounding.
During that Zane Lowe interview, West made the dubious claim that social media is bad because it encourages ladies to post sexy photos on Twitter, which is tempting to poor old married men. That’s obviously laughable, but – as is often the case with West – you can parse the logic behind the idiocy. Family: important. Strangers on the internet: not important. Or as he puts it: “Hold the selfies / Put the ‘Gram away / Get your family / Hold ya’ll hands and pray.”
And, in typically contradictory Kanye fashion, ‘Closed On Sunday’ bows out with the only laugh-out-loud moment on ‘Jesus Is King’ when a high-pitched voice, like an extra from Chicken Run, squawks, “Chick-Fil-A!”
Two more stand-outs: jazz musician Kenny G’s jubilant sax solo on ‘Use This Gospel’, the sound of someone shrugging off the bullshit and shame and committing themselves to something higher – whatever, or wherever, it may be – and ‘Water’, the second-best song on the album (behind the pounding ‘Follow God’). This track epitomises everything that’s great about ‘Jesus Is King’: the sense of community in the backing vocals, the optimism (“The storm may come / But we’ll get through it because of Your love”) and the unshowy production. For perhaps the first time, West sounds like he has nothing to prove.
There was incredulity when ‘Jesus Is King’ was first announced, but Kanye’s by no means the first popular musician to turn to prayer tunes. Little Richard, the greatest rock star of the 20th century, has spent his life choosing between the stage and the pulpit. He renounced rock’n’roll in 1959 but, having released three gospel albums, came back to the sound in 1964 with ‘Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!)’.
West’s dedication to God’s jukebox may prove similarly sporadic (although he’s claimed ‘Jesus Is Born’, a follow-up, will be released on Christmas day). It’s tempting to hope that’s the case, because it’s true that ‘Jesus Is King’ lacks the goofball sense of humour that always made Kanye West albums so much fun. But what’s been sacrificed has been partly compensated for with warmth and hope for the future.
No, the lyric “Life gon’ have some lows and some highs”, from ‘On God’, isn’t exactly a knock-out, but it does offer comfort from one person to another; Kanye West perhaps hasn’t sounded this close to us mere mortals since 2004’s ‘Family Business’, taken from his first album ‘The College Dropout’.
That dastardly copy of Playboy, West told Lowe, was a gateway to the perils of ego and celebrity; he traced a through-line from its discovery to upstaging Taylor Swift at the VMAs in 2009. It’s unclear what his Damascene moment was, but on ‘Jesus Is King’ he sounds peaceful and fulfilled.
Holed up in Wyoming, he claims to have turned his back on 24-hour news, political divisiveness and the endless noise on social media. You may hear ‘Jesus Is King’ and hope Kanye West is one step ahead of us, as so often he has been.