Over the last few years, we’ve become used to Kanye West not keeping his word. There’s a whole album in ‘Yandhi’ that we’re still waiting for (and probably will be forever), while this year’s ‘Jesus Is King’ looked like it could go the same way when it was pushed back by two days and then by a whole month. So far, though, he’s sticking to one thing – his proclamation, made in September, that he would only make gospel music from now on.
On Christmas Day, the rapper kept another promise and delivered a festive gift to his fans in the shape of ‘Jesus Is Born’, an album credited to the Sunday Service Choir, the musicians who have joined West in locales such as LA, Houston, Coachella and more over the last year to perform gospel songs. Where ‘Jesus Is King’ was, he’s said, an expression of the gospel” littered with uplifting moments delivered by said choir, this is a record that is gospel through-and-through, with no quantifying statements necessary.
Whether you believe in a higher being or have any interest in gospel music is not essential in appreciating ‘Jesus Is Born’. In fact, in keeping with West’s mission to spread the word of his god, the album could spark a more open-minded attitude to the genre among secular music fans. If its predecessor, which was very obviously a Kanye West album, was divisive, the response to ‘Jesus Is Born’ should be reflective of the voices that characterise it – unified, together.
If you don’t believe in God, though, what is the appeal of a gospel album? In this case, at least, it’s the power and emotion that be imbued into songs built largely just using the human voice. On the particularly rousing cover of Lamar Campbell and Spirit Of Praise’s ‘More Than Anything’, a chorus of singers provide warmth and heart through their communal lines, while solo singers do vocal acrobatics over the top, voice dripping devotion and love. On ‘Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down’ (originally by North Carolina singer and pastor Shirley Caesar), they build tension and drama through a series of low “oohs” alternated with bursts of impassioned singing.
The real draw for fans of West, though, will be the reimagined tracks from the rapper’s back catalogue, of which there are three here. ‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1’ is the first of these and is, perhaps obviously, radically different from what it once was. No longer does it feature West rapping about fucking models or bleaching assholes. Instead, it builds on the sample of Pastor T.L. Barrett and his choir, the Sunday Service crew hollering and whooping between singing the praises of a “beautiful morning”.
‘Follow Me – Faith’ takes the instantly recognisable bassline of ‘Fade’ and inventively switches lines like “Deep down inside” to “He’s – he’s alive”. Slinky organ, horns and handclaps mingle beneath, adding another glorious layer of joy to things. ‘Ultralight Beam’, meanwhile, stays faithful to the original, minus fellow Chicagoan Christian rap star Chance The Rapper. It makes sense that all three featured on ‘The Life Of Pablo’ – after all, West did describe that record as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing”.
It’s not just West’s music that gets the gospel treatment, though. Sia’s ‘Elastic Heart’ sounds magnificent on ‘Lift Up Yourself Voices’, while ‘Weak’ and ‘Rain’ take their cues by songs of the same names by New York ‘90s R&B trio SWV and ‘Souls Anchored’ riffs on Ginuwine’s ‘So Anxious’. Best of all, though, is ‘Back To Life’, which turns Soul II Soul’s ‘90s school disco staple of the same name into a God-fearing moment of piety.
Whether West’s 10th studio album continues down this path of praising the Lord, with hip-hop beats replaced by claps and group cheers, remains to be seen. But, for now, ‘Jesus Is Born’ serves as a gateway into gospel and a fittingly festive listen for this time of year. Praise be.
- Label: INC
- Release date: December 25 2019