6   +   1   =  

Kanye’s ninth studio album dropped last week with a different message than his other music

Kanye West is a radical. 

He’s always been one. An established hip-hop icon, perhaps the only thing to rival his musical renown is his reputation for being outspoken about his beliefs.

Kanye West is not shy. 

He’s never been shy. You think a guy who called out George Bush for racism on national television is shy? You think a guy who went up on stage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s Grammy acceptance speech is shy? He’s not shy. 

Kanye West does not care what you think. 

And if he didn’t before, he sure doesn’t now. “Y’all dealing with grandpa now, I been through too much. You think I’m gonna listen to somebody online?” he said in an Oct. 25 interview.

Kanye West is an artist. 

He’s always taken his art seriously. From his innovative lyrics and intricate syncopation to the pared-down aesthetic of the Yeezy, West has a creative vision all his own. 

Kanye West loves Jesus. 

He always has. His 2004 breakthrough single “Jesus Walks” is a meditation on the world’s need for Jesus. “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?” Still, that didn’t stop him from talking about his faith throughout his career. 

***

Given these axioms, then, it should come as no surprise that the new album “JESUS IS KING” is almost as polarizing as West himself.

His ninth studio album, released Oct. 25, is a far cry from last year’s “ye,” an angry, dissonant album which contained darker themes and dealt with West’s mental health issues. “JESUS IS KING” is also the first musical offering from West since he began his well-publicized Sunday Services in January, where he performs uplifting versions of his songs with a gospel choir. Rumored to be done with secular music, West said in his IMAX film, “We’re here to spread the gospel. I’m not here for your entertainment… I use art to make believers.”

However, though “JESUS IS KING” is touted as “Kanye West’s gospel album,” I would argue that the album is more akin to a collection of psalms in which West reflects on his life and expresses his faith and hope in his savior. 

The album’s sound still features the dark, heavy synths and autotune that West is so fond of these days, but these are juxtaposed with bright melodies and enriched by the Sunday Service gospel choir.

While ‘JESUS IS KING’ is soulful, I would argue that it isn’t necessarily soul-baring in the way I’d like it to be. Then again, West always seemed more interested in freeing his mind than in baring his soul. And, of course, he’s not interested in what I’d like at all. 

West’s vocals are notably absent on the album’s opening track, “Every Hour,” which is a triumphant, if somewhat frantic, exultation to praise performed by the Sunday Service Choir.

Many of the songs on the album are upbeat and uplifting. “Water” and “God Is” praise God for what he’s done in West’s life. West talks about his new attitude and resolve to change his lifestyle on “Everything We Need,” “Closed on Sundays” and “Use This Gospel.” The Kenny G solo and the Clipse reunion on the “Use This Gospel” makes it a standout track. “Jesus Is Lord,” a self-explanatory solo by West, bookends the album. 

Also, for the record, the dramatic synths juxtaposed with Kanye’s corny lyrics and a Chick-fil-a shoutout made “Closed On Sundays” a hit with the Azusa Pacific crowd.

The Sunday Service Choir’s only other feature is a haunting Hallelujah chorus on the second track, “Selah,” which is a Hebrew word meaning to pause and reflect. In the song, West looks back on the events that led up to this album, which he described in the BigBoyTV interview as “the hardest year of my life.” West received much backlash in the past year for making controversial statements such as “slavery was a choice” and for aligning himself with President Trump. The public criticism as well as stress from his many projects caused a mental breakdown

In the aforementioned interview, West makes it clear that he will not let his mental health issues affect his legacy and compares himself to Kobe Bryant. When Bryant tore his ligaments and had to sit some games out, it didn’t affect his legacy. And Kanye refuses to let it affect his, either.

The chronicle of his struggles continue throughout the album, with lines like “When I scream at the chauffeur/I ain’t mean, I’m just focused” and “I tried to talk to my dad/Give him some advice, he starts spazzin’ on me/I start spazzin’ back, he told me it ain’t Christlike,” showing his effort to change his ways despite his anger issues.

Despite these efforts, more than a few remnants of the old Kanye (but sadly, not the one that the fans miss so much) remain. His still-puzzling desire to abolish the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery, is mentioned on “On God” and “Use This Gospel.” However, as this Genius article points out, “the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t entirely abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, as it allows for both as punishments ‘for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’ In the context of these lyrics, Kanye could be specifically focusing on closing that loophole.” But as West has yet to delve further into this topic, the key words here are “could be.” 

In the song “Hands On,” West anticipates the criticism he will receive when he inevitably falls short of being Christlike. “Nothing worse than a hypocrite/change, he ain’t really different,” he raps, from an outsider’s perspective. “Said I’m finna do a gospel album/What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?/They’ll be the first one to judge me/Make it feel like nobody love me.” Here he calls out the hypocrisy of the backlash he received from the Christian community when he began his Sunday Services, because they feel their faith is being mocked by the “because of the strange and weird behavior of people like this man.”

Photo courtesy of Medium.

Olivia Wakamoto writes in a Medium article that at first, she felt insulted by the fact that West seemed to be making a media event out of a church service, and also by possibly worshipping himself by singing his own songs like ‘Power.’

However, Wakamoto goes onto write, “I’ll concede, there’s potential that this is an elaborate media scheme to create buzz and get attention. But I’m not Kanye, and I’m not God, so that judgment call on the authenticity of Kanye’s faith most certainly doesn’t belong to me. I believe that he represents the gospel faithfully and sincerely in Jesus Is King, so far be it from me to dismiss his faith because it doesn’t fit the safe, squeaky clean, white, hipster worship leader conventions I consider normal or even necessary.”

***

In a recent interview, West insisted that his rededication to Christianity is not an extension of his recent erratic behavior; it’s an answer to it. He said he’s grateful for what happened in his past — even the mental health struggles — because it led him back to Christ. The album is an expression of his journey to salvation. As a writer, I have to say I love a good redemption arc. And as a Christian, it’s cool to see someone like Kanye West doing something that God created him to do — use his art to glorify God. 

We can see the fruit of his transformation on the album, flawed though it may be, when he sings the second verse of “Hands On:” “Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah/But I have a request, you see/Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me.” 

In uncharacteristic humility, West asks for our prayers. To do so is to ask us to see him as a human — broken and in need of grace. It’s a far cry from the West who proudly proclaimed “I Am God” on 2013’s “Yeezus.” 

“Kanye West is a human” — has a nice ring to it.