Praise the Lord: Jesus Is King is here.
On Friday afternoon, Kanye West’s ninth album finally arrived.
The rapper-producer-celebrity’s gospel-rap collection was much delayed. Word of its existence first spread in 2018, when it was called Yandhi. (That’s Gandhi, Kanye-ized.) Last month, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, announced it was coming Sept. 27, and then “definitely” two days later.
In the month since, even West watchers with the patience of Job gave up waiting. But last Sunday, the hip-hop auteur announced a new release date of Thursday, Oct. 25. And though he left fans hanging at midnight, the album landed at lunchtime Friday.
Jesus kicks off with “Every Hour,” a praise song sung by the Sunday Service Choir, the group of vocalists employed by West at the pop-up shows he’s performed sporadically this year.
The frenetic track is sped-up — a West trademark — and leads into “Selah,” where the rapper’s voice is first heard. “God is king, we the soldiers / Ultrabeam the solar / When I get to heaven’s gates, I ain’t gotta peek over.”
That’s when the listener realizes Jesus Is King (Def Jam ** 1/2) is for real. The rapper who has flaunted a God complex for much of his outrageous and brilliant career — who posed wearing a crown of thorns for Rolling Stone and proclaimed himself “Yeezus” — has converted to making Jesus-praising, tryin’-to-get-to-heaven music full-time.
Not that praising the Lord is a new proposition for West. The “ultrabeam” lyric is in reference to “Ultralight Beam,” the lead cut on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, which featured gospel choir director Kirk Franklin.
And back on his 2004 debut The College Dropout, West made waves with “Jesus Walks,” an undeniably gospel-fired pop song featuring John Legend in which he pleaded: “God show me the way because the Devil tryin’ to bring me down.”
But while gospel has been one element in the frequently profane West’s musical identity, it’s all-consuming in Jesus Is King.
The 11-song album, under a half-hour long, contains no curses or sexual references. The song titles make it clear salvation is West’s sole focus: “Follow God,” “On God,” “God Is,” “Use This Gospel.”
West has not acquired humility in his transformation. He told Apple Music Beats 1 radio host Zane Lowe this week that he is “unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time.”
But he has, it seems, turned into a prude. He told Lowe that he imposed a (presumably unenforceable) ban on anyone working on Jesus Is King having premarital sex during its recording.
A cynic might regard West’s zeal with skepticism. The rapper has done dire damage to his reputation in recent years. That’s particularly true among his African American audience, for both his 2018 suggestion in a TMZ interview that slavery was “a choice,” as well as his MAGA hat-wearing support for President Trump.
It’s not West’s way to be contrite, but seeking refuge in the church is a time-honored practice.
Regarding Jesus Is King, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Jay-Paul Hinds told Vice: “If you want to reconcile back to the Black community, you have to go back to the Black church. If you want to convince the community I’m back home, and all the stuff I said isn’t what I meant. Or maybe it is what I meant, but I still want you to like me.”
Not as many people like West as they used to. Previous albums, like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, were overloaded with A-list guests. With Jesus, that’s not so much the case.
He still has some tricks up his sleeve, though. On “Use This Gospel,” the album’s penultimate track, much-loved duo Clipse, consisting of rappers Pusha-T and his brother, No Malice, reunite after five years apart. And the track holds a wondrously cheesy surprise: a sax solo by smooth jazz purveyor Kenny G.
As West tried devotees’ patience with the delays, former fans fed up with his shenanigans were lying in wait for the album, ready to hate-listen.
But here’s the good news about Jesus Is King: It’s not terrible.
It’s a clear step up, musically, from ye, the 2018 album whose charms were few.
In a few quick listens, the Jesus songs start to cohere and assert themselves.
“Follow God” samples the Whole Truth’s 1974 “How Can You Lose If You Follow God,” and references Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel’s prison song “What Ya Life Like” (from his album The Truth) in conjuring a metaphor about self-imposed incarceration born of spiritual denial.
And “God Is” finds West singing (not so prettily) without the benefit of the voice altering Auto-Tune that he employed on 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. He stands vocally naked, as it were, before his maker.
That earnestness of Jesus Is King is a long way from the cocksure irreverence that West fans came to love over the scintillating six-album streak that ran from The College Dropout to Yeezus.
That Kanye is gone for good. The new Kanye is not nearly so entertaining nor as enlightening in his varied interests. He’s disconnected from the world at large, and if you don’t share his beliefs, you’ll likely lose patience quickly with his preaching. But Jesus Is King shows that his talent is still intact and he hasn’t lost his touch as a producer. That much of the old Kanye remains.