Kanye West Jesus Is King

[G.O.O.D./Def Jam; 2019]

Styles: Jesus Music
Others: Larry Norman

Last time Tiny Mix Tapes published a Kanye West review, a crack was exposed through which something new grew: an interrogation of meaning squeezed through clenched fists. Our own Adam Rothbarth didn’t convince anybody of ye’s divisiveness or its cultural import; its existence itself was a battleground, and Rothbarth’s review was a sobering reflection on not only what makes us human, but also what makes us fear and hate other humans. I still stand by Rothbarth’s positive ye review, and a year later, it remains a material feature jutting up through trodden soil, not a monument, but a fixture built into a foundation irrigated by dissent and acclaim. Kanye’s long-awaited follow-up, Jesus Is King, presents an existential problem for listeners and critics alike that is inherent in its form: this is not a political treatise or a gospel anthology or a mémoire; it’s a worship album, and as such, it’s claim is that its value is beyond evaluation.

Jesus Is King is almost entirely about, and purportedly for, Jesus Christ. There are no curse words. No sex jokes. No winks or nudges. Unlike gospel music, which is communal by nature, Jesus Is King feels hermetic, its collaborators (Clipse, Ty Dolla $ign, Kenny G, Ant Clemmons, Fred Hammond, Sunday Service) presented as expressions of Kanye himself from different times in his life — like Luda rapping nostalgic on a Justin Bieber song about his first love — so inconspicuously woven into King’s well-worn sonic stoll that it feels as much a departure from Kanye’s genesis as a grand bridger of worlds as it does a return to his bedside chapbook. What is notably missing here, however, is any sense of internal tension between these worlds that Kanye has famously straddled for his entire career. There are no apologies here, no clarifications, no enumerations, no hidden messages, no endorsements (except for maybe Chick-fil-A); Kanye’s redemption on King is simply stated as testimony. It’s new territory for Kanye, but it’s a decades-old strategy of contemporary Christian music.

In 1969, Larry Norman, founder of a since-forgotten rock band called People!, had found Jesus and released an album called Upon This Rock; it has since been considered a milestone in contemporary Christian music. A dense stew of folk stylings, psychedelia, and gritty rock, its goal was, in Norman’s words, “to push aside the traditional gospel quartet music, break down the church doors and let the hippies and the prostitutes and other unwashed rabble into the sanctuary.” Unsurprisingly, it was controversial; televangelists renounced it as Satanic, while secular rock critics brushed Norman off as a try-hard Jim Morrison impersonator. Perhaps unexpectedly, its lasting influence was propped up by a warm embrace of its intended audience. Upon This Rock briefly became a counter-culture touchstone before eventually becoming a ubiquitous fixture in Christian bookstores. Ironically, its departure from earlier worship albums has since inspired a cavalcade of Christian stand-ins for popular artists. “You dig Eminem? Check out KJ-52.” Nevermind KJ’s weird hawkishness and patriotism. “You like Kanye? Check out Kanye, Reborn. Pusha even lends a verse over a Pi’erre Bourne beat.” In a stunning piece in GQ titled “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan considers contemporary Christian music’s shrewdly devised saving grace: “So it’s possible — and indeed seems likely — that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.” Jesus Is King seems similarly critic-proof, as any lack of Kanye’s former grandeur or iconoclasm is by design. As Kanye himself professes: “That’s on God.”

What remains both puzzling and remarkable about Kanye’s progressive foray into Jesus music is that his faith journey has been one of increasing reclusiveness. King sounds as closed-off as it is collaborative. Even Kenny G’s out-of-nowhere serenade reminds that he once turned down a gig because he wasn’t allowed to perform in the middle of a forest. Kanye’s Sunday Services started out VIP-only, and even his recent attempts at democratizing these spaces have been reportedly alienating and confusing. His reunion with frequent collaborators belies a rich history of discovering and championing new voices. This ostensible distance from which Kanye preaches reveals King’s true tension: Kanye, like Kendrick on DAMN., is asking for our prayers, while also distancing himself from our hands and our mouths.

And it doesn’t work.

Not because there aren’t people who still care for him (I still rep his impact on my self-development), but because he has artistically lost track of his audience and himself in its midst. In plain language, he’s asking for forgiveness from fans who have found truth and salvation and confidence and humility and self-acceptance in his beautiful dark twisted fantasies. And yet, Jesus Is King still haunts me; I feel like my own maturity depends on my acceptance of its flaws or my realization of its deeply hidden truths. In his breathtaking denouement of “Upon This Rock,” Sullivan reflects on his own falling out with God:

My problem is not that I dream I’m in hell… It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed. It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all. It’s that I love Jesus Christ… He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said. Read The Jefferson Bible. Or better yet, read The Logia of Yeshua by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, an unadorned translation of all the sayings ascribed to Jesus that modern scholars deem authentic. There’s your man. His breakthrough was the aestheticization [sic] of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers — there lies sanity. And salvation. ‘Let anyone who has power renounce it,’ he said. ‘Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be.’ That’s how He talked, to those who knew Him. Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species? Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being — the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things — the pull of that won’t slacken. And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

Kanye’s breakthrough was the “aestheticization” of weakness. Kanye was so powerful for me as Yeezus that I find his piety here so uncomfortable I’ve crafted paragraphs justifying how this kind of endeavor, a worship album by a once self-proclaimed God, is beyond human comprehension. Maybe it’s trash, maybe it’s secretly brilliant. Maybe there’s something interesting about admitting how weird it feels imagining a celebrity in a metal fold-up chair at a Wednesday morning breakfast and church service for homeless folks, knowing that’s not what a typical Sunday Service looks like. Maybe there’s something begrudgingly comforting about its brevity and insistence on “family values.” Maybe there’s a potent commentary lurking here on how celebrity’s entanglement with capitalism traps consumers into false allegiances based on brand loyalty disguised as liberation. One has doubts about one’s doubts.

“What have you been hearing from the Christians?”

Buried beneath all of this, however, is Kanye’s unwavering distancing and deflection of his haters, of racist and ableist accusations of his inauthenticity; this is what saves Jesus Is King, for me. Kanye maintains an explicitly Christian viewpoint on suffering and slavery, albeit one that’s consistently misunderstood and misremembered (by Kanye himself). On Jesus Is King, Kanye asks something of us that he has never asked before: that we grant him grace and pray for him. Not that we understand him or praise him or exonerate him, but that we offer him up to Jesus. It’s an awkward and sad ask, especially for a struggling Christian, a Catholic no less, but it’s one that also exposes his own artifice without desecrating its sacredness. Maybe King’s value is not beyond logic, but instead enshrouded inside its Biblical allusions. Maybe this bizarre ritual of resolving my own cognitive dissonance by tearing its materiality apart is one of forgiving myself for letting Kanye shape me positively. For as much as Jesus Is King doesn’t work as a set of songs, it accomplishes something much rarer, something only religious music could do: it destroys its own curse by surrendering its grip on negativity. Curiously, this is Kanye at his most Christlike, and as much as I wrestle with letting Him in, I’ve witnessed that kind of power before, and I’ve felt it in Kanye’s music. Jesus Is King made me miss so much about Kanye, but it also made me miss my faith, its greatest letdown that it wasn’t compelling enough for me to rekindle it.

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