Faith and religion have formed the backbone of some of the greatest albums of all time – sadly, this isn’t one of them
On Big Star’s existential album Third, a tortured Alex Chilton, then at his most self-destructive, sings sarcastically about his faith. Lyrics like “Now we’re gonna get born again” are delivered in a wry tone that feels like he’s mocking the idea of salvation being able to bring him back from the brink. Even when Chilton does praise God, you sense he doesn’t truly believe that Christianity has the power to heal someone who is so hellbent on self-destruction. On Aretha Franklin’s transcendent Amazing Grace, the singer grapples with the gospel songs of her youth, channelling the pain of her ancestors into stirring renditions of slave-era songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep”. Franklin shows how being black and having faith in America has been a long tortuous journey, but the sheer power of her resilient voice suggests there may be light on the horizon. Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On sees the singer call out to God in desperation, amazed that a higher power isn’t more enraged about the social devastation caused by the Vietnam War.
These albums show how faith can become distorted, with each singer unafraid to show their vulnerability or pray from a position of weakness. Their creators aren’t just blindly worshipping a higher power, but making their scars a part of the ritual. It makes their quest for salvation feel distinctly human and real.
Kanye West’s Jesus Is King is not a good album about faith. In interviews promoting the record, West has spoken about how rediscovering God helped him conquer his sex addiction and get on the right path after suffering from a mental breakdown that saw him admitted to hospital back in 2016. He demonstrated his newfound sense of purpose by criticising rappers who talk about prison reform while rapping about the sort of things that send black people to prison. Yet none of these provocative ideas colour the album. Instead, West fills it with frustratingly empty platitudes about religion: on “Use this Gospel”, which features coke bros the Clipse oddly juxtaposed with the elevator jazz of Kenny G, West claims that it’s a “hard road to heaven”, while on “Selah”, he quotes clichéd bible verses about loving your neighbour. It’s the Bible studied through CliffsNotes rather than processed through any serious introspection, and West is never clear about what it is that’s actually driving his quest for enlightenment. If “God is the king” and “we the soldiers,” as West insists on “Selah”, then what exactly is his fight?
West’s biggest successes as an artist are when he’s clear about what he’s rallying against. On The College Dropout, the target was consumerism. Yeezus, at its most focused, saw West try to eviscerate a fashion industry too weighted on white values. The underwhelming Ye was Kanye ridiculing the way society treats people with mental illness, with occasionally problematic results. Jesus is King offers no real explanation for Kanye’s radical shift to making gospel music, nor any meaningful insight into how his relationship with God has shaped and continues to shape him emotionally. Kanye is unable to articulate why he’s “told the devil that I’m going on strike”, as he does on the tepid “Hands On”. The message, if there is one, simply boils down to: the Bible is good.
“It’s a bland and basic message from an artist who was once the antithesis to playing it safe, and that feels like the greatest sin of all”
There are many ideas that a black man with faith in white bread America could explore on an album like this, but the closest that West comes to any kind of social commentary is when he says to “Hold the selfies, put the ‘Gram away / Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray” on the clumsy “Closed on Sunday”. It’s hardly a radical message, and even then it feels disingenuous. West is happy to ridicule the ills of social media while knowing that his family uses it to build much of their wealth. He doesn’t see anything inappropriate in charging $200 for Jesus is King merchandise to fund a religious business with tax exemptions. Contradictions are par for the course with Kanye West, who has previously rapped about standing up for black values while simultaneously mocking them and drowning in capitalism, but on Jesus is King he seems particularly lacking in self-awareness. Where once he’d bounce off unpredictable artists like Nicki Minaj or Bon Iver, his artistry now feels most inspired by how his mother-in-law uses religion to fuel her business empire. So long as the money keeps rolling in, it’s hard to imagine he’ll stop rattling the donations box.
This isn’t to say that Jesus is King is meritless. West’s production is still full of ideas, and the album certainly sounds better than Ye: there’s something hypnotic about the funky stillness of “Water” and the playful bounce of “Follow God”, while “Everything We Need” is built around a lush, open-hearted melody (largely thanks to everyone's favourite guest singer, Ty Dollar $ign) that sounds close to how finding inner peace surely feels. But what can sound lush and beautiful on first listen becomes hollow on second and third listen. Where other Kanye West albums have revealed their secrets over time, with their hidden depths among their greatest strengths, Jesus is King feels like an album that gets worse every time you listen to it, its message about as profound as a televangelist trying to con you out of your savings.
Then there’s the lack of swearing on the album. West has always been a clumsy lyricist, but even when he staggered through verses about bleached assholes, his commitment to the bit could at least be endearing. Take the profanity away and West feels oddly neutered as a songwriter. Jesus is King is like watching Richard Pryor unable to swear, uncomfortably twitching his way through a set as the audience shrugs in confusion.
The IMAX film that accompanies the album is similarly baffling, showing West conducting a choir as messages from the Bible flash on the screen. Director Nick Knight creates moments of Kubrickian visual flair, but there doesn’t seem to be much underpinning the images on screen. As with the album, it’s unclear what kind of message West is trying to communicate, if any. It all contributes to the sense that he has hit a creative crossroads, unable to synchronise his message with his art.
I’m sure that Kanye will create a narrative that the media isn’t ready for such a holy album, but the fundamental reason Jesus is King fails is because he just isn’t pushing boundaries anymore. When he raps, “Wrestling with God / I don’t really want to wrestle”, it may as well be the mission statement for the album itself. This is music by an artist unprepared to justify his actions. One might argue that Jesus is King is the sacred counterbalance to the sadistic nihilism of Yeezus, but comparing the two albums just shows how far the artist has strayed. Kanye West has always rapped about grappling with God, but this is the first time he’s done so in such a boring way. It’s a bland and basic message from an artist who was once the antithesis to playing it safe, and that feels like the greatest sin of all.