Kanye West has always been a master of identities. With every new album, he starts his next career arc. Fresh look, fresh sound. The brand is crucial to Ye.
Over the past few years, it’s been difficult to recognize Kanye. It’s like looking at someone who feels both like a stranger and a friend. People change, that’s a fact of life, but the many transformations of Kanye West have become one of the biggest puzzles in pop culture.
It’s impossible to know which Kanye we’ll get from one album to the next. Before pressing play on Jesus Is King, his ninth studio album, I still want to ask the question: Who is Kanye West? Not who was Kanye West, but who is he, today, on October 25, 2019. Let’s see if this album adds a new identity to the ever-changing genius.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “Every Hour”
Hello, Mr. West. A choir is singing. Some of the vocals sound like a slightly sped-up choir, but not fast enough to make them sound like chipmunks. They sound good. Their voices are full of the Gospel. I love the jubilant piano playing underneath. Is this live? The clapping sounds live. I’m just waiting for something to happen. Where’s the Kanye switch up? No rap verse? Can I get a yell? Something? It’s unlikely I’ll ever return to “Every Hour.” I wish Kanye would’ve sent this record Knxwledge to loop and Benny the Butcher to rap over. Those bars would not be about Christ.
We have build-up. It’s a slow burner; the chords feel elegant. Kanye’s here, and his game face is on. A slower flow. He said he’s not mean, he’s focused. That’s what a dad says to a child after they interrupt 2K. There’s clarity. The subtle drums are a nice touch. “Selah” feels like if the album Yeezus went to Christian summer camp. The choir is back. They’re going full Hallelujah. There’s no drum track, that’s interesting. The voices are full and powerful. Admittedly, I’m bored. There’s a punch that’s just not connecting. Kanye is serious; I can feel the sincerity. There’s just no dynamite here—which is odd when it comes to him. I’ll revisit, though. “Selah” is a potential grower.
3. “Follow God”
Ah, a nice loop. A drum track. You love to hear it. The flow is solid. “Follow God” reminds me of “Otis,” but without the joy. I miss the joy of that Watch The Throne era, back when people were planking in Walmarts. Good times. I don’t like the vocal mix here. It feels vocally lower than the previous record. Kanye mentioned arguing with his dad, which is pretty open for him. There’s something I want to come back to; I’m not in love with how his vocals sound.
4. “Closed On Sunday”
The album is moving, but I wish it would slow down. Oh man, “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-Fil-A.” I didn’t need that line in my life. “Closed On Sunday” feels like a demo. I know Kanye has a love for minimalism, but I feel like it would’ve benefited from more time in the oven. I hate the Chick-fil-A bar, but there are some ideas I like a lot. The melody, the production. I’ll have to come back. Is this song about temptation? Ye went full dad raps with this one.
5. “On God”
These synths are from the future. The production sounds the way the Tron video game looks. “You can still be anybody you want to be.” Did Kanye mention the 13th Amendment? What the hell is this album about? “The devil had my soul I can’t lie.” A bar. “I bleached my hair for every time I almost died.” A lot of name drops on this one. The flow is pretty retro Ye. “On God” will ring off on stage. Pi’erre tag! Big look.
6. “Everything We Need” ft. Ty Dolla $ign & Ant Clemons
I miss when Kanye albums had skits. I love short albums and minimalism, but I’m not attached to the music or the lyrics. It’s not gripping, but it’s not exactly boring either. Ty sounds like he stole all the soul from a mega-church to hit that note. “What if Eve made apple juice.” Bible Study Ye gotta give me some depth. “We have everything we need.” I like the sentiment. Gorgeous, Ty, gorgeous.
7. “Water” ft. Ant Clemons
Well, the album sounds good. It’s stripped down and warm, easy on the ears as the sound of rain pattering. Vocally, the singing here is pristine. Ant Clemons and this choir are sweet. Kanye is talking to Jesus. This is the same man who has an album called Yeezus. Wild. He went from “Hold My Liquor” to “Water”; that’s like going from signing with Suge Knight and Death Row to signing with Lecrae and Cross Movement Records. Don’t think I’ll be back.
8. “God Is”
When Kanye isn’t rapping, I completely forget this is a Kanye album. Kanye is pouring it all out. There’s a passion behind the singing that feels sincere. “God Is” catching the Holy Ghost but this record isn’t piercing my soul. Oh, he’s going. He’s taking it there. The rasp on his voice, this is the album’s climax. Jesus Is King is like if 808s & Heartbreak was a gospel album with choirs instead of Auto-Tune.
9. “Hands On” ft. Fred Hammond
Here’s the Auto-Tune. I like this build-up. There’s a clarity to Ye’s vocals. He just threatened the devil. Kanye doesn’t feel weighed down by any doubt. Every lyric sounds pure. “Change, he ain’t really different.” Kanye isn’t lashing out, he’s not screaming against naysayers, he’s just frank with listeners like we’re old friends. I like this a lot. It’s a flurry of vocals, drenched in all these textures. I wonder where Kanye recorded this record? He’s in a different world.
10. “Use This Gospel” ft. Clipse & Kenny G
This album is moving with intention. Songs fold into each other seamlessly. The build-up here is so minimal. In a lot of ways, these songs feel like a cross between 808s and Yeezus. It’s so stripped and bare. I have to go back, but it’s similar to Blonde with a lack of percussion. Pusha-T’s voice could cut through a steel door. It’s so sharp and commanding. I need him to do a mixtape over beats without drums. “I’m crooked as Vegas” means so much coming from the super-villains. I hope Pusha-T finds personal peace and happiness and never tells me about it. Ah No Malice, it’s so good to hear from you. He sounds great. “They sing a different tune when the cellar close.” Okay, let’s go! A saxophone switch. My ears have risen to a jazz club in heaven. Does heaven have jazz clubs? Run it back, Turbo.
11. “Jesus Is Lord”
I don’t mind Kanye’s singing. It’s not good, it never was, but I’ve grown to accept it as a texture. Jesus Is King is the album you make after listening to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN back-to-front and front-to-back. “Jesus Is Lord” is as bright as the College Dropout album cover. Play this at the Sistine Chapel.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Kanye West’s Jesus Is King:
Kanye West didn’t lie; Jesus Is King is a gospel album. Not because of its choirs, but because of the content. He put Jesus at the forefront, and never lost sight of Christ throughout the album’s 11 tracks. Every record is relatively short, but Jesus Is King doesn’t move with any anxiousness or intensity. It’s subtle; there’s no overproduction. Jesus Is King finds Kanye at his most tamed.
On first listen, Jesus Is King doesn’t find Kanye asking for forgiveness nor honestly confronting any wrongdoings. The lyrics feel honest, some of Kanye’s most sincere rapping in recent times. He sounds renewed—fresh out of the water of the baptism—but doesn’t offer a single phrase that isn’t tethered to Jesus and change.
The best way to describe the album is a Sunday in church. As the preacher preaches, a man gets up, walks to the pulpit, and confesses that Jesus is his savior, that Jesus is his king. Without question, the church embraces him. They give him the warmth of Jesus, not the blood. Jesus Is King carries that warmth. It’s a blanket album. I’m just not sure who it’s supposed to bring comfort to. Is it comfort for its creator or his consumer?