Artists going back and forth with their own faith—between the temptations of worldly fame and the shelter, and strictures, of the church—is a persistent motif in American popular music and in black American music above all. In declaring himself born again and renouncing secular music, as he’s done in the lead-up to his new album Jesus Is King, Kanye West is reenacting the story of Little Richard, for example, who channeled the sacred ecstasies of the black pulpit into the salacious come-ons of early rock ’n’ roll, then enrolled in theological college in the later 1950s, backslid into the wop-bop-a-loo-bop in the 1960s, then became an evangelical minister. And West is also playing out a conflict central to the soul music that he sampled and manipulated to forge the beloved style (“the old Kanye”) of his first several albums.
Foundational soul stars such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin made their names first in great gospel groups and choirs, then had to deal with a backlash from faith communities (and often their families) when they switched from extolling divine love to exercising earthier passions in much the same vocal styles. Al Green, for one, eventually repented his choice, after an angry lover scalded him with hot grits, and skedaddled his heavenly pipes more or less permanently back to the altar. Others managed to keep a foot in both camps, with Franklin in 1972 recording the bestselling gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace, without resigning her pop career.
Observers who mostly know West for his (as Barack Obama once put it) “jackass” public antics and a few of his hits might be more suspicious of his come-to-Jesus moment—which first started to surface with the weekly “Sunday Service” gospel-music events he and his spouse, Kim Kardashian West, have been hosting since January, building to more public versions at the Coachella festival and at churches around the country, and finally Jesus Is King, both the album and an Imax short film release under the same name. He’s also promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) a sequel record, Jesus Is Born, to come out on Christmas Day. Plenty of wary church traditionalists and cultural secularists alike have called West out for “fake Christianity,” a celebrity self-servingly exploiting the black church’s forgiving embrace, sans the substance of the faith’s community mission. (Christians, West raps on the album, “will be the first ones to judge me/ Make it seem like nobody love me.”) Now, it’s not like gospel hasn’t had its own share of big charismatic egos in the past—consider for instance the superstardom of James Cleveland, whose 1979 song “God Is” gets sampled on the Jesus Is King track of the same name, and who was Franklin’s musical director on Amazing Grace. Not to mention the womanizing reputation of Franklin’s own preacher dad. But perhaps it’s true West is just trying to get “uncanceled” after all his controversial stances on politics and race the past couple of years, which I won’t rehash here.
Anybody who’s followed West’s twists and torques closely is unlikely to believe it’s that simple. For one thing, West’s never been prone to cagey dissemblance—massively unfiltered self-expression accounts for at least five out of seven of his deadliest sins. For another, religion has always been a subtheme in his music, from his name-making 2004 hit “Jesus Walks”—which was groundbreaking at the time for rendering it not so uncool to mention God in a rap song—through the visions of supernatural grandeur (“I Am a God”) he exhibited amid the arresting sonics of Yeezus, to the gospel sounds and references on 2016’s The Life of Pablo. There, West welcomed worship-music star Kirk Franklin and the avidly churchgoing Chance the Rapper as guests and, in essence, chanted along with St. Augustine, “God make me good—just not yet.” With Jesus Is King, it seems that “yet” has come. A year ago, West was putting out one of the crassest sex raps of his career in “I Love It” with Lil Pump. Now he’s admonishing his studio collaborators not to curse or have “premarital sex.” That story stirs memories of another perverse-turned-pious music legend, Prince, who later in life made musicians and friends pay fines to his “swear jar” for the same language that once made his own songs the object of scandalized congressional hearings.
Still, it’s the speed and starkness of West’s turnabout that’s somewhat concerning. Interrogating his sincerity at this stage seems like a cul-de-sac, but Jesus Is King does make me wonder both what West has to offer praise music and what it has to offer him. Given the revelations last year about his hospitalization and diagnosis with bipolar disorder and his resistance to following medical prescriptions, as well as all the allusions to self-harm on last year’s half-finished-feeling album, Ye, not to mention the continuing erraticness of his public statements and inability to get his albums out on time if he gets them out at all, it’s difficult not to feel like West finding God at this juncture represents someone being corkscrewed around in an internal hurricane desperately lashing himself to the nearest rock.
But isn’t that exactly one of the services religion proposes to offer? When I told an evangelical Christian acquaintance this weekend that I worried whether West was, so to speak, fit to consent to his own conversion, my friend gently replied that the faithful don’t believe it works that way—it’s God who bestows the revelation, not the convert who rationally selects it. Paul didn’t fill out any paperwork to request that intervention en route to Damascus. My friend went on to say that in his circles, lots of people are quite hyped about the hip-hop star joining the righteous path. Which makes sense if you are convinced that everybody needs to be saved—perhaps above all, as West says on the album’s second track, quoting from the most famous of gospel hymns, a “wretch” like him.
On the other hand, personally I don’t believe any of that, and it doesn’t entirely reassure me about whether musically immersing in and culturally debating West’s conversion aren’t deriving entertainment from somebody’s ongoing public breakdown. But I also don’t believe that people with mental health issues—which to varying degrees describes a high percentage of the populace, myself not excluded—aren’t entitled to both self-expression and agency over their own life choices. So is it right even to raise such hesitations? I’m not at all sure. But it’s hard to avoid while listening to Jesus Is King, where the musical productions are often enticing and enveloping in the manner (if not always to the standard) of West’s best, while the lyrics—when not directly drawn from Scripture, which supplies some reliable biblical-language zing—seem more leaden and witless than ever before.
The line that got the most traction on Twitter and other platforms over the weekend was “Closed on Sunday/ You my Chick-fil-A,” which uses the chicken sandwich chain’s policy of keeping the Sabbath holy to advocate for the same in family life. (The “you” here seems to be Kardashian West, who hasn’t always seemed to be in lockstep with every tenet of West’s new lifestyle.) One snag here is that the song blithely bypasses Chick-fil-A’s long-standing association with anti-gay groups; another is that it’s awfully thin stock for fans to be making such gravy of. But the way the half-sung words are overlaid on an exquisite Spanish guitar and cooed vocal sample from vintage Buenos Aires artist Chango Farias Gómez and the Grupo Vocal Argentino makes it more palatable than any track on which a man excoriates “jezebels” really has any right to be.
The album begins with a track on which West doesn’t appear at all vocally, “Every Hour,” which on first impression is a straight praise hymn being sung by the Sunday Service choir, directed by Los Angeles gospel and music business stalwart Jason White. White’s ensemble is also known as the Samples, which is particularly apt here, because the choir’s singing is manipulated in the production, sped up and sometimes seemingly phased out of synch with the accompaniment, to slightly dizzy and frantic effect. That prelude gives way to “Selah,” which opens with somber organ chords while West raps in his most breathlessly urgent mode about the general misbehavior (“keep perfect composure/ while I scream at the chauffeur”) and, to him, maltreatment that led to his spiritual crisis: He tells the “woke” that they should “wake up” and “kiss and make up” with him as a perceived “Judas.” As if they wouldn’t have already been awakened by the accumulation of floor-shaking drum blasts and the choir’s crescendoing hallelujahs.
That’s followed by one of my two or three favorite tracks, “Follow God,” which uses a 1970s gospel sample (referencing the same “father stretch my hands” Scripture that structured two tracks on Life of Pablo) as the backdrop to a rapid-fire account of a fight West had with his often-absent father over whether he was really being “Christ-like” in how he’s living out his new faith, climaxing comically, “He starts spazzin’ on me/ I start spazzin’ back/ He said, ‘That ain’t Christ-like,’/ I said, Ayaaaa!” The song has more typical Kanye-level energy than much of the album, but it also feels more true-to-life and less defensive than most of the album’s lyrics, just reporting about how starting out on a new path can be tense and tentative. It serves better than most of the lyrics to account for the verbal simplicity of much of Jesus Is King, in that as a newborn in the faith, it’s not as though West has much well-considered theological wisdom to dispense, unlike a lot of gospel music written or guided by experienced preachers. The narrative gets somewhat more sophisticated on “Use This Gospel,” another highlight (and one of the remakes of tracks from last year’s scrapped-but-leaked Yandhi album), via the much-heralded reunion of the brothers of Clipse—West’s frequent collaborator Pusha T and his long-absent partner No Malice, who was called just Malice until he underwent his own conversion around the turn of the decade. No Malice, with a couple of Christian rap albums already under his belt, begins his verse, “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those,” taking a kind of personal ownership of the scales of sin and redemption that West never quite achieves. I am less enamored with the Kenny G sax solo that caps the track (as Richard Thompson once sang, “I agree with Pat Metheny/ Kenny’s talents are too teeny”), but I appreciate the cosmic absurdity of its existence.
For his part, though, West has only the wide-eyed, unsteady-on-his-feet drive of the fresh would-be zealot. If he falls back on old habits, such as narcissistic self-aggrandizement or being a millionaire whining about having to pay taxes (see “On God”), that’s only human. But he can aspire to better. And he can evoke that aspiration via the illuminated-crystal sonic effects that he consistently pursues here, whether through the arpeggiated synths of “On God,” or the horns of the compact closing title track (partly drawn from 1970s Quebecois prog rocker Claude Léveillée), or most of all the spine-tingling layered voices, variously from Ty Dolla Sign (“Everything We Need”), Ant Clemons (“Water” and elsewhere), gospel star Fred Hammond (“Hands On,” which drags ), the James Cleveland choir sample (“God Is”), and the Sunday Service voices.
His main error, I think, is in not relying even more extensively on the choir and developing Jesus Is King into more of a complete gospel album, at the expense of being quite as much of a true Kanye record. Only a few tracks here even break the three-minute mark, and even then West often seems to be scraping the barrel for lyric ideas (viz. the “Eve made apple juice” bit on “Everything We Need”). Perhaps it was the urge to get in and out fast, leaning on the element of surprise, but West’s best work is almost always more extended, trafficking in themes and variations, in diptychs and triptychs. Ultimately, I feel as though I took more gospel feeling away from Life of Pablo, despite its many profane passages. While what’s left out of Jesus Is King, in terms of vice and self-indulgence, arguably counts as much as what is there, it suffers by using the Sunday Service choir mostly like a special effect rather than highlighting the individual voices within it across tracks, to lend it the texture and dynamics one hears in a really great gospel ensemble—for an example, you need stray no further than comparing “Every Hour” to what you hear from Cleveland’s people on “God Is.” What’s more, putting a spotlight on the choir ensemble would have been more a proof of humility from West than anything he can proclaim verbally.
Intriguingly, that is exactly what happens in Jesus Is King the movie. It takes nearly half its half-hour run before viewers ever see West’s face. For the first long while, there’s mostly the choir with White within the pastel-lit, keyhole-shaped caverns of artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater installation in the Arizona desert. Finally, after about 15 minutes, West joins the singers in rearview and silhouette, bobbing his head to the rhythm. Many minutes later, the choir completes a vigorous round of “Selah” hallelujahs, trades embraces, and disperses. Then we find West sweeping the space up with a broom—genuinely putting himself in service—warbling “Street Lights” to himself (from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak). That clip transitions to West singing in a trio with a piano and organ player. Then again to him crooning to his infant son, Psalm, cradled to his naked chest. Cut to credits.
The film is almost comically modest for an artist who’s worked in the medium of his own ego as much as he has in music and fashion. It’s almost a manifesto of anti-narcissism. It’s also totally lush and gorgeous. There’s an especially striking extended sequence in which the fish-eye lens is staring up at White from below as he conducts the choir, which is off-camera but richly heard. In the next number, the camera zeroes in on one singer’s expressive features, not as she sings a solo but as she simply proceeds on through her harmony part. Between the two clips, there’s so much conveyed about both the individualism and the collectivity of the tradition, of gospel almost as a verb. The film isn’t as complex a text as the album (in fact, it barely includes any of those songs), yet within the throughline of West’s creative career, it feels somehow more complete and satisfying. It’s a lesson to remember if his identity as a Christian artist is going to be one he sustains. On the other hand, the smart money might remember the many life cycles of Little Richard, and refrain for now from taking that bet.
Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.