Critic's Notebook: Kanye West's 'Jesus Is King' Is a Dull, Dead-End Spiritual Quest

Kanye West - Getty - H 2019
Taylor Hill/WireImage

The hotly awaited new album is slapdash, tiresome and vacuously provocative — the work of an artist in a major creative crisis.

Kanye West is one of the great American trolls, and his albums have looked progressively less like traditional releases with the usual promotional cycle and more like chaotic injunctions meant to grind society to a halt.

Jesus Is King, his ninth record, finally dropped Friday morning after multiple aborted launches spanning more than a calendar year — a feat that would almost be impressive if it weren’t so predictable and obnoxious at this point. This is West’s long-hyped “gospel” record, an extension of Sunday Service, his gospel-rap collective that has been playing shows everywhere from Coachella to his own backyard.

This, of course, is Kanye we’re talking about here: the guy who informed the press that wearing a MAGA hat gave him superpowers and who, on Thursday, told Zane Lowe, “I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time.”

However, on this album’s lean 27-minute runtime, there is little evidence that he’s even the most relevant artist this month. Years ago, West revealed that Mase was his favorite — and most personally influential — rapper, and Mase famously left rap to go to the Church twice. So Kanye’s recent, intense embrace of spirituality seems to make sense in that respect. Unfortunately, spiritual inspiration does not translate into creative inspiration here, and we’re left with an album of tracks that feel like leftovers leaning heavily on soul samples and a few gospel features.

“Follow God” finds Kanye rapping over a Whole Truth sample and sounds like it could have come out over a decade ago. It’s serviceable enough, but, like the album as a whole, lyrically lazy. On “Closed on Sunday,” he muses, “Closed on Sunday / You’re my Chick-fil-A / You’re number one with the lemonade,” which could be one of pop music’s stupidest lines of the year, just on the surface. But it’s also one in a series of dog whistles to the Christian right that are sprinkled throughout the record — like the multiple mentions of the 13th Amendment, the amendment that abolished slavery and which Kanye has said should be abolished itself.

In 2018, Kanye started wearing MAGA hats and courting the likes of charlatan “traditionalists” like Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump himself, to the chagrin and dismay of his fans of color and those left of center. He also said that slavery in America was a “choice,” a sentiment so idiotic that it’s dangerous. This record finds him on the same front of supremely bad-faith trolling, both lyrically and in press around the album, which is bonkers when you realize that this is supposed to be an album about spirituality.

It’s not just the political. West’s lyrics have felt like sloppy first drafts for the better part of the decade, and now their laziness borders on the absurd. On "Everything We Need," he muses, "What if Eve made apple juice? / You gonna do what Adam do? / Or say, ‘Baby, let's put this back on the tree.'" We waited over a year for this?

The only real redeeming aspects of this record are the production, helmed by West and stalwart Mike Dean, which is nothing revelatory (your typical Kanye soul samples, synths, and drum machines), and “Use this Gospel” featuring Clipse and Kenny G. On that track, No Malice, another rapper who embraced God later in his career, reflects: “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those / And in my arrogance, took a camera pose / Caught with a trunk of Barry Manilows.” It’s evidence that Kanye is most interesting when he’s behind the boards and not the one on the microphone.

Diehard fans will contort themselves into pretzels to defend this record; that’s what diehard fans do. But for the casual fan, Kanye West, for the third album in a row, proves he’s become all sound. And no fury.