I listened to “Jesus is King” the morning it came out and thought it was a mixed bag. There were some highlights, such as the rap game’s super weapon known as Ty Dolla $ign summoning the Holy Ghost on “Everything We Need” giving us sonically the best track on the album. Outside of The Clipse’s solid appearance on “Use This Gospel,” the album’s writing ranged from passable to face-palming. The Chick-fil-A reference especially on “Closed on Sunday” was fairly cringeworthy. Production-wise, the album was on point, which is expected from the Louis Vuitton Don. But in the end, it didn’t move me and that’s what bothered me the most about this project.
Spirituality has always been a thing in hip hop. From OutKast to Bone Thugs to even recent examples like Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller, rappers have always talked about their relationship with God, and how it’s been used as a source of solace in times of distress. From “Jesus Walks” to “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye has always been open about his faith. But the difference between those two tracks and “Jesus is King” is that former felt like an acquaintance having a conversation with you, while the latter mostly feels like your recently sober uncle lecturing you about abstinence.
What made Kanye’s earlier discography so good was that along with the maximalist, gaudy, relatively avant-garde production and cheeky lyrics, it was also fairly relatable. For Kanye, rap has been an outlet for his thoughts and served as an audio journal of sorts, giving us snapshots of his journey from a beat maker and part-time struggle rapper working for Rocafella, to becoming one of the biggest figures in all of pop culture. From depicting the soul-sucking nature of retail on “Spaceships” to “All Falls Down” where he waxes poetic about consumerism, with quotables like “Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis,” and then humorously owning up to his spending habits jesting: “I got a couple past-due bills, I won’t get specific.”
When Kanye made “secular” music it was not only personable, it was also dynamic. In between the bars about designer clothes and women, he had small nuggets of social commentary sprinkled in. He’ll have songs like “Gorgeous” bragging about his success and in a matter-of-fact tone and drop bars like “As long as I’m in Polo smiling, they think they got me. But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me.” I could do the chef’s kiss until my fingers bleed. In albums like “College Dropout,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and even “Kids See Ghosts,” we see a man share his views, vices, ambitions and contradictions, and because of that it’s what keeps people like me coming back to him despite his controversial reputation. He along with Blackstar and Lupe Fiasco had a profound influence on my personal philosophy and especially my politics. Artists that through their own experiences made a lot of the bigger social issues easy to understand for the everyman, and in Kanye’s case throw in a little crude humor here and there.
In a post-enlightenment world where many people are aimless and lonely, it makes sense why some people are running back to church. As someone who grew up Christian, I see the positives of spirituality. While some of the teachings of the three major religions can be archaic, they can also give people some stability, a moral center and a sense of belonging. Discography and politics aside I’m happy for Kanye as he seems to be in a better place emotionally. For the past decade or so since his mother’s death, he’s never really had peace, partly due to his own antics and to the vulturous nature of the paparazzi. I hope that as Yeezy goes on with his music career he’ll make music that speaks to the experiences of everyone, secular and saint.