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Kanye West’s new album ‘Jesus Is King’ is gospel music, if you really look for it

Gospel music is supposed to make you think about faith and God. West’s new album, in moments, does just that.

Several thousand people pack into The Gateway mall in Salt Lake City for Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. People were standing on and climbing up anything they could find to catch a glimpse of West.
Several thousand people pack into The Gateway mall in Salt Lake City for Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. People were standing on and climbing up anything they could find to catch a glimpse of West.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you listen to the first song of Kanye West’s new album, “Jesus Is King,” you could easily think you’re about to listen to 27 minutes of gospel music. You expect to hear spiritual messages and gain inspiration to strengthen your own faith. The Sunday Service, which sings on the first track, called “Every Hour,” does well to immerse you in the gospel music genre.

Unfortunately, other than a few other songs — like “Water,” “Jesus Is Lord,” and “God Is” — there are few songs that make listeners feel like what they’re listening to is actually a gospel music.

West released his newest album Friday morning after months of anticipation. It was billed as a gospel album, something that challenged our minds since West isn’t exactly known for his gospel music prowess. But after a year of Sunday Service events and religious discussion, West’s album release doesn’t seem so out there, after all.

“Jesus Is King” is barely a rap or R&B album. It’s a Kanye album, first and foremost. It offers the same vibes of some songs on his previous works — “ye” and “The Story of Pablo” — but with a little more religious bent. He mentions Jesus, Biblical verses, Adam, Eve, the story of Job.

It’s an album about Kanye, his thoughts on religion and how faith affects his life. There’s no profanity, no explicit lyrics or dirty language. It’s clean.

And it’s a gospel album for one important reason — it forces us to look up.

Kanye’s turn to religion

Speculation grew about the album immediately after West released his album last year (simply titled “ye”) and promised a second album called “YANDHI.”

“YANDHI” was supposed to be released sometime between September and November. The release date kept changing. But all the while, West promised an uplifting album, one that aligned with his new-found spirituality.

Instead of an album, the world received Sunday Service — a popup shop-like gospel worship service that West hosts throughout the country. These events popped up in New York, Wyoming and, more recently, Salt Lake City. West held the event during the same weekend as general conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Spectators sit on a roof at The Gateway mall in Salt Lake City for Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. Thousands packed into the outdoor mall causing people to stand on and climb up anything they could find to catch a glimpse of West. Residents in the nearby apartment complex were complaining of trespassers.
Spectators sit on a roof at The Gateway mall in Salt Lake City for Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. Thousands packed into the outdoor mall causing people to stand on and climb up anything they could find to catch a glimpse of West. Residents in the nearby apartment complex were complaining of trespassers.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

At an event in New York City, West played some of his new music, none of which has profanity or curse words, which is a departure for the rap and hip-hop star who has rapped before about fame, fortune and the lifestyle it brings.

But West says he is no longer about that life. In fact, West has converted to Christianity, and he’s even suggested to people not swear around him because of his faith.

West’s recent turn toward spirituality actually connects back to his beginnings in the music scene. His song “Jesus Walks” launched him into newfound stardom. Rarely do any of his songs go by without mentioning God or Jesus. Faith has lingered behind his music for years.

Now West has taken his rap career and meshed it with his Christian beliefs.

What is gospel music?

Gospel music gives hope and propels Christian beliefs. It was “born out of intertwining events in religion, politics, history and culture in the African American experience,” according to PBS So Cal writer Daniel E. Walker.

The music gave West Africans a connection to the spirit world throughout the 15th to 19th centuries. And soon it became rooted in the religious revivals of the 19th century, mostly developed in white and black communities across the country.

But stars have been born through the genre. And songs you’ve certainly have heard before had their origins in the gospel music arena. For example, Mahalia Jackson’s “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hand” and Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh, Happy Day” have reached mainstream status.

Some have passed on through generations. In fact, the Coen brother used the song “I’ll Fly Away” — recorded by The Kossoy Sisters in 1956 — for their film “O, Brother, Where Are Thou?” West actually covered the song, too.

So did Kanye West hit the mark?

West doesn’t hit on these themes. When you hear old gospel music and read about what it means to African American and Christian culture, West’s album might not stack up. It certainly challenges stereotypes of gospel music.

But there are portions of the album where West nails it.

The religious themes sometimes feel like a side attraction — they come off like a gimmick. Your reporter won’t question whether West used his faith for marketing and to promote the release. There does seem to be a deep interest in Christianity from West. But with “Jesus Is King,” there seems to be a disconnect between his music and the religion.

There are some faithful moments. He has a song called “Closed on Sunday,” with the lyrics: “Closed on Sunday/You my Chick-fil-A/You’re my number one/with the lemonade.” But the song, though using a Christian business to emphasize the point, is mostly about West’s relationship with his family. He asks to raise his sons in faith and to avoid temptation. But when he’s making comparisons to Chick-fil-A, it almost seems made for headlines rather than genuine inspiration.

And then there’s “On God,” which has vibes from West’s earlier catalog. It could easily fit on “Graduation” or “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” It’s about his old lifestyle and how it has changed so much because of faith. He has a line: “When I thought the Book of Job was a job/The Devil had my soul, I can’t lie.” It’s about his old life — the temptations he experienced before he found Christianity.

“Use This Gospel” is one of the better songs of the album, and it does well to talk about faith and West’s embrace of God, Jesus and his faith.

The album does encourage you to think about your own faith. It encourages you to look up, look inside and wonder how you spend your days on this planet. No matter your faith, it’ll make you question how religion affects you.

Sure, religion is wrapped inside of West’s life here on “Jesus Is King,” and you will have to slog through West’s claims that he’s the best artist of all time — a worshipping of idols, in a way — but there’s no question you will look inward at your beliefs and upward toward God.

By considering West’s faith, we consider our own. And that is the point of gospel music, isn’t it? We look at West and how he uses his religion in his life, how he sees the influence of God on his life and wonder how it affects us, too.

West’s album will likely miss the all-time best gospel music lists. Soon it may be just a distant memory of music — just another point in the timeline of West’s career.

But if West made us look up for even just a moment, then that’s enough.