Kanye West is the most innovative musical artist in modern history. He brought soul, choirs, nerdy samples, and humor to mainstream hip-hop with his first album. He brought brass instruments, geopolitical commentary, and whimsical cultural references with his second. He brought the synthesizer, EDM, and refined drum patterns with his third. He brought grief, heartbreak, and the piano with his fourth. He brought string instruments, introspection, and maximalism with his fifth. And after his fifth turned out the most critically acclaimed album of the decade, he stripped his next one to its bones and dropped a colossal work, knowing that the masses wouldn’t understand it—with industrial house beats, futuristic synth-pop, baroque pop, socioeconomic issues, arrogance, and vulnerability. His seventh embraced the catchiness of pop music while rejecting its superficiality. And his eighth explored mental health in a blunt, hard-hitting way—raising awareness about bipolar disorder, depression, and suicide. He threw a wrench in the arbitrary separation of genres. He blended so many sounds that were never blended before. He inspired countless movements and artists. And at 42, he still produces his own music, as well as that of many other great musicians. He is a prodigy of an artist.
But not just a mere artist, he is more like a director. He organizes and facilitates massive events of all kinds in a variety of mediums. Besides, he directed a full-length film, helped make a collection of paintings (pictured above), and choreographed a highly technical ballet dance for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then he designed his world tour’s set (as usual) and released both a clothing line and a shoe line. In fact, he’s a musician, writer, rapper, singer, producer, painter, composer, director, producer, screenwriter, poet, clothing designer, shoe designer, interior designer, lighting designer, architect, entrepreneur, and businessman. He does it all. He has galvanized the careers of many artists—from rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Pusha T, and Niki Minaj to producers like Mike Dean, Hudson Mohawke, and Travis Scott to indie artists like Bon Iver, Aphex Twin, and Gesaffelstein. He has created thousands of jobs across hundreds of vocations. If you need somebody to design a bed for you at 4 am, he’ll do it. He is a big film enthusiast—with favorites Akira, 12 Years a Slave, & There Will Be Blood. He doesn’t even listen to rap often, preferring Bon Iver, James Blake, Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean, The Beatles, etc. And though he’s been unstable lately, manifesting his ignorance of some issues, his legacy remains. From Jesus Walks to Flashing Lights to hundreds of others, Kanye proves the genius, novelty, and range of his artistry virtually every time he releases music.
Kanye shocked the world almost two decades ago with Jesus Walks. It continues to defy stereotypes, social constructs, and assumptions about the essence of hip-hop.
An electronic-tinged hip-hop/R&B song composed in F minor at 90 beats per minute with vocals spanning three octaves, Flashing Lights is a sophisticated masterpiece.
Jesus is King
Jesus is King, Kanye’s ninth solo studio LP, suggests both a return to and a departure from Kanye’s discography. On one hand, the 27-minute record is very Kanye-ish. It fuses gospel, choral, and orchestral elements with his idiosyncratic humor, capricious narration, and cultural references. These contrasts are ironed out with smooth, subtle, multi-faceted production—a consolidated union of all of Kanye’s past styles. From the dream pop aesthetic and thematic ascension of the song “Selah” to the Daytona-esque production of “Follow God” to the XXXTentacion-esque acoustic guitar strummed while listing grievances on “Closed on Sunday” (yes, a Chik Fil A reference) to the ethereal synth work of “On God” to the Ye-esque “Everything We Need” to the Frank Ocean & Thundercat vibes of “Water” to the soulful, 70’s, throwback gospel song “God Is” to the Yeezus-esque vibes on the song “Hands On” to the saxophone solo in the Pusha-featured “Use This Gospel,” followed by a crisp beat and stereotypical deployment of Kanye’s autotuned voice as a sound, this album reeks of Kanye.
It is also a natural follow-up to all three albums he made in 2018—Pusha T’s Daytona (which Kanye produced), ye (Kanye’s eighth LP), and KIDS SEE GHOSTS (Kanye’s collaboration with Kid Cudi). These were centered around a paradigm shift in his life and the demons that caused it (see below quote from Reborn), while Jesus is King is centered around what followed—the love, grace, joy, and hope of Jesus he found healing in. So it is a gospel album, as reinforced by the music, but I’d conjecture that it is in its most basic essence a celebration of overcoming life’s biggest trials and tribulations. I love how he noted that Jesus brought a revolution, not a religion, and was loving to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers—while the Pharisees stood by and judged. There are a lot of people who judge Kanye, but the point is that Jesus wouldn’t judge him, nor would he judge anybody listening.
“Very rarely do you catch me out
Y’all have “specially invited guest”-ed me out
Y’all been telling jokes that will stress me out
As soon as I walk in I’m like “Let’s be out”
I was off the chain, I was often drained
I was off the meds, I was called insane
What an awesome thing: Engulfed in shame
I want all the rain, I want all the pain
I want all the smoke, I want all the blame.” –Reborn
On the other hand, this album is very anti-Kanye in some ways. It is lowkey. It is not trying to be the greatest thing ever made, which often seems to be his goal. No more of the F word or explicit content. The lyrics are still assertive and odd, but not flagrant. The sonic palette is more chill. And ever since the Wyoming Sessions, Kanye seems to no longer care about pleasing critics and public. Although this (and his 21 Grammys) have allowed him to relax his standards for the quality of his music, it also engenders more creative license. There’s no need to make another MBDTF or Yeezus. He already did, and we can’t trap him inside insurmountable walls forever. He is no longer trying to defy and surpass the boundaries of music. He is just seeking catharsis, peace, and personal satisfaction.
“He has opened up my vision
Giving me a revelation
This ain’t about a damn religion
Jesus brought a revolution
All the captives are forgiven
Time to break down all the prisons
Every man, every woman
There is freedom from addiction
Jesus, you have my soul
Sunday service on a roll.” –God Is
Most importantly, this album comes from an old, religious, Trump-supporting African-American who has young, atheist, anti-Trump white people like me listening. At the end of the day, our differences don’t matter as much as what unites us—and that’s what his creative, lively music does. He already proved in The College Dropout that he can make fire gospel music. He proved with Ultralight Beam that he can make intimate, slow, magical gospel. And he proved with Diamonds From Sierra Leone and Hold My Liquor that he can make a masterpiece out of anything. So I implore any fan to try this album. It is slick, reflective, and has enough curveballs and climaxes to pique your attention. It came out yesterday, so my opinions of the album and the songs may change, but right now my favorite songs are Selah, Follow God, On God, and Use This Gospel. Just don’t expect Jesus is King to be as good as *a Kanye album,* if you know what I mean.
For what it’s worth: I’d play this at my church if I were a pastor.