Halloween Week’s bedlam (demonic parades and gratuitous candy commercials and other occult celebrations in the media) confirm the millennium’s casual godlessness, so the release of Kanye West’s new album and film, both titled “Jesus Is King,” intrudes on that party. Its impact will be long-lasting.
West’s gospel revival coincides with his political independence. So far, this is West’s most powerful statement since supporting President Trump and wearing a MAGA cap in public. By reviving his faith in the word of God and the independence of black Americana gospel, he forces others to remember the moral foundation of the civil-rights movement, which has been forgotten and deliberately disregarded by fervent secular liberals. (It was at a high pitch during the funerals that turned the spiritual transitions of Aretha Franklin and Elijah Cummings into shameless political rallies.)
Throngs of fans and worshipers taking part in West’s various Sunday Services concerts across the country over the past year are vividly documented in the 38-minute film Jesus Is King. (The IMAX visual emphasis on land, sky, and clouds evokes George Stevens’s 70 mm The Greatest Story Ever Told.) When worshipers sing the lyric “He walked with my mother / I want Him to walk with me,” the song’s emotional resonance recalls the faith of generations — from before the sea change of black politics’ bitter alignment with the tenets of Communist atheism.
The beautiful essence of Jesus Is King is its non-bitterness. Despite private struggle and public pushback (“Before the flood, they did the same to Noah”), West has realized a way to avoid and confound liberal media’s trap: the promotion of black bitterness as the core of African-American self-realization. Jesus Is King is a spiritual work thanks to its deep feeling — pure expression brought to today’s calamitous social condition. The album rejects any recourse to political solutions. West’s personal movement, and the public convocation of his Sunday Services, is clearly against the politics of division.
America’s ’50s–‘60s civil-rights movement was based on righteousness — justice and virtue were understood as moral measures learned from the Church, not social license. That’s what gave the fire-hosed marchers and lunch-counter martyrs their courage. While West has always defied the commonplace worldly sentiments of hip-hop culture (letting the preppie image oppose the street-thug image yet still flashing bling), Jesus Is King shows maturity. He has grasped on to the strength of faith — a belief in the moral certitude and divine promise that sustains and edifies one’s existence.
He’s moved beyond the mere worldly grievance — and the fashionable Afrocentric bling that Jay-Z and Beyoncé currently flaunt — that keeps so many black Americans in neo-plantation mental slavery. Kanye answers it in defiant gospel songs that explore sustenance. “Closed on Sunday” wittily boasts, “Don’t let them indoctrinate / closed on Sunday / You my Chick-fil-A . . . / No more livin’ for the culture / We nobody’s slaves.”
In “On God” (or is it “en garde”?) he raps, “13th Amendment ended / That’s on me.” He refines his TMZ meme “Slavery was a choice” that was deliberately misunderstood by many. Rejecting the grip of history and the fetish that politicians have made of slavery, it comes down to being a song about self-reliance as a personal choice, thus a song of greater political faith than any that Paul Robeson or Pete Seeger ever sang.
None of the many negative reviews of Jesus Is King are convincing. They all emanate from the seat of scoffers — the “smart” folk who are beyond religion, committed to liberal-Democrat agnosticism, and resentful of everything else. They accuse West of a mental disorder to explain his support of Christianity and President Trump. The hatefulness of these assertions is surpassed only by their literal tone-deafness; they can’t hear how lovely this music is.
The album opens with “Every Hour,” a short series of staccato praise shouts derived from the Southwestern Michigan State Choir’s mighty recording “Write My Name Above,” where the lead singer implored, “I need you every hour / I need your cleansing power.” It’s followed by “Selah,” the album’s first climax, featuring a black gospel “Hallelujah” chorus. The background crowd’s exhortations prove what Handel knew: You can’t hear or say that word without being moved. West knows that Leonard Cohen’s secularized “Hallelujah” has desiccated the word by corrupting its meaning. This track is redemptive.
West revives the aesthetic virtues of gospel because so many R & B artists have squandered its legacy — the assurance and encouragement that nourished artists from Ray Charles and the Isley Brothers to Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, often serving as background to the civil-rights movement. Rap’s current wanton generation has forsaken that foundation — especially such reprobates as T.I., who argue simplistically against West’s political conversion and his walking away from the Democratic party.
“Hands On” addresses this crisis in brotherhood: “They’ll be the first ones to judge me / Make it feel like nobody love me.” The best recourse when discovering that T.I. types are unreachable is to work out personal salvation. West’s independence goes against the familiar patronization of mostly white music journalists who insist on controlling the limits and definitions of both African-American music and black politics.
Show business has long exploited gospel and soul music for its own inveigling purpose. White critics write about “soul” as if they invented what it meant, always excising spirituality, focusing only on sensuality — confusing the body (“the black body” being a term that’s now carrying an overload of political freight) with the soul.
Jesus Is King opposes the conflation of mortal experience with spiritual experience. It’s part of West’s recent revolutionary concept of making short albums, obliging artists — and citizens — to focus on what really matters. Deriving meaning, impact, and conviction from Christian virtues is Kanye West’s gospel.