Kanye West's latest album, Jesus Is King, was released last Friday to the tamest reception of any Kanye solo album to date. There have been fewer headlines, fewer conversations among casual rap fans and fewer tweets. People are finally taking Kanye less seriously, even as he turns his music toward the power of salvation.
“On God” flexes some of the best production on all of Jesus Is King with Kanye’s typical maximalist approach. There are synths that belong somewhere in between early arcade games and '80s rock opera combined with a spacey but bass-heavy rhythm section and a charismatic, laid-back Kanye flow that rides right in the middle of all the noise.
But Kanye also can’t help himself. The soaring anthem begins with admirable gestures toward the plight of single mothers and poor black communities, his struggles with his shaken faith and an attempt at admonishing the 13th Amendment’s devious language that has led to the disproportionate imprisonment of black Americans. But, of course, he finishes by taking on the structural problem that affects his own pocketbook: the IRS, which is taking more than his Sunday tithe.
This has always been the Kanye experience, and “On God” asks the listener to believe him on the basis of his own kind of godliness, as he so often has throughout his career. He’s a self-labeled genius who earned the title through songs that have at least always had God and faith in mind.
"Jesus Walks," from his 2004 album The College Dropout, is still one of his farthest-reaching and longest-lasting anthems. But the biggest difference between “Jesus Walks” and the gospel Kanye preaches on Jesus Is King is that the latter is mostly a sermon. It’s his message distilled from a position of power and confidence and against his detractors, while the College Dropout era had a deeper anxiety of unworthiness.
There are some impressive and inspiring moments of choral uplift like “God Is” or the Kanye-less opener, “Every Hour,” but the sum of Jesus Is King just doesn’t feel essential like his past releases have. And part of that has to do with the lack of an epic 3 a.m. tweet storm, whether about Wiz Khalifa’s pants or text screenshots of mountain emojis or dragon energy.
But also, there seems to be a sense that not as many people are really on Kanye’s side anymore.
His “freedom of thought” has made him the President’s favorite rapper (how many rappers do we think Trump could name anyway? Do we have evidence that Trump has listened to music at all this decade?) And that type of association is condemned quicker every year, even if Kanye’s antics have always been a part of being one of his fans. He’s always made people feel like they still might somehow be rooting for an underdog, or at least someone who was slightly misunderstood.
In the past, stumping for Kanye both was a real source of contention and had an endpoint that felt worth fighting for. He was speaking from the heart when he stole the mic from Taylor Swift. He was at least entertaining when he was saying that he essentially owned Wiz Khalifa’s kid, because he was with Amber Rose first (and her reply to all of that is cemented in the Great Twitter Canon).
Now, the fun is mostly gone. He’s even said that he won’t be performing his old music in the same way anymore, but will move deeper into his walk with God both publicly and privately.
Plus, the music feels as rushed and unfinished as it ever has, and this is after The Life of Pablo essentially invented the concept of patching an album release using the magic of streaming services. The production here is often brittle and the warbling vocoders don’t sound as fresh as they did a few years ago; they’re almost self-parody.
Jesus Is King has its moments, particularly when Kanye hands the mic over to Ty Dolla Sign offering some life-affirming crooning on “Everything We Need,” or offers Clipse a mini-reunion on “Use This Gospel.” He’ll never lack in finding the right talent that fits a moment perfectly, but he’ll also indulge in an almost endearingly goofy and confounding verse comparing a lover or even God himself to Chick-fil-A (“You’re my number one with lemonade”).
He is trying to offer something on this album, but he’s not offering much of himself. It’s the Kanye album with the least self-mythologizing, self-deprecation and the least self-reflection. Does he truly have more insight now when he can drop literal Bible verses into the middle of tracks like “Selah?"
Or did he have it right the first time, when “Jesus Walks” saw him past the point of no redemption and the Great Redeemer by his side.
Maybe he was less churched back then, but great belief is also constant doubt, a constant fight for faith. And Kanye’s gospel may not make for a great Kanye record, particularly when he continues to misplace his faith in depraved leaders who use the Bible as a totem to ingratiate themselves to their constituents. I believe in Kanye’s belief, but it just isn’t as fun anymore.
"Music Mondays" is a weekly column run in conjunction with the University of Richmond radio, WDCE.
Contact contributor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. Evans is the music director for WDCE.