Choir saves Kanye West's gospel offering

At the end of Kanye West's 2004 track Jesus Walks, he cries in a desperate plea: "God show me the way because the devil's tryna break me down/the only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now."

Fifteen years later, West is no longer faltering. His faith is now strong enough to keep him afloat and the reformed singer has used it to build his entire ninth album.

Like his last album Ye (2018) - an unfiltered exploration of his mental health and family - Jesus Is King feels like a reflection of his current head space.

Backed by a 100-strong Sunday Service gospel choir that does much of the heavy lifting sonically, he has traded in his devil-may-care attitude, acerbic wit and skilled lyricism for a 27-minute gospel record and his latest avatar as hip-hop preacher.

But much like his journey as a born-again Christian, the album does not feel fully formed.

Upon unpacking his lyrics, you get the sense he has not yet subsumed his well-chronicled ego to this greater calling. On Hands On, he raps: "I've been working for you my whole life/told the devil that I'm going on a strike".

He has also yet to learn to turn the other cheek, calling out the Christians who doubt him in the next few lines: "Said I'm finna do a gospel album/What have you been hearin' from the Christians? They'll be the first one to judge me/Make it feel like nobody love me".

  • GOSPEL

    JESUS IS KING

    Kanye West

    Good/Def Jam

    3 Stars

This surface-level self-awareness is prevalent throughout the record, which also sees a distinct watering down of Kanye magic that made seminal works such as the Auto-Tune-laced 808s And Heartbreaks (2008) and the paradigm-shifting Yeezus (2013).

The saving grace is the music production. As expected, the gospel choir music is rousing, with the crescendoing hallelujahs of Selah or the goosebumps-inducing layered vocals of rapper-singer Ty Dolla $ign on Everything We Need.

There are flashes of the old, sample-chopping mastermind, such as on Follow God and Use This Gospel. The latter track could have easily belonged on West's 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its Auto-Tuned harmonies and single, hammering piano note throughline.

The unexpected combination of a Kenny G saxophone solo and verses by the reunified American hip-hop duo Clipse (who are back together after a decade) also make this the strongest track on an album that is not particularly ground-breaking.

Will West's hip-hop preacher avatar last beyond this album's promotional cycle?

But no matter what West does, he remains a polarising figure - and that is probably not going to change any time soon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2019, with the headline 'Choir saves Kanye West's gospel offering'. Print Edition | Subscribe