Friday, November 1, 2019

CD Review — "Jesus Is King" By Kanye West (2019)

Not only is it the best album of the year, it’s quite possibly the most based thing a mainstream musician has done in decades.

By: Jimbo X

Ive been listening to Jesus is King for a solid week, and I’m still not entirely sure how to interpret it all. It’s one of those albums were I’m not quite sure if it’s a very, very, very good 9.0 or a damn-near perfect 9.9 out of 10, and each time I give the thing a spin my mental review score keeps getting more and more opaque.

Kanye West is a bamboozling musician, and this is far and away the most bamboozling album of his career. Like everybody else, I thought he was joking when he said his next release was going to be a gospel album, but holy shit, that’s EXACTLY what Jesus is King is. Even after playing through the whole album like eight or nine times I still keep waiting to hear some sort of swerve at the end, some bonus track that swoops in and goes “LOL, JK,” but nope. Even after numerous attempts to decode the album as something subversive, I’ve reached the quasi-disappointing conclusion that, no, Jesus is King is PRECISELY what it claims to be on the sheerly superficial audio level. It’s a neo-gospel album, through and through, with lyrical content that doesn’t even remotely deviate from the on-point “give it up to the J-Man” thematic. In a world where virtually ALL of media is smug, half-hearted, hyper-ironic, self-aware cynicism, Jesus is King does the most counter-cultural thing imaginable — it makes an honest statement, about an honest subject, from a respectful, reverential perspective. 

Now, before we get into a track-by-track overview of the album, there’s like, a bajillion bullet points I need to hit as a pre-introduction. First and foremost, before heading into Jesus is King, my knowledge of the West discography was limited to “Jesus Walks,” “Gold Digger” and all of that half-crazy, half-revelatory bullshit he said on Twitter about the TurboGrafx-16 and gay people controlling the fashion industry with an iron (albeit limp-wristed) grip. In fact, I’m such a mainstream music luddite that I’ve never even HEARD any of the tracks from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, and if I have, I certainly wouldn’t be able to recite you any lyrics. So I went into the album about as impartial to the West cult of personality as one, conceivably, could be. 

Second, before you start wondering if my religious leanings in any way influenced my thoughts on the albums — well, considering I’m a non-practicing atheist, think again. If anything, the blatant pro-Christian message of the album ought to make me more inclined to dislike the record out of pure ideological prejudice, so yeah, there’s that.

Ultimately, not since Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below have I been so entranced and fascinated by the technical structure of an album. And although I might regret publishing this a few years down the road, this very well could be the best paced album I’ve listened to since Weezer’s Pinkerton. At barely 27 minutes long (and with no song eclipsing the four-minute mark), the thing just flows at this soothing, rapid pace, with seemingly every track on the album lasting just as long as it needs to without becoming excess aural fat. 

Of course, it is a weird album. Rather than being Kanye’s Smile — i.e., a sprawling, grandiloquent, uber-perfectionist tribute to ego uber alles — it feels more like his Philosophy of the World, the kind of fever-dream, mad-prophesy-inspired low-effort spectacular that makes you wonder whether or not his hitherto-unmentioned father forced him to record the whole thing in one sitting at gunpoint, claiming the archangel Gabriel wanted it that way. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to describe Jesus is King as the LITERAL soundtrack of a bipolar man having a religiously-influenced psychotic breakdown on CD, but then again, that also explains a good 90 percent of all human art worth a good goddamn, so really, who are any of us to judge on the matter?

Naturally, before you digest Jesus is King as a whole, you have to digest it in individual segments. Which, per custom, brings us to our patented track-by-track evaluation of every song on the album ….

Yep. Things are about to get real preachy up in this motherfucker.

Track One
“Every Hour”

So the intro track is LITERALLY a Sunday school choir praising the Lord for two minutes. This is the kinda’ thing you’d expect to hear prior to a T.D. Jakes sermon, so of course, your mileage will vary on its overall listenability. Personally, it’s the only track on the album that I don’t totally enjoy, but it’s definitely catchy and sets up the listener pretty well for the rest of the album. Right from the get-go, Kanye is letting you know “hey, this ain’t your average built-for-regular-radio-rotation CD,” and from here on out you just know you’re about to get Jesus-ed hard and often.

Track Two

I’m not quite sure what “Selah” directly references[*], but this is a downright fantastic track that somehow manages to turn random recitations of biblical verses into a stompin’ chorus. At least 75 percent of the words on the song are “Hallelujah,” but it actually works, in a weird way, and West’s rhymes are surprisingly well wrapped around the standard gospel refrain. The daunting organ and banging drums also make this one of the few songs out there that’s appropriate for both a revival worship service AND for use as an intimidating UFC walkout theme, so if nothing else, you can’t say it isn’t a rack that arouses multifaceted emotions.

[*] OK, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to Google it. Fascinatingly enough, even though the term is used more than 70 times in the Judeo-Christian bible, even now scholars aren’t entirely sure what it’s supposed to mean, with the Hebrew among us claiming it means, basically, “to lift up,” with others claiming it means “interlude” and some thinking it’s some kind of obscure musical notation that doesn’t quite have a one-to-one analogue in the English vernacular. Gee, Kanye — thanks for making me go down that research rabbit hole in two in the friggin’ morning.

Track Three
“Follow God”

For those of you wondering, the song Kanye samples on this one is called “Can You Lose By Following God” by Whole Truth, and my goodness, is it ever the catchy little ditty. I suppose one could describe this as one of the more classically structure hip hop tracks on the album, but the thing that really strikes me about the song is its downright Book of Revelation-esque crypticness. Like, there are parts where Kanye brings up something about his dad thinking his behavior wasn’t Christlike enough, which is immediately followed up with a reference to Michael Jordan and bad NBA officiating. But most of all, it’s historically significant for being what HAS to be the first gospel song in history featuring an explicit reference to the NES launch title ExciteBike by name. Yeah, there’s also some weird stuff in there about Tyler Perry and BET, but really — once you start name-dropping Nintendo games, like I’m even going to be able to pay attention to the rest of the song’s lyrics

Track Four
“Closed On Sunday”

This one begins with a really nice acoustic guitar intro and a low-key chorus that almost sounds like they’re humming the theme song from that old X-Men cartoon on Fox Kids. So basically, this track is Kanye advising families to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, and from a purely deconstructionist angle, it’s far and away the most fascinating song on the album. Like “Follow God,” it’s rather cryptic, but Kanye throws in just enough subtle hints that I’m pretty sure this entire song is actually a very-well veiled anti-homosexuality anthem. Hence, all the stuff about teaching your daughters to avoid “vipers” who want to indoctrinate them on the ways of the gay on Instagram and the line about encouraging raising boys to be “trained in the faith” and “wide awake,” so that they no longer “live just for the culture, they’re nobody’s slaves.” I mean, it could also be a furtive jab at the Jews, but considering Kanye’s track record — and Chick-fil-A’s less-than-veiled resentment of the LGBT-ites — I think it’s safe to say the “Jezebel” Kanye is warning against is indeed the homosexual lobby. Also, the song ends with Kanye unironically clucking “Chick-fil-A!” like a chicken, which is either the best or worst example of crass product placement in the history of popular music, depending on your perspective.

Track Five
“On God”

I’m not going to lie, the beat on this one sounds like it would fit on the soundtrack to Sega Genesis SHMUP from 1992, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either. Lyrically, the thing’s a pretty tangled web with some hard-to-interpret message about single moms and repealing the 13th Amendment, and I’m pretty sure there’s at least one portion of the song where Kanye obliquely reference Donald Trump as “the new commander in chief, that’s some Keef.” Kanye also talks about the devil having his soul and making him mispronounce the Book of Job, and something about the IRS, and why he can’t “be out there Dancing with the Stars” and … you know, I really don’t know what point he’s trying to make, but rest assured — indecipherability aside, it’s one catchy-ass song.

Track Six
“Everything We Need”

This one starts off all harmonized and shit, like an old Boyz II Men song, before transitioning to Kanye urging listeners to “level up” through the Holy Spirit. “What if Eve made apple juice, you gonna’ do what Adam do?” he spouts at one point in the track, which sounds kinda’ stupid at first, but when you really think about its canonical meaning, I guess it is somewhat clever. Not that I have any idea what the hell it’s supposed to mean, but whatever.

Track Seven

The background beat on this one LITERALLY sounds like something out of a menu screen on a 1993 SNES game and I am DIGGING IT. The Sunday school chorus returns for this one, and it’s very smooth and soothing, like rubbing a moist towelette all over your forehead when you have a fever. There’s also this one part where Kanye asks Jesus to give everybody health, wealth and grace, and he almost sounds like Bushwick Bill from the Geto Boys. Needless to say, that’s easily my favorite part of the whole track, and really, one of the highlights of the entire album for everybody involved.

Track Eight
“God Is”

Another one that’s basically a straight up Kirk Franklin song, except with 3,000 times more diagnosed bipolar disorder. Like everything else on this album, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean (other, of course, than Jesus is great), but still — I enjoyed it. Also, there’s this weird part where Kanye says “Jesus is alive” but he throws in one of those Madea rolling R’s in there so it almost sounds like he’s saying “Jesus is a liar,” and then there’s some more stuff about literally abolishing prisons and how Jesus can save you from substance abuse. Which, as Kanye succinctly notes, is what “God is,” hence the title of the track and shit.

Track Nine
“Hands On”

Yep, MORE lyrics about abolishing the 13th Amendment on full display here. Also, if ANY song on the album was surreptitiously about the Jews running the music industry, it would be this one. Just take in these highly intriguing lyrics, why don’t you?

“Told the devil that I’m going on a strike / told the devil when I see him on sight / I’ve been working for you my whole life”

Really, the whole thing is Kanye LITERALLY rapping about how the suits at Universal Music Group tried to dissuade him from making a gospel album, claiming that his own Christian brethren would be the first to judge him for profiteering over the religion. I mean, in a lot of ways, you can interpret the ENTIRE album is one tremendously shady jab at the Chosen, since nothing rankles the ‘Brew, I’d imagine, like investing millions of dollars into a vanity project that espouses a message directly appealing to the most conservative and traditionalist members of American society. And if such truly was Kanye’s central goal with Jesus is King, holy shit, must I commend his unparalleled four-dimensional chess-playing skills.

Track Ten
“Use This Gospel”

I suppose if you had to pick one track off Jesus is King to serve of its centerpiece, I’d probably vouch for this one. I mean, for one thing, the beat is LITERALLY the sound of an open car-door beeping, and man, does Clipse make the best of his 40 seconds of mic time in this one. And just when you think the guest rapper making an oblique reference to cocaine using the euphemism “Barry Manilows” [*] is about as high as this track can possibly soar, THAT is when the sexy sax solo from Kenny G comes storming in, like the mighty blow from Joshua’s horn that knocked down the Walls of Jericho in the Old Testament. Really, considering anything else on Jesus is King to be the marquee track ins’t just ill-advised — indeed, one might even consider it heretical.

[*] It should also be noted that, according to Urban Dictionary, “Barry Manilow” can also be a reference to intentionally having sex in as many locations as possible during one uninterrupted bout of coitus. I’ll leave it to you to decide what the real interpretation of the term is supposed to be here.

Track Eleven
“Jesus Is Lord”

So how does the album end? Well, with a song involving a really upbeat, cheery trumpet section, in which Kanye proclaims that every knee shall bend before the Lord, while every tongue will ultimately confess to whatever evil or disgusting shit they’ve done in their lifetime to Jesus H. himself. Oh, and it doesn’t even last a minute, because … well, at this point, is it even worth it to ponder the mysterious ways of the almighty at this point?

Huh. I was almost certain he was going to quote Leviticus, like that one part about literally killing adulterers and animal-fuckers.

You know, I’ve heard quite a few people describe this album as “churchwave,” and really, that’s an almost impossibly apt way to boil this album down to its core essence. At the same time, it feels contradictorily low-effort and high-aspirational, an album that’s extraordinarily polished and almost defiantly minimalist at the same time. If Kanye spent a solid year fine-tuning the shit out of this album, it wouldn’t surprise me, and if he spent just 20 minutes writing out all the lyrics on the back of a Waffle House napkin, that really wouldn’t surprise me, either. It really is a 50/50 shot of each being the actual case.

In a year that’s been beset with disappointing albums — Weezer’s ho-hum cover album, Tay-Tay’s fall from grace into insufferable SJW-dom, and even Loaded with Cobras, the incalculably underwhelming February release from my all-time favorite band Dynamite Hack — Jesus is King is one of the few “event” albums that actually feels like it lived up to the hype. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything else out there getting mainstream radio play, and from start-to-finish, I do indeed consider it to be a fantastic genre offering. Granted, I haven’t listed to THAT many albums from 2019, but at this juncture I’d feel comfortable saying this is the best overall album I’ve heard all year round — and that, I must reiterate, is regardless of the music’s undergirding sociopolitical message.

Which, after putting on our glasses borrowed from Roddy Piper in They Live, re-reads as “We don’t agree with what Kanye’s saying now, so we don’t want anybody else to hear it, either.”

It’s pretty amazing to think that, in 2019, a neo-Gospel album would prove to be one of the most controversial pop cultural moments of the entire year. Indeed, in a pop cultural hellscape where reality programs about parents goading their adopted children into literally chopping off their genitals is considered “family entertainment,” an album like Jesus is King is pretty much the most rebellious and counter-cultural thing an artist can offer to the grand collective. The great transvaluation of culture prophesied by Nitzche more than 100 years ago did indeed take place ever-so-gradually through the 2010s, and it’s quite evident that we’re living in what can earnestly be called a godless cultural climate, where instant gratification, diversity-for-the-sake-of-diversity and the wholly contradictory, eerily Orwellian notion of “enforced tolerance” has replaced the old moral preachings espoused by the gospels. Indeed, in a society where The Washington Post is LITERALLY publishing articles demanding the First Amendment be repealed to stop “racism,” the fact that NINE out of the top ten globally stream tracks are from this album has gotta’ be making plenty of upper echelon sorts mighty miffed — perhaps even a tad nervous that, in the ensuing decade, there might just be a legit counterpush against the oh-so-obvious corporate/entertainment/academic/political wehrmacht on the horizon, complete with a beloved African-American rapper spearheading the charge against the new modernity.

But politics/religious bullshit aside, I legitimately enjoyed this album, and I think as long as you don’t have anything too prejudicial against the Christians or the black folks, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too — or, at the very least, enjoy it SUBSTANTIALLY more than you would the latest from, say, Ariana Grande or Lana Del Ray.

While Kanye himself is pretty much the epitome of a mainstream entertainer, Jesus is King just about the most against the grain album he could’ve made without including a track celebrating Hitler. It completely besmirches everything the Hollywood Industrial Complex holds dear and promotes the kind of normative values that were considered innate just 30 years ago but today are vilified as living, breathing fascism in its foulest, most mundane form. While the record itself is virtually devoid of cursing, the fact that Jesus is King even exists is something of a hilarious “fuck you” to the gatekeepers of pop culture, this glorious hymn of middle figures pointed directly in the face of progressive elitists who hate Christiandom with the fury of a thousand suns. It’s not even the right genre, so to speak, but I find it difficult to think of a more punk rock thing to do than release a track like Jesus is King while CNN is running legitimate headlines like “Christianity’s Future Looks More Like Lady Gaga Than Mike Pence.” Thirty years, ago G.G. Allin had to roll around in shit and punch women in the face during concerts to rankle the cultural guardians of good taste; and now, Kanye is arousing an infinitely larger amount of moral watchdog ire by simply saying he likes the No. 1 combo at Chick-fil-A with a lemonade on the side.
You know, it’s almost enough to get me to check the showtimes for the next screening of the Jesus is King mini-movie on IMAX — aye, such proud countercultural rabble-rousing isn’t just worth commending, it might actually be worth paying for.


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