Got a Bible verse for you. 1 Samuel 2:3. “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.” The English Standard Version has the waviest wording, if that matters to you, which of course it does.
These words came to mind Thursday night at a suburban Ohio movie theater, amid the launch of yet another instantly exhausting Kanye West album cycle. A modest but impressively rapt crowd had gathered—having bought full-price IMAX tickets—for Jesus Is King, a mysterious feature film meant to accompany West’s long-threatened gospel album of the same name, due out at midnight. (The album did not come out at midnight, and in fact hit streaming services only around noon Friday on the East Coast. The Content Gods make plans, and Kanye laughs.)
Anyway, no trailers before this movie, so fans were still taking their seats as it kicked off, lugging giant popcorn buckets and sodas and whatnot. Directed by Nick Knight—who also helmed the “BLKKK SKKKN HEAD” video from 2013’s Yeezus, which feels like it came out 30 years ago—the Jesus Is King film captures West and his newish Sunday Service Choir on location at Roden Crater, artist James Turrell’s gargantuan installation out in the Northern Arizona desert, a beautiful and imposing Kubrickian monolith meant to provide “a controlled environment for the experiencing and contemplation of light.” Turns out it works great for the contemplation of uncontrolled hubris too.
Jesus Is King requires neither plot nor dialogue: just startling natural-splendor vistas (a mountain range, a blurry flower) mixed with live performances of gospel songs (supremely joyous and stupendously loud), all mostly viewed through the pinhole lens that has typified West’s 2019 string of beguiling and confounding Sunday Service performances. (The IMAX aspect certainly helps with the stupendous loudness.) Whether that severely protracted fish-eye view is God’s telescope or Satan’s periscope is up for debate; the film’s only textual clue is a series of Bible verses, though 1 Samuel 2:3 doesn’t come up. (“I am unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time,” West had observed earlier Thursday afternoon during a sprawling, baffling, and reassuringly bombastic interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, during which he also noted that “Rome is the true Silicon Valley of humanity.”)
The film’s highlight is, however, an elegantly understated surprise: a reworked version of 808s & Heartbreak’s “Street Lights” (released in 2008, during the Mesozoic era), which begins with West in silhouette, physically sweeping the floor (!) and soon folded into a mellow quartet, including a pianist and an organist. You can tell it’s West’s voice because he struggles with the falsetto. Then, a quick pinhole shot of Kanye’s bare chest as he cradles his infant son, Psalm West, and croons a fragmented a cappella version of a new song, “Use This Gospel,” as in “use this gospel as a weapon.” This, too, is quite disarming and affecting. (Also disarming: The version of “Use This Gospel” on the album features both a reunited Clipse and Kenny G. We’ll get there.)
And then it’s over. Meaning, the movie. After a half-hour. The crowd in my theater chuckled nervously through the credits, having barely dented their giant-ass popcorn buckets. The drive to the theater, for some, was likely longer than the film itself. What a rip-off. What a flex. What a singularly Kanye West experience. We filed out under an amiable cloud of disbelief, though also a palpable sense of, like, of course. What else could’ve possibly happened? He got us again. He’s still the Old Kanye, in enough of the ways that count.
And then we all waited until midnight for Jesus Is King, the album, and it indeed took an additional 12 hours to materialize. But it also turned out to be much, much better than any reasonable Kanye West observer would’ve feared, and this might be his greatest provocation in a merciless three-year span full of nothing but provocation.
So, look. I would rather feed myself to a mountain lion than rehash the bullshit MAGA-hat tornado of joyless perplexity that whirled around his last project, 2018’s choppy and maddening Ye. Suffice it to say that in terms of pure musical quality, expectations for a Kanye West record have never been lower. Jesus Is King will not figure near the top of the revised Kanye album rankings I am begging you not to make, or at least publish. But it has a fighting spirit, a more purposeful sort of volatility, a combative serenity that qualifies as unexpected and not unwelcome. Deep in a hard year that notches seamlessly into a hard half-decade—for everybody, but him especially—you can’t just write him off, musically at least, even if you’re desperate to.
The Sunday Service Choir is a fearsome weapon indeed, kicking off the record with a blistering two-minute joybomb called “Every Hour” that feels like being raptured in fast-forward. But the group can evoke something very much like menace, too: “God is king, we the soldiers,” West raps by way of introduction on “Selah,” quickly summoning more momentum and conviction than he managed anywhere on Ye, godly but still, y’know, I-am-a-godly: “Keepin’ perfect composure / When I scream at the chauffeur / I ain’t mean, I’m just focused.” He figures you are skeptical, maybe, about his newfound devotion to God, his newfound aversion to cursing, his admission to Lowe that he asked his collaborators to refrain from premarital sex while working on this album. But when the choir fully kicks in, distilling the ultrasecular ferocity of Yeezus into the repeated word hallelujah, you will believe, at least, that he believes it. This is military gospel, devout and deeply concussive.
It took quite a while to get here, of course. It always does. “Everybody wanted Yandhi,” West observes, referring to this record’s chaotic and ultimately abortive fall-2018 form. “Then Jesus Christ did the laundry.” There are hints of what we have no choice but to call Vintage Kanye throughout Jesus Is King: “Follow God” is driven by a soothingly dusty ’70s gospel sample and lyrically animated by an argument between West and his father: “I was looking at the ’Gram and I don’t even like likes / I was screamin’ at my dad, he told me, ‘It ain’t Christ-like.’” But he’s finding bold new ways to mix the sacred with the profane, far less profane now but far more sacred. “On God,” driven by a nauseous keyboard arpeggio, is a swaggering sermon on the mount from a guy who recently commissioned his own mountain for Coachella, and manages to address everything from the Book of Job to the 13th Amendment (not his strong suit) to the strong commercial performance of the Yeezy 350s to the hefty IRS bill that followed. “That’s on God,” goes the refrain, and you suspect God would prefer to stay out of the vast majority of this, but that tension, when Jesus Is King even approaches greatness, is what makes it theoretically great.
There is much further discomfort. “Closed on Sunday” has moody acoustic guitar and nervous-angelic choral doo-doo-doos and a trademark groan-worthy Kanye West opening line—“Closed on Sunday / You’re my Chick-fil-A”—but the laugh catches in your throat, whether it’s with him or at him. It’s a family-man anthem (“Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray / When you got daughters, always keep ’em safe”) that doubles as a battle hymn: “I pray to God that he’ll strengthen my hand,” West croaks, a jarring synth line like an air-raid siren rising behind him. “They will think twice steppin’ onto my land.” The mood darkens as the meter gets clunkier. And for every soothing moment like the amniotic, Frank Ocean–ic chill of “Water,” there’s a more defiant and defensive jolt like “Hands On,” which costars gospel veteran Fred Hammond and brings up the 13th Amendment again and laments how Christians, especially, will react to his explicitly Christian album: “They’ll be the first one to judge me.” Also:
I’m not tryna lead you to Visas
But if I try to lead you to Jesus
We get called halfway believers
Only halfway read Ephesians
That’s funny, but it doesn’t sound funny when he says it. The central question of Jesus Is King, of course, is how sincere it sounds, how effective it is at convincing you that he’s not merely pivoting to gospel with the same shrewd calculation with which he once pivoted to, say, AutoTune. The climax in that regard is “God Is,” a slow power-ballad burn built on another bombastic ’70s gospel sample that finds our tarnished hero back in frayed-crooner mode, West’s shakiest ground as a vocalist but his firmest ground in terms of conviction: “This a mission, not a show / This is my eternal soul.” The song keeps you coming back, weighing the newfound humility versus the ever-present arrogance. That it keeps you coming back for any reason is a vast improvement on recent history.
And if the fate of West’s eternal soul doesn’t hold much interest for you, there is, indeed, the uneasy alarm-bell earworm of “Use This Gospel.” Which does indeed get Clipse back together, and for the record, the long-absent No Malice still meshes perfectly with Pusha T, tonally and lyrically: “Caught with a trunk of Barry Manilows / They sing a different tune when the slammer close.” And on the outro, the hook, indeed, is picked up by one Kenny G, a strident flex, a goofy provocation, a laugh-out-loud bit of stunt casting where the humor is in the pure audacity. Jesus Is King unveils odd and plainly contradictory new facets of Kanye West, and you can interrogate them or disregard them as you wish. But even in this vulnerable yet confrontational new guise, there is a sneaky-profound value in looking on as he talks and acts so very proudly.