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Oh My God, They Resurrected Kenny: On Kenny G’s Show-Stealing Kanye Guest Spot

The smooth-jazz icon pops up on ‘Jesus Is King,’ but it’s not for LOLs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Quick story: In 2010 I went to Michael Bolton’s house in Connecticut for a somewhat awkward cocktail party (long story) and beheld there, on the walls of his luxe recording studio next door, a music-industry plaque for Kanye West’s The College Dropout. It turns out that my personal favorite song on that album, “Never Let Me Down,” sampled a righteous 1980 tune from Bolton’s pre-fame rock band Blackjack; our dapper host conceded that prior to his (happily) clearing the sample, his daughters had to explain to him who Jay-Z was. Bolton served us giant wheels of cheese and proudly displayed his Deluxe Scrabble set, the kind where the board spins.

Anyway, right below the Kanye plaque on that wall was another industry award, this one celebrating Kenny G’s diamond-selling 1992 album Breathless; Bolton cowrote the single “By the Time This Night Is Over,” which I assume would be my personal favorite song on that record if I were a “personal favorite song on a Kenny G record” sort of person. The close proximity of those two plaques was profoundly amusing; “Kanye and Kenny G, together at last,” I wrote at the time, profoundly amused with myself.

In conclusion, I, personally, am 100 percent responsible for this.

On Friday, Kanye West unleashed his long-threatened gospel album, Jesus Is King, on his long-suffering fan base, and upon first perusing the tracklist, one tune verily leaps out at you: “Use This Gospel,” featuring Clipse and, yes, smooth-jazz giant Kenny G. The Clipse aspect is plenty monumental and poignant on its own, given that the mighty brotherly duo of Pusha T and No Malice (formerly just Malice, before his own impassioned and very public rededication to Christ) haven’t put out an album together in 10 years. “I’m the younger brother, man,” Pusha gushed recently to Vulture. “I mean, I’m happier than—I can’t even express it!” To a certain proudly washed breed of rap fan, “Use This Gospel” is a biblical event, and it seems an awful shame, at first blush, to undercut that poignance by stunt-casting Kenny G for goofy LOLs.

Indeed, when the brattier elements of 2010s pop culture join forces with the cornier (or at least smoother) elements of 1990s pop culture, goofy LOLs are usually the motivation: See Bolton’s own self-deprecating deployment in the 2011 Lonely Island jam “Jack Sparrow” or Celine Dion’s chest-pounding theme song to 2018’s Deadpool 2. (Deep cut: that time Ween cut a song with sax god David Sanborn.) The equation here is Unironic Uncoolness + Commercial Hugeness + Time = Ironic Coolness, and no ’90s white whale is huger or more elusive (or whiter) than Kenny G.

As the music-biz term diamond-selling is all but obsolete in 2019, let me remind you that it means that Kenny G’s Breathless sold more than 10 million copies, which makes that album the blinding jewel of the fearsome multi-multiplatinum catalog of the man born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick. The man with the golden sax(es). The man who once claimed the Guinness World Record for longest note held on a saxophone (held for over 45 minutes, thanks to circular breathing). The man with the rippling, majestic mane of “Weird Al” hair. The man who amiably clowned himself in a 2011 Audi Super Bowl ad. The man who has been amiably clowning himself on Twitter for the past decade.

And also the man who, in the estimable opinion of Stereogum critic and national hero Tom Breihan, is the best part of Kanye’s Jesus Is King, no joke, full stop. “Use This Gospel” has a maddeningly simple car-alarm “beat” and a barely more sophisticated vocal hook delivered in West’s typical smeary AutoTuned fashion; the real action arguably starts after Pusha and No Malice deliver their historical back-to-back verses. “When Kenny G arrives—catching the hook’s melody and dancing around it, embellishing it with a smoky lushness that feels effortless—he handily walks away with the song, and with the album,” Breihan writes. “It’s the one moment of genuine inspiration on a record that’s supposed to be about genuine inspiration.”

Whatever West’s intent in dropping Kenny G onto “Use This Gospel”—and deriving West’s true intent on any subject is both a national pastime and an exasperating lost cause—the result is far more effective, more poignant, more right than it has any right to be. As stunt-casting coups go, it fails as comedy and wildly succeeds as drama. With apologies to DaBaby or Megan Thee Stallion or even the great J.Cole, your boy just delivered the rap feature of the year.

And it all began, apparently, earlier this year, when Kenny G was commissioned to serenade Kanye’s wife, one Kim Kardashian, on Valentine’s Day.

This gesture, also, is tough to parse in terms of romanticism or sincerity, though setting up all those roses must’ve taken some poor Donda intern all morning, and in any event the star attraction sure had a great time. “I think people would be happy to know he’s got a great vibe around him,” Kenny raved of Kanye, recounting the experience to GQ earlier this month. “When you’re around him, there’s just nothing but positive energy coming out of that guy. And that’s really fun to be around.” Just as you suspected.

The romantic gesture deployed, the two men decamped to West’s studio to listen to some tracks for a star-crossed upcoming album still then known publicly as Yandhi. Kenny observed that his sax would sound great over one track in particular. (Per GQ, the word Kenny used to describe that track was anthematic, which is not a word, but diamond-sellers are legally permitted to invent their own words.) Kanye’s response, apparently verbatim, was “Cool.” And a new powerhouse rap duo was born.

Part of what makes Kenny G an effective pop-star collaborator in 2019 is his total blurriness: a vague sense of both hugeness and cheesiness untethered to the current pop landscape for good or ill. He’s currently on tour, and his holiday-themed shows in particular probably whip ass, but Kenny is happily long past his prime as either a commercial force or a serious-jazzman punching bag. In 1999 he released a cover of “What a Wonderful World” as a ghost duet with Louis Armstrong, prompting jazz guitarist Pat Metheny to lambaste him at great length for “musical necrophilia,” which is to say he sassed Kenny for choosing to “defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones).”

It goes on. It was a whole thing. But 20 years later Mr. G is just one more famous person whose fame is increasingly difficult to contextualize, given the current state of the music industry, and jazz, and rap, and the very notion of irony. Choose your own adventure.

The solo Kenny G rips on “Use This Gospel” is, indeed, a startling thing, a sucker-punch joke that quickly mutates into an even sharper sucker-punch highlight of one of the most bewildering and frustrating and relievingly enjoyable pop-music events of the year. He did the song live with Kanye and Clipse this past weekend, at Kanye’s latest Sunday Service performance, this time at the Forum in L.A., and as Kenny rips off a 90-second solo to kick off the song, you can hear the crowd’s whoops evolve in real time from gently sardonic to alarmingly genuine. You might say he turns water into wine.

Jesus Is King as a whole is a continent-sized minefield of intent, a devout provocation, and a half-decent collection of often half-baked tunes that adds yet another confounding chapter to the last few utterly infuriating years in the life of a Kanye West fan. What the average skeptical listener might believe about what Kanye really believes can shift from track to track, bar to bar, second to second. So why shouldn’t the least sincere moment at first glance become, in context, the most sincere, or at least the most emotionally satisfying? Put it another way: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”