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Hollow Praise: The Cash-Is-King Sermons of Kanye West

On ‘Jesus Is King,’ the rapper is more concerned with taxes and operating costs than redemption

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In 2015, Atlanta-based minister Creflo Dollar decided to put his faith in God, and in the generosity of his sizable following, and purchase a $65 million jet. The jet, Dollar said, would allow him to “safely and swiftly share the good news of the gospel worldwide.” It’d be a Gulfstream G650—the most expensive Gulfstream—reflecting the sterling standard of blessing you could hope to receive at Dollar Ministries. When people were understandably confused about why the good pastor couldn’t just fly commercial, Dollar answered back in sermon, and as it is, his response was a pretty good summary of prosperity theology: “I can believe God as long as I want to! If I wanna believe God for a $65 million plane, you can’t stop me from dreamin’!” (It’s true, we can’t, not really.)

On Kanye West’s new gospel album Jesus Is King, out last Friday, he raps with similar conviction about charging extortionate merch prices. Following a highly visible and protracted fall from grace that I refuse to break down any further because I would sooner die, Kanye has returned to the church. His solvency is now a godly concern, and the devil works in straightforward but nonetheless evil ways, like through operating taxes and overhead cost. “I can’t be out here dancing with the stars,” Kanye says on “On God,” a song where he clumsily shifts accountability for the past few years of his public life onto a higher power. It’s only made listenable by a high-spirited Pi’erre Bourne beat, which sounds like plug-and-play superhero theme music. If Kanye West was ever a lightning rod, an irresistible force that remade popular American music in his image several times over, he’s now more like a personification of Tony Robbins’s flattest aphorisms standing on a Sunday school lesson book and a stack of tarot cards in an oversized Balenciaga jacket. His swift, wholesale change from superstar rapper to megachurch pastor can’t come as a complete surprise, though. He’s always been a fan of Ma$e.

When the long-delayed Jesus Is King finally arrived well past its most recent deadline on Friday, there were hundreds of thousands of opinions. The most predictable was that we—people who felt betrayed by the latest revelations about West’s politics—would have lined up to trash the album even if it were the best music of his career. Jesus Is King, while not as frustratingly thin or slapped together as 2018’s ye—which is not nothing!—is definitely not the best music of his career. It’s an altar call to the captive Instagram generation propped up on the most digestible bits of Christianity, diluted in the language of self-care. (“You won’t ever be the same, once you call on Jesus’s name / listen to the words I’m sayin’ / Jesus saved me now I’m sane.”) It’s a retread of Kanye West’s well-worn ideas about pop morality plus a handful of scriptures and a liberal application of the Sunday Service Choir. On “Selah,” the most immoderate and rhapsodic of the album’s 11 songs, Kanye rhymes “John 8:33” with “Ye should be made free.” Much like Dollar’s, the Gospel of Kanye contains precious few parables, but has a lot of hazily empowering stuff about overcoming or succeeding in spite of.

Crucially, Jesus Is King is also not a great gospel album. It scarcely feels joyous, bright, or redemptive. At 27 minutes, it’s the length of maybe two Kirk Franklin songs, and on the whole, just an OK version of stuff Fred Hammond was knocking out of the park over two decades ago. Also, Fred Hammond may have the best vocal performance on the whole thing:

This mostly comes down to contrast. The greatest sin of Jesus Is King is that it’s boring, and Kanye—when not flattening literal centuries’ worth of text and thought about religious custom into a song about Chick-fil-A’s store hours—is inert, ineffectual, and generally difficult to believe in this space. Much like a choral arrangement of “So Anxious.” The only song truly deserving of a second listen, if just to appreciate West’s skill as a producer, is “Follow God”—with its gravelly Whole Truth sample and pounding drums, it could be a good piece of boom-bap in the hands of someone who still had some interest in rapping. How could Kanye, when there are tax shelters and low-income housing communities and hydrogen-powered iPlanes to build? Now that it’s not just the Yeezy Supply line, the music feels even more like an obligation. Jesus Is King is a way to wipe away his transgressions wholesale rather than thoughtfully engage with them. Go figure.

“I will no longer entertain—I’m not here for anyone’s entertainment,” West said during an interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, during which he proclaimed himself to be “the greatest human artist of all time.” He also announced that another album, Jesus Is Born, will be coming out on Christmas Day. Jesus be a fence.