The album is called “Jesus Is King,” and it’s designed to annoy the snowflakey heathens of social media, as if West hasn’t been doing this holy-savior cosplay for his entire career. When he landed on the cover of Rolling Stone back in 2006, he wore a bloody crown of thorns and a light smirk, cementing his persecution complex to the center of his creative impulse. Thirteen years later, he’s a contrarian without a cause. “What have you been hearing from the Christians?” the 42-year-old asks on this new album. “They’ll be the first one to judge me, make it seem like nobody love me.”
West used to be a pop-culture insurgent who only knew forward motion, an egomaniacal maestro whose most self-centered blab usually erupted in the direction of truth. Now he’s pacing up and down the trail he once burned, kicking up the ashes. And what a dull mess he’s made over the past few years. During a wisp of a new song called “God Is,” he spouts Christian bookstore banalities at the top of his voice: “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, all the things he has in store/From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through his door” — and suddenly, we’re light-years away from “Ultralight Beam,” a neo-gospel anthem from 2016 in which our hero’s search for divinity felt as celestial as it should have.
Since then, West’s journey has been all over the map, taking him through UCLA’s Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and later, into the Oval Office, where he told President Trump that his customized MAGA hat “made me feel like Superman.” In a recent interview with Apple’s Zane Lowe, West said that he still considered himself a liberal, but remained a Trump supporter, and that “no one is gonna control my opinion.” He still appeared to have no understanding of the trust he has betrayed by aligning himself with a president who, among other things, once insisted a lethal, white-supremacist march included some “very fine people.” Instead, West bragged about his little red hat, calling it “God’s practical joke to all liberals.” See how easy it is to slink out of responsibility and into God’s light?
By now, it’s clear that West has no real ideology. He only believes in provocation. Oh, and Jesus. So why does this album — which finally came out on Friday after West had blown through numerous self-imposed deadlines — sound so thin, so incoherent, so incomplete, so uncommitted, so insincere? As a producer, he’s worn out his tactics, from the crinkly soul samples, to the Auto-Tuned sneers, to the renta-choirs who always sound 20 times more prepared to do their job than West ever does. Is the stunt-solo from Kenny G on “Use This Gospel” really the most invigorating sound to be heard on this whole thing?
There are no curse words on the lyric sheet, and that’s a first. West has said he’s going to sanitize all the naughty parts of his old songs in future concerts, too. But this tiny gesture only underscores how morally superficial “Jesus Is King” ultimately feels, dividing the complexity of the human experience into good and bad, righteousness and sin. West doesn’t want his newfound faith to feel complicated. “[I’m] wrestling with God,” he raps on “Follow God,” a church organ keening in the corner of the room. “I don’t really wanna wrestle.”
That means “Jesus Is King” is either an attempt at self-erasure or an act of self-delusion. For anyone who ever believed that West’s most imaginative impulses blurted toward honesty, justice and utopian possibility, it’s an occasion to mourn a misplaced faith.