The album, JESUS IS KING, is available here:
25th October, 2019
GOOD Music, Def Jam Recordings
THERE are artists and tracks…
that have been released this week that are bigger and better. I am a fan of Kanye West’s earlier albums; when he was shaping into this Hip-Hop pioneer and really shaking things up. Consider albums like The College Dropout (2004) and the impact that had. There have been few more revelatory and influential Hip-Hop albums over the past couple of decades. I wanted to talk about Kanye West’s latest album because, for him, it is a move in a different direction. I want to look at West and the image he projects; his spirituality and Gospel music in general. I also want to document mental illness and how, in some ways, West is raising awareness and helping others. I want to finish off by talking about West as a Hip-Hop icon who, love him or loathe him, produces music that is original, bold and important. I will start off by talking about how many people perceive Kanye West. I am going to bring in a few articles that talk about West’s chat with Zane Lowe recently – the two talked for his Apple Music’s Beats 1 show. When you hear West speak, you get some wisdom and depth, but there is also a lot of confusion and controversy. I do think artists like West are being revered by young listeners and acting as a role model. There are many who will look at West as a role model and want to follow what he does. I know a lot of Hip-Hop artists have a confidence that borders on arrogance. It seems to be part of the genre. There is a line between braggadocio and offence; a difference between those who are trying to stir things up a bit and artists who go a bit too far. One can say that part of Kanye West’s game and image is him saying what he wants. He is a supporter of President Trump and has made no secret of that. When he spoke with Zane Lowe recently, West was asked about his affiliation with Donald Trump; West was not shy when it came to hubris:
“West also brought up President Donald Trump and wearing a MAGA hat. “Give me some other examples where someone is saying what isn’t culturally what you're supposed to say,” he asked Zane Lowe, referring to Trump. “Give me an example where someone is saying what you're not supposed to say. You don’t want to say it, do you liberal?”
PHOTO CREDIT: Mario Sorrenti
After that, West said:
God is funny. Drake lives four blocks down the street from me. So that shows you that God has a sense of humor. Now, liberals love art, right?
And now—I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time. It’s not even a question at this point. It’s just a fact. For the greatest artist in human existence to put a red hat on was God’s practical joke to all liberals. Like, Nooo, not Kanye!”.
You can look at those remarks and brush them off as this artist being cocky and trying to get attention. Whilst West can be brushed off a lot of times, it seems that, more and more, he is in the news because of his remarks, rather than his music. His new album, JESUS IS KING, has some brilliant moments, but it has drawn some criticism – many say it lacks real punch; West does not fully embrace spirituality and it is not as bold as it could have been. I do wonder whether the Hip-Hop pioneer has already peaked and he will be able to hit the same sort of highs he did years ago. This is not the first time West has courted controversy or been pulled up because of something he said. You only need to do a quick Google search to see some of the other remarks he has made and it does take you back! Maybe it links into mental illness – which I shall come to later -, but I do think West is sending out so many bad messages. His music is interesting and worthy of appreciation. There are artists out there who follow him closely and one cannot deny the fact West has released some sensational music. I do hope his new faith and commitment means he will be a bit wiser when it comes to speaking out. West can act as a positive role model and actually make a difference in the world. It is a shame that so much of his reputation and legacy exists in something quite uncomfortable and off-putting. I shall revisit this theme later in the review.
PHOTO CREDIT: Taylor Hill/Getty Images
There are a lot of great artists out there, but I wonder how often we hear anything spiritual. I think there is a difference between the religious and spiritual. One can sing about spirituality and a sense of inner-freedom without mentioning God. I feel music is going through changes at the moment, but there is very little in the way of the spiritual. I do think urgency and reflection of political division is important today; maybe artists are not branching out as much. I am not religious myself. I love music that does have a depth and beauty that touches the senses. In these hectic and troubled times, I think everyone could do with a bit more spirituality and wellness in music. I am not suggesting we are all meditative and put in this sort of trance. Rather, we could have music that has this rare grace and purity that makes one feel better, more enlightened and calm. That would be no bad thing, for sure. Right now, there is a lot of anger and confusion about. Artists are doing the best they can to represent modern life and speak the truth. It can get a bit heavy, and one does need a moment to unwind and discover some form of beauty and higher plain. I want to bring in an article from earlier in the year, where it highlights West’s plans to open a church. It is clear that something has changed in his life. He has this spiritual side and wants to explore this in a more open and real way:
“On the show his wife Kim Kardashian-West explained that they began because Kanye wanted to plant a church.
“The last few years Kanye has always said that he wanted to start a church,” she said. “So he just started it for his close friends and family.”
Kanye explained, “I had the idea of making a church before but I really was sketching it out. Then in 2019, I was like I’m not letting a Sunday go by without making this.”
Kanye said that at this point he doesn’t plan on getting a pastor involved, but he is interested in improving the experience. He said on the show “We just got to take some time and keep growing and make it better.”
He suggested that his services could start incorporating more traditional church elements, like hymnals or song lyrics on a screen. Oh yeah, and he wants to encourage people to start bringing their Bibles. He said, “We going to start laying it out where you can know the songs, we’re going to have the words and for people to just bring their Bibles”.
For those out there such as myself who are non-religious and do not really look for faith in music, I do think we could all be a little more broad-minded. I am not saying that involves believing in God – as there would be no point -, but maybe adopting a mindful approach; perhaps exploring music and thoughts that are different to what we are used to. As I said earlier, there is a clear difference between the spiritual and religious. Look at classic Soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, and they were very much moved by the spiritual. Although God does make it into the pages of the songbooks of the greats, I think the soul and a sense of belief is more prevalent. When it comes to Kanye West’s new album, he is very much bringing Gospel music to the fore. There is always going to be that struggle ‘selling’ religion to a music world that is largely secular. I have reviewed a Christian Rock band before, years ago, and did find that the religious content was actually quiet sparse and there was a lot to recommend. One does not have to be a believer, necessarily, to enjoy genres like Christian Rock or Gospel. Maybe we have built up this impression of what to expect and the fact it will be quite preachy and unappealing. It is brave when a big artist like Kanye West departs from genres like Hip-Hop and Rap and makes this big career move.
PHOTO CREDIT: Marc Piasecki
I do think this move is one he needs to take, considering some of his troubles and the fact he needs some guidance and direction. Maybe God will not give him the answers – as he doesn’t exist -, but the fact he is dedicating himself to something loving and community-based is a good thing. Look at Hip-Hop and there is still a big problem with drugs and violence. It would be a harsh stereotype to say the genre is dogged with controversy and trouble. There are still some big issues, and there is a lot of improvement to be made. There is still a problem with misogyny and sexism; there is violence and bad message portrayed in certain songs. Whilst improvements have been made and progression is happening, I do feel like there is a way to go. One could question just how committed West is to his new path of enlightenment. When they were assessing JESUS IS KING, Pitchfork remarked how, perhaps, little has changed:
“They say we should separate church and state, but nobody ever said we couldn’t unite church and the Supreme store. With “On God,” the fifth track from Kanye West’s gospel-infused album Jesus Is King, the Chicago rapper sets out to make an anthem for pastors with a pair of Off-White VaporMaxes in the closet of their multimillion-dollar homes. Kanye wants us to think he’s a new man—no more cursing or Grammy worship—though a close look at this song’s lyrics prove that he hasn’t changed much. “Thirteenth Amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me,” he says, wading back into the controversy about slavery that he ignited last year without really clarifying anything. Elsewhere, he blames the exorbitantly high prices of his sneakers on the IRS and because he “can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars.” It’s self-sacrifice at its most self-absorbed”.
It is not going to be a quick change, this road to betterment. I don’t think it would be fair to accuse West of exploiting religion or this (his new faith) being a hype move.
He definitely is trying to turn over a new leaf, but it seems like he has not lost his Hip-Hop spirit. Maybe he has hit upon a new genre? I am not sure, but he has definitely transcended an old way of working and thinking. Maybe there is this feeling that West’s best work is behind him and he has lost some focus. Whatever you think of his new music, it is clear religion and God is keen on West’s mind. Before moving on, I want to bring in another exert from the interview West gave to Zane Lowe. He talked about his family and spiritual side:
“On His Spirituality and Relationship With Family: "A smart man has the ability to pivot to say i think something different now. I don't think this because it's the culture. I don't think North should wear crop tops just because I had her wearing a slip dress when she was 2-years-old. I think and feel differently now, now that I'm Christian, now that I'm founder of a 3 billion dollar organization and married for five years."
"What I have learned from five years of marriage is it is the greatest bond. It is God bond to be able have someone that you can call on, someone you can call out, someone call you out, equally yolked, someone to complain to and someone to grow with as we grow and raise our children."
"I started giving myself two curses a day, like it's a video game. People say God doesn't have scorecard, [I] gave myself Christian scorecard. Get on the phone, 'I'm like man they bout to lower my Christian scorecard".
I applaud West for being very open about religion because, as I said, music is not really overloaded with artists who are talking about faith. Gospel music is not a big a part of music as it was. We do not hear many songs that espouse faith and affirmative messages. Whilst Gospel music will never be in vogue and in the mainstream, it raises a question regarding today’s music: Are things too secular? When it came to older Soul and R&B, there was more of a place for religion and different faiths. I feel we have become more closed-off to religion and it struggles on the outskirts. Surely, if we are aiming for equality and broadness in music – from sexuality to race -, we need to think about faith.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Demarchelier
I will talk about a song from Kanye West’s new album soon but, before then, I want to talk about a very important side of West’s reputation. There is no secret that Kanye West has lived with mental illness for a long time. Whilst we cannot right off every misguided thing West says to his illness, one cannot judge him too harsh. He is bipolar and, as is typical with a lot of sufferers, they can be reckless, be outspoken and take big risks. If you are an artist as big as Kanye West, that is exacerbated; you are always in the spotlight and it can be very difficult to find stability and quiet. Maybe his new comments about being the greatest human around is him being a bit of a cock. Again, you can bring a line in that splits mental illness and rational excuse and someone being arrogant and looking for press. I do think that artists like Kanye West are helping remove stigma that is attached to mental illness. We are in an age where there is still not enough conversation and understanding. Many people are reluctant to open up dialogue. For those who live with mental illness, it is not always easy to talk and be honest. I can only imagine how hard it is for a popular artist to be frank when it comes to mental-health. They are helping a lot of people, yes, but there is that tabloid focus and there will be some out there who judge and scorn. In a recent feature with David Letterman, West talked about his bipolar disorder and the affect it has on him:
“David Letterman’s ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’, premiering on Netflix May 31st
Comparing bipolar disorder to a "strained brain", Kanye explained his experience of a typical "episode": “Everyone — this is my experience, other people have different experiences — everyone now is an actor. Everything’s a conspiracy. You feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded. You feel all these things. You have this moment [where] you feel everyone wants to kill you. You pretty much don’t trust anyone.” West went on to infer his bipolar disorder might have been the cause of past controversies – “If you don’t take medication every day to keep you at a certain state […] you start acting erratic, as TMZ would put it”, referencing his much-maligned interview with TMZ in May last year where he said that "slavery is a choice".
PHOTO CREDIT: Roy Rochlin/Getty Image
West spoke about the wide-ranging effects of mental health problems, highlighting their prevalence in the general population and the impact of modern stresses on us all: “We're all dealing with mental health”, said Kanye. “We're, like, completely bullied by the media, both celebrities and the masses, to think certain things and have group thought. Like, 'Oh yeah, damn right we're going crazy'." Representation – the power of seeing your own struggles shared by personalities in the public eye – is invaluable. As Kanye noted in interview, he’s “the most famous person with [bipolar disorder]”: much misunderstood, highly stigmatised, the condition is leant new light and understanding by West’s candour. Bipolar UK estimates that as much as 5% of the population is on the ‘bipolar spectrum’ – if you don’t suffer personally, then, you certainly know someone who does (whether they’re open about it or not.) Thanks to Kanye, the world at large is joining a conversation previously held behind closed doors”.
I do have some sympathy for Kanye West, because he does have to carry mental illness and also has this huge legacy. He must have this pressure to succeed, to keep pushing himself and be the very best. For some artists, that would be too much strain and expectation. One assumes that all the riches and rewards he has in life would make that better. Conversely, that can be a crutch and an emptiness that does nothing to help. I know there are people in the world who hear West talking about his mental well-being and they will take heart. Someone that popular and famous could hide a way and not want to discuss something as weighty and personal. Whatever you think of West, he is being brave and making a difference to people. Some could say that, again, he might be looking for attention and he just likes talking about himself – I would not entertain some cynicism! There are a lot of controversial sides to Kanye West and, whilst JESUS IS KING might not be to everyone’s taste, you cannot deny the role West has played when it comes to moving Hip-Hop on and invigorating the next generation.
When it comes to poisoners, there are few as powerful and important as West. In this article, the writer talks about Kanye West rocking up and altering the path of Hip-Hop:
“Hip-hop in the early 2000’s revolved around the so-called ‘Timbaland sound’, a style that favored beats with scattered drums and digital keyboards. But by incorporating more soulful samples into The Blueprint, the album’s production sparked a shift back to more sample-reliant sounds within the hip-hop industry.
As writer Del F. Cowie states, “[Blueprint caused] the reign of the digitally cold keyboard-driven production style [to be] dislodged as the predominant sound.” The Blueprint helped cause a revival in the use of samples as the basis of production, and Ye was a big reason why.
In this era, it seemed that there was no place for observation on topics such as religion, family, prejudice and materialism; that is until Kanye stepped into the void. Kanye’s debut album, The College Dropout, had its greatest impact in changing the rules of what a hip-hop artist has to be like.
In referring to the album’s lyrical content and his character, Kanye once said, “My persona is that I’m the regular person. Just think about whatever you’ve been through in the past week, and I have a song about that on my album.” This stance of appointing himself in direct relation to the listener, as opposed to the drastic divide many of the bling-era rappers painted, represented a substantial change in how relatable a successful rapper could be.
The traditional rules within hip-hop tended to denounce any artist that connected even a little with their sensitive side, with there being huge pressure to maintain a sense of street cred by appearing ‘gangster’. Kanye went against this tradition and opened up the boundaries of hip-hop to include tales of being heartbroken, of pining over an ex, of wondering if you can ever get it all back together”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Forbes
There is something quite enticing when Closed on Sunday starts. I think this song is about taking a day off and actually detaching from social media and the usual chaos for open day of the week. Many do that by going to church and, from the off, there is this choral hum and sense of uplift. It is a beautiful sound, and one does not know where the track is heading. West does not come in with swagger and the usual sense of confidence. Instead, he is proffering a sense of family and peace – although that can be quite deceiving for a first impression. Put away the Instagram and selfies; hold hands with loved ones and pray. I wonder whether he is simply advocating prayer and family time or whether there is something more foreboding in his words – maybe the curse of modern technology and how disconnected we are. West talks about “vipers” and how they can “indoctrinate”. Maybe he is referring to politicians but, as he is a Trump man, is takes on a rather sour tone. I think the words are aimed more at those who try to control and lead by lies. Those who have reviewed Closed on Sunday ask whether the religious imagery and proclamations are halfhearted and what West is aiming for. In the opening verse, he refers to the desire for families to be together and give thanks to God. By keeping pretty cool and delivering this very focused and (almost) soulful vocal, the words do resonate. West puts emotion into the lines, and it is hard to argue against the meaning and truth of the words. I do think he is fearful of modern society and how we are being led astray by technology and politics. In this age, is religion and the church a way to bond? West highlights how we are no-one’s slaves and, for families, they need to raise their sons to obey. As the second verse comes in, West talks about standing up for his home and walking a road alone.
The song’s pace hardly changes and, for those who prefer a more freewheelin’ West, they might be disappointed. Instead, we get a song that is more like a sermon. Perhaps it is less fired and passionate than your normal one, but there is this sense of feeling and determination in his voice. West has, it seems, given his life to God and is no longer his own man. Whether this means West was looking for strength at an unsure time or he sees himself as a God-like figure, I am not so sure. It is clear that celebrity and mental illness have taken a toll and, maybe, putting his life in the hands of a higher power has been constructive and given him fresh lease. For those who want to see whether West has been reborn and transformed, you just need to listen to Closed on Sunday to realise there is still that Hip-Hop confidence in him. Rather than provide this joyful lift and celebratory tone, the song does have this feeling that West is serving himself and not looking at the wider world. Perhaps, even when he is being devout, there is this focus on his own path and feelings. The song does get more intense and you can hear greater strength and fight come into the fray. I really like Closed on Sunday and feel like it is a needed evolution and departure for an artist who is among the most inventive out there. The lack of beats and the brash on the song might mean some of his older fans will take a while to adjust. Closed on Sunday is only one side of the story. In this personal New Testament, West is exploring faith and trying to be a better person. There will always be doubters out there who query his new lease and sense of focus. I do think the JESUS IS KING album needs more time to settle, because it has been delayed and there has been so much hype around. I am not the biggest Kanye West fan around, but there is plenty to recommend when it comes to Closed on Sunday – and the JESUS IS KING album as a whole.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tamarra/Getty Images
I have talked a lot about Kanye West and why he divides people. He is never boring, and he is an artist who is moving forward and changing things up. Maybe West has not completely shed his old skin and moved away from the sort of lyrics and descriptions that defined his previous work. There is, of course, plenty of mention to God and faith, but many have questioned whether God is being praised rather than used as a very commercial way. How committed is West to religion and enlightenment? One has their own opinions, but I do think West could change his life and find greater peace through religion. I am not religious myself, but never criticise anyone that has belief. It can provide great strength and direction when things are bad. In terms of the music, it would have been hard to put out a pure Gospel album or something that was entirely religious. There are few artists who integrate Hip-Hop and Gospel elements to such effect. Maybe JESUS IS KING is just the first step to a turnaround and new sound. It would be interesting seeing where West goes next and what he has planned. I don’t think there are immediate plans when it comes to touring. You never know with West, so you can never say never! Keep your eyes peeled and I am sure there will be something announced fairly soon. JESUS IS KING is one of his most divisive albums, but I do think it is a transitioning to a new sound for him. Maybe future albums will be more focused and committed. We can only hope. I did want to write about Closed on Sunday, because it is a really interesting song and one that warrants exploration. I shall leave things here, but I would recommend people get a copy of Jesus Is King, as it has some great moments and brilliant tracks. I feel West is trying to be a less controversial figure. If religion is the way to do it, one cannot fault his desire. West will always say silly things and he is never going to deflate his ego entirely. I hope Jesus Is King is the first step towards some…
PHOTO CREDIT: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
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