‘It’s On God!’ An Analysis of Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’

Photo: Peter Hutchins (Yeezus tour, 2013)

For some, it’s a marketing grab from one of this century’s most overrated bigots. For others, it’s a humbling surrender from a husband and father who has finally found his peace with Jesus. For long-time Kanye West fans, however, ‘Jesus Is King’ has always been knocking on the door. For better and for worse, faith has loomed large throughout West’s discography, in the infamous ‘Jesus Walks’ (from 2004’s ‘The College Dropout’), the self-aggrandising ‘I Am A God’ (from 2013’s ‘Yeezus’), and the reverent ‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘Saint Pablo’ (from 2016’s ‘The Life of Pablo’). And now here we are, recipients of a gospel album from an artist whose spiritual journey has played itself out in public for over 15 years.

For long-time Kanye West fans, ‘Jesus Is King’ has always been knocking on the door. Faith has loomed large throughout West’s discography

What really stands out is how much activated faith there is throughout the album. Through reflections on Scripture, such as “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, not divide” (On God); songs of thankfulness (‘Everything We Need’); samples that repeat prayers of petition (“Father, I stretch / Stretch my hands to you” on ‘Follow God’) and outright praise and worship led by Kanye’s Sunday Service Choir (‘Every Hour’), ‘Jesus Is King’ is curated by a host of super producers (including Pierre Bourne on the fantastic ‘On God’) into a vibrant yet still contemplative outpouring of newfound faith in which the power and grace of God take centre stage.

A standout track, Use This Gospel is a powerful call to faith-based action for Christians who feel caught between the two worlds of spirit and flesh, evidenced more starkly when you consider the refrain ‘Use this gospel for protection … in the Father, put our faith’ and the fact that the track features both members of one of rap’s greatest sibling duos, Clipse. Throughout the track, brothers Pusha T (a long-time Kanye collaborator who laid down that verse on ‘Runaway’ from West’s 2010 album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’) and No Malice (who himself experienced a radical conversion to Christ, broke from Clipse, and changed his stage name) share bars with Kanye in their first reunion since their 2014 hiatus. Together, the trio reflect on God’s work in their lives, with No Malice delivering one of the album’s standout verses as he reflects on his transformation from cocaine pusher to rap preacher; “A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those … Blindfolded on this road, watch me faith walk …” It’s the insights into these spiritual journeys that make ‘Jesus Is King’ such a moving experience: it’s the grace of God on full display.

More Jesus than Kanye

Despite still referring to himself as ”The greatest artist restin’ or alive” (‘On God’) and fearing judgment from Christians who won’t accept his newfound faith (“What have you been hearing from the Christians? / They’ll be the first ones to judge me” on ‘Hands On’), ‘Jesus Is King’ focuses much more on Jesus than it does on Kanye, and, for anyone who identifies with the younger brother from Luke 15, the tone of the songs will be starkly familiar. In ‘Selah’, West’s self-gratifying album intentions are rebuked and humbled by God; “Everybody wanted Yandhi / Then Jesus Christ did the laundry”; in ‘On God’, he’s calling others to faith; “‘Accept Him as your Lord and Saviour’ I replied…”; and in the stunning ‘Water’, he’s clinging to God in prayer; “Jesus, please help, / Jesus, please heal / Jesus, please forgive, /Jesus please reveal…Jesus, give us grace / Jesus, keep us safe.”

From start to finish, this isn’t just a Kanye-goes-gospel album. ‘Jesus Is King’ carries with it the unfettered joyful noise of a prodigal returned home: and the family should celebrate!

‘Jesus Is King’ focuses much more on Jesus than it does on Kanye—for anyone who identifies with the younger brother from Luke 15, the tone of the songs will be starkly familiar.

In Christian circles, people have been talking about the album and, as you would expect, opinions have been drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives. What I keep returning to when pressed on these matters are these bars from the album’s second track, ‘Selah’; “Won’t be in bondage to any man, John 8:33 / We the descendants of Abraham / Ye should be made free / John 8:36 Whom the son sets free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me!” When former slave trader John Newton penned the lyrics to what would become ‘Amazing Grace’, he did so acutely aware of the divide between himself and God that the cross of Christ had bridged, and I can’t stop thinking about that amazing grace. See, if Jesus can save me, or you, or a slave trader, why couldn’t he save Kanye West?

Time may prove me wrong, but I’m praying expectantly that this apparent seed of faith would bear fruit to salvation in the life of Kanye West, and even though it seems weird to pray for him, if you consider yourself a redeemed “wretch like me”, you might as well too. After all, as the closing lyrics of Jesus Is King read, drawing from Philippians 2:10-11; “Every knee shall bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus is Lord” (‘Jesus Is Lord’)

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