By Nathan C. Vance
“Jesus is king!” Truer words have never been spoken. The Bible goes a step further, calling Him “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Those are words that I’ve based my whole life around. Unashamedly so. So whenever those words are spoken or written or used to title a highly anticipated musical project by a global figure, I take notice.
And I’m not immune from many of the same thoughts and questions that everyone else has had with regards to the 2019 version of Kanye West. Is this all authentic? Kanye has never previously struck me as a humble guy, or a conservative guy, and more than anything, he’s never previously struck me as a fellow follower of Christ. So I tuned in at the release of “Jesus is King” with a bit trepidation.
Now, along with my skepticism came a few questions for myself. The most obvious went something like this: what does it benefit Kanye to release a Christian album versus a simple secular pop hip hop LP like all of his other eight had been before? The name Kanye brings all of the credibility and intrigue needed to have a commercially successful composition. Further, Christian music isn’t known for its platinum records or critical accolades. I had to check myself a bit because releasing an album as Christian would actually work against the successes of Kanye’s career to this point. So other than creating a bit of controversy, the reasoning didn’t make sense to me.
And I had to be careful, I didn’t want to judge Kanye unfairly. I do not like hypocrites and I was very tempted to be one. Then I heard his track “Hands On” and knew that he anticipated people just like me. But in fairness, Kanye West has, in the past, exalted his own name as though he were a type of messiah, referring to himself as “Yeezus” previously. He’s also made statements in the past saying in 2010, “I sold my soul to the devil.” Point being, Kanye West wasn’t a name I expected to see leading the charge of revival in these United States.
And like many others have stated, this has a sort of Apostle Paul feel to it. Paul was chief among the persecutors against the early church. He was present as a witness to the murder of Stephen in the book of Acts. Paul was, for a season, as anti-Christ or at least anti-Jesus as any human being has ever been. And somehow, because of that more than in spite of it, he became the author of a third of the New Testament. He was a man to whom God revealed himself in a powerful way. He was a man who, like so many of us, once was blind but one day Jesus opened his eyes and then he could see.
While not a persecutor, Kanye seems equally as unlikely as Paul. And, if his conversion is real (and I believe that it absolutely is) Kanye has the worldwide appeal to make an impact similar to Paul’s. So with all that backstory, I decided to give “Jesus is King” a listen. A few of the tracks got several listens. And, I hate to admit that this won’t be a balanced article because I found myself absolutely loving it!
And when I say loving it, I don’t just mean the music, though I emphatically love the music, but far greater in my mind is the message. Kanye West has, through the creation and release of this album, let the world in to see him. This is not merely a presentation. This is not a glossy look at the life of a star, this is raw and real. Kanye West has opened the door to his soul, what it was, greedy, fornicated, lavished, corrupted, and shown the salvation that he received in Jesus Christ. His life was going one way and is now going the other. And in this record you see the Jesus that I saw and others like me see, the one that came into my life and stopped a raging storm. Kanye West has met the same Jesus that came to the aid of the woman in adultery telling the Pharisees that they without sin could cast the first stone at her. He is a savior in every sense of the word, and the only true salvation. He is the one who breaks addiction, gives peace, heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, and sets the captive free. His grace, for a sinner like me, and a sinner like Kanye West is the measure of Jesus the king!
And in all of that, there was actually music too. I say that tongue and cheek because this record strikes the deepest chord in my soul. With every reason not to do so, Kanye West is risking everything to boldly proclaim the truth! This little light of his, he’s not hiding under a bushel, no, but he’s letting it shine. I hope that it shines bright like the sun.
Sonically it does just that, shining brightly, every track feeling fresh and unique and incredibly pleasing to the ear. Bob Dylan once said that no one mixed a track like Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. I believe Kanye has that same gift. Kanye really gets the essence of the eternal struggle outlined in scripture and that Jesus is the lion, the lamb, the lord, and the king.
The album opens in church. Or at least that’s how I felt, like I was in church. The first two tracks, “Every Hour” and “Selah”, are the punch in the face announcement that music from Kanye as we knew it is officially over. These two songs would fit more comfortably in a late 90s Kirk Franklin catalog than anywhere close to names like Jay-Z or Eminem. This is like the opening of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” in the immediacy with which it announces that change has come. This was a fitting two song opening to set the brilliant tone of the epic “Jesus is King”. In “Selah” specifically, the listener is presented with basically a sermon followed by the rejoices of the people, an incredible feat for a likely number one album in 2019.
From there, the song that caught my attention and is currently stuck on repeat in my head is “Use This Gospel.” Upon first listen it was just really unexpected. The backing track is so dramatic, with the single key piano rhythm leading into an almost ominous harmonious synthesizer of vocal humming. And without any real percussion the lyrics swim through the music and it creates a mood of a supernatural battle summed in a title that understands that the weapon to use in the Great War is the gospel. And Kanye’s last words on the hook are powerful, “In the Father we put our faith.” To that I say amen. And much will be made about the power sax played by Kenny G which was remarkable as well as the Clipse reunion which only adds to the theatricality and strength of the song. In my view it is an instant classic.
Then there is “Water”. And like water it flows. Silky vocals and gospel choir create ambience and that is so important. But then we see Kanye’s newfound humility with words like, “I’m not hiding anything.” If only we could all be this transparent, at very least with ourselves. In this track more than anywhere else Kanye puts forward the real star rapping, “Jesus, heal the bruises Jesus, clean the music, Jesus, please use us, Jesus please help Jesus please heal Jesus, please forgive Jesus, please reveal…” And there’s so much more, but you see that it’s not all about Kanye, but the God that is king over Kanye. Those words flow out from the soul, aptly stated, just like water. It’s a song so beautiful that, like a good glass of water, I want more when it’s over.
The next track to grab me was “God Is”. This is, in my opinion, the most overtly gospel track reaching back to other musical and spiritual influences. This sounds like true gospel with choir and all. This song belongs in church ASAP. And then there’s the other obvious Kanye connection. The voice of Bob Dylan shows up in Kanye. Not literally of course, but in the raw and rhapsy tone that gives Kanye a feeling of vulnerability. And in it you see an eager new convert, one that may not know every detail, but knows what he’s been saved from and knows the whole world needs that same salvation. Kanye has always chased the idea of being a modern Dylan and it’s ironic that, like Dylan, Kanye’s born again experience had to flow through into his music. God is is so beautiful and in it Kanye shows himself no charlatan but an authentic evangelist. And how compassionate? It’s like he found the cure to the cancer destroying him and he is now desperate to get it in every hand he can.
And there are many other highlights. “Closed On Sunday” has a playful reference to Chick-Fil-A while also powerfully enforcing the role that Kanye’s children and his concern for their eternal souls has played in his fall to grace. As a father of one with one on the way I know the weight of fatherhood. How every thought is of your child’s best, their safety, security, health and happiness. It is touching to see that love on this track. It is powerful to see that love call a weary dad to action.
In other tracks you hear the struggle to know what comes next and where West now fits. There is a Peter-like zeal in Kanye to just be heard and for the right reason. I can listen and see a few overeager missteps on the way, and I smile. After all, Kanye West is human. And still battles relationships with the world, with his father, with himself, and even his role-reversed relationship with the Devil who he informs that he’s on strike against after a life lived in dedication to the darkness. And with each track I know that future listens will reveal more and more revelations. And for now, I’m listening satisfied by the Kanye West for Jesus revolution.
Time will tell what historians and peers think about Jesus Is King, but from my perspective it’s a 10 out of 10. It strikes all the right notes of pushing limits and being courageous and is honest as can be. It listens like a marriage of “Good Vibrations” with “What’s Goin On”, “Every Grain of Sand”
with “Amazing Grace”, and in all of it was the old familiar singular brilliance of Kanye West. From a career standpoint this was a risk that delivered above every imaginable expectation. It’s also the fulfillment of a prayer Kanye may have subconsciously made early on, saying, “Jesus walk with me. God show me the way because the devil tryin to break me down.”
If Kanye holds to his word and it’s strictly Christian music from here on out, count me among those waiting for more in eager anticipation.