On Sunday night, Kanye West brought Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Experience, his impromptu album-plus documentary premiere event, to New York. What he played — a working version of Jesus Is King — is incomplete. The event itself, announced with mere hours’ notice (though West’s fans didn’t seem to mind), was equally unrehearsed. The security guards at United Palace, an ornate venue in Harlem, lamented the fact that they knew almost nothing about the night’s proceedings; the Yeezy faithful who arrived in search of answers only left with more questions (and probably some merch). The release date for Jesus Is King remains unknown, rumored features are still missing, leaked tracks are being tweaked for Christian consumption, and Kanye’s vocal performances travel the gamut from alert and masterful to rushed and mumbled.
Admittedly, for West’s fanbase much of that doesn’t matter: The music is beside the point. We were in a room for “A Kanye West Experience,” and that’s what we got. In 2019, that includes fans cheering for A$AP Bari and standing in line for the chance to purchase $140 crew necks, Chris Rock sneaking in nearly undetected, and watching North and Saint West dance onstage as their father projected two documentaries. As Kanye praised God, his fans praised Kanye. Hearing Jesus Is King in this context, it was almost impossible to decide whether West was sharing a deft return to form, or a new artistic detour. Here’s everything we know.
It’s a Christian Rap Album
Jesus Is King is a gospel album in the same way a square is a rectangle: It fits only the most basic criteria. West samples recognizable gospel components to form the basis for most of the songs on the album; a majority of the production features pared-back guitars, mournful organs and pianos, and choral arrangements deployed like soul samples. Likewise, the main subject matter is firmly rooted in Christianity. Parts of the “Lord’s Prayer” will show up in a chorus, or West will use the name “Jesus” as the first word of every bar of a verse. Still, West can’t stay away from modern hip-hop and pop textures. Instead of cinematic soul singers or a choir, a sizable swath of the project features West singing alone.
There’s a Drum Problem
The gift and curse of a listening session is the volume. In the gilded cavern of the United Palace, the album played so loudly it felt like all of Washington Heights could hear the echoes of Jesus Is King. This underlined a dearth of drums for long stretches of the album. At certain points, the crowd nearly stopped swaying, unable to latch onto a sense of rhythmic timing (this also could be due to the kind of audience member who drops everything on a Sunday night to see two documentaries and listen to a new Kanye album).
Kanye and drums have a complex history. On “Last Call,” the final song on The College Dropout that features a long, autobiographical monologue, he admitted to sampling Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” for Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life,” because the drums didn’t sound right. “My drums are actually my Achilles heel,” he later said on an episode of the Juan Epstein podcast. “Even with ‘Stronger,’ I would ask Pharrell, I’d ask Timbaland, to help me redo these drums ’cause it just don’t knock. We still to this day redo the drums to ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing.’”
On first listen, it seems like Jesus Is King could use some more 808s. Someone call Toomp and Timbaland.
“New Body” Returns, Is Christian-safe
It was unclear how Kanye was going to fit his ode to the wonders of plastic surgery and the myths of body count into what is meant to be a gospel album. When it leaked, “New Body,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Nicki Minaj, featured a decidedly horny West beginning his verse with “new ass, new tits, new bitch, true this,” while Nicki raps about old bodies and dick and mileage. In its updated form, the aforementioned body is simultaneously more metaphorical and metaphysical. The previously secular song is now filled with the Christian-appropriate, “You’ve been born again in your new body.” Sadly, the Nicki verse had yet to come in by Sunday night.
Kanye Keeps Talking About The 13th Amendment
In September 2018, West added to a growing list of controversial statements by writing on Twitter that he “will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment,” while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In a subsequent tweet, he tried to clarify: “the 13th Amendment is slavery in disguise, meaning it never ended. We are the solution that heals,” before admitting on TMZ that “abolish” wasn’t the correct word and that he should’ve said, “amend.”
He references the moment at least twice on the album. During “On God,” he raps “13th Amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me,” while “Hands On” contains a simple “13th Amendment, 3 Strikes” reference.
Not All Christians
Before Kanye began the listening, he briefly spoke on his widely critiqued Coachella performance, in which he brought his Christianity-themed Sunday Service performance to the live-streamed festival. “When I did Coachella, I wasn’t completely delivered or saved,” he admitted to the crowd. Kanye’s commitment to his renewed faith is the conceptual crux of Jesus Is King, but that doesn’t mean West is ready to shy away from perceived backlash from the Christian community. In fairness, is it really a Kanye album if he doesn’t address the hatred, vitriol, and audacity for anyone to question Kanye? “What you hear from the Christians they be the first ones to judge/Make it feel like nobody love me,” he raps during “Hands On.” During “Selah,” West shares his belief that nobody is as woke as him and raps, “You supposed to be mad at them, not me.”
Kenny G Outraps Clipse
— Alus (@AlusOfficial) September 30, 2019
Much has been said about the Clipse reunion on Jesus Is King closer, “Use This Gospel.” Just hearing Pusha T and No Malice rapping together once again is a savvy, nostalgic play on an album that is low on features. On Sunday night, though, it still felt like “Use This Gospel” was unfinished. The brothers’ verses were as precise and sharp as ever, but didn’t seem to sync up with an amorphous beat.
That’s what made the scene-stealing moment from Kenny G so unlikely. When his signature saxophone came in at the song’s outro, the crowd instantly gave the loudest applause of the night. Kanye let the crowd know they heard Kenny in between the cheers, but the true star of the night needed no introduction.
Pi’erre Bourne Makes the Album’s First (and Maybe Only) Banger
On first listen, Jesus Is King is a far more muted, stripped-down affair than most West albums. So when the Pi’erre Bourne produced “On God” descends, it’s a revelation. Galactic, fiery, and intense, the beat for “On God” sounds like an inferno. Most of Jesus Is King feels like West trying to wipe away his ego in search of something more powerful than himself, but the propulsion of “On God” briefly returns West to the artistic center. At one point, he raps, “I bleached my hair for every time I nearly died.” I still don’t get it, hours later, but I feel it.
Reference Track Kanye
In this act of his career, Kanye has trended toward the improvisational. Each of his albums since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has undergone a chaotic production. Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, and Ye were all rushed, either assembled up to the last minute or fine-tuned post-release. Jesus Is King continues this trend. On Sunday night, many of Kanye’s vocal performances sounded like reference tracks. Words were garbled, melodic hums were placeholders, and certain rap verses struggled to stay on beat. It added to the sense that Jesus Is King will likely focus more on emotion and less on precision.
The Current Tracklist
The Jesus Is King track list is evolving — the names of songs have changed, the order of tracks are rearranged — but it seems it’s firmly set at 10 songs. Below is the order in which West played the album last night, which differs from the photos Kim Kardashian has shared on social media.
Beauty From Ashes
Closed On Sunday
Use This Gospel
The Album Art
— Stereogum (@stereogum) September 30, 2019
About a third of the way through the listening, West projected what seemed to be the potential Jesus Is King artwork. The painting featured a Picasso-like Jesus descending from heaven above a Wyoming-like landscape, while clay-colored husks worshipped his return.