Kanye West’s Austere Reform Church
The rapper’s IMAX movie, Jesus Is King, puts a choral Christian concert into an artist’s crater to beautiful—but cold—effect.
In an interview broadcast yesterday, Apple Music’s Zane Lowe asked Kanye West when, exactly, he’d been born again. The rapper has always been Christian. He’s been putting on “Sunday Service” worship concerts for all of 2019. But there had to be a moment when his faith came to more fully command his life. There had to be a moment that led to West not only titling his new album Jesus Is King but also asking his collaborators to—as he told Lowe—fast and abstain from sex outside of marriage.
West replied that his come-closer-to-Jesus episode happened around April, when he got his hair colored purple. “I remember when the hair dye was placed on my head the morning before Coachella,” he said. “It felt cold. I didn’t like it. I had an aversion to it. And then when the guy was dyeing it, I didn’t even like how it came out.”
As far as the beginnings of awakening stories go, this one’s definitely new. Bob Dylan had a cross thrown at him by a fan and then was visited by Christ in his hotel room. Kanye West got a bad dye job—and then what? Dunno. West changed the subject to the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Perhaps he finishes the story in Jesus Is King’s lyrics: The album just went up, 12 hours after its third advertised release time. Certainly, he doesn’t explain himself in Jesus Is King the movie, a long-form gospel music video that is now baffling fans at IMAX theaters across the country. West’s voice and face feature very little in the film. Its music encompasses classic worship songs, a few old West tunes reinterpreted, and only two new tracks.
But the movie is very typical of West lately, in that, like the unfinished dye anecdote, it treats a tricky concept as a simple matter of aesthetics and sensations. In the Lowe interview, West said that his support of Donald Trump just came from how he feels. His fealty to Jesus Christ appears similarly visceral—and he’s trying to spread his faith-feeling. But it’s oddly cold.
Jesus Is King was filmed in the Roden Crater, the Arizona landmark where the artist James Turrell has been building a large-scale installation since 1977. Turrell’s complex of tunnels, portals, and chambers remains uncompleted and closed to the public, though a recent $10 million donation from West means that it’s now supposed to open in a few years. For the time being, those curious will need to be satisfied with this West movie, set in and around what resembles a sleek, empty water tank in the desert.
The film opens on a black screen soundtracked by a fast, whirling chorus of “Hallelujah”s. Electronic bass—chunky and crackling, just as West’s go-to producer Mike Dean’s bass sounds always are—joins in. A dun-colored disk enters the frame and then shrinks. The camera is pulling out, up, looking down from above something. It’s a god’s-eye view of the skylight at the center of the Roden Crater—which, incidentally, looks like the eyeball of a god. Four short beams jut out from the central circle structure. They recall a cross.
The film’s ethos has been established: For 35 minutes or so, you shall watch and listen, looking for shapes, appreciating resemblances, waiting to be struck by awe, and sometimes actually being struck by it. The frame dilates and expands in circular and oval stencils around the footage on-screen. Some passages of the film play like HD nature screen savers: brooding mountains and clouds, or the capillary structures of dandelions. Other segments focus on West’s troupe of gospel singers, who are all in monochromic clothing. West takes lead vocals only in a moving, twilit rendition of his song “Street Lights.”
Often, his singers stand arrayed under the oculus at the center of the crater, with the low-angled camera tilted upward just as their chins are, evoking the sacred neck strain of cathedral-going. One segment of the film has the frame cropped in a close circle around one woman’s joyous face as she sings, for an almost comical vibe, as if showing a living locket. Another song—the first time my neck hairs stood up—simply portrays the choir more straight-on, in rows like at church. They bob and clap in syncopated rhythm while singing the word Joy! in fast rounds. The effect is as if a black church service were scored by Philip Glass.
Glass’s grand minimalism, in fact, makes a key reference point for the whole film. West wants to overwhelm with starkness, volume, and repetition. His choral arrangements emphasize the high, shrieking end of the vocal range, and thus his quest for beauty is also a game of chicken with ear fatigue. The point is to smack you into spirituality, so that God can be perceived in a cumulus swirl or in the breathing of an infant (presumably West’s latest kid, Psalm, depicted in close-up, sleeping in his father’s arms). In short flashes, I experienced the intended holy wows. But the merch-wearing bros next to me at the theater, some of whom took pics of the screen, kept groaning and mocking the movie. Who said hypebeasts don’t think for themselves?
Make no mistake—West wants to convert those fans. He told Lowe that he was done being an entertainer and that he now existed to spread the gospel as a “Christian innovator.” He spoke excitedly about how his daughter North had come to adore Sunday Service, a fact he attributed to him disrupting the old paradigm of having worshippers sitting in pews. He said, with some laughs, that he might rerecord his old music in more pious form.
Jesus Is King is part of this reinvention crusade, but its austerity may not inspire much fervor. For sure, there’s beauty to the way it mixes ancient spiritual signifiers—group singing, monklike spareness, a fixation on nature—with the earth tones and graphical shapes of his Yeezy fashion line. The film made me think of funky, stucco mid-century churches, and the way they can seem like campy architectural artifacts today. It made me think of Jesus Freaks, and Hillsong, and all the other revival movements aimed at hipping up Christ. It made me think of how transcendent experiences are described similarly across faiths. It reminded me that religion and pop and fascism each revels in uniforms and shared, shouted praise. But it didn’t make me feel all that much.