Kanye West Strains His Voice on Jesus Is King

The rapper’s Christian album is not a departure from his values but an intensification of them: boldness over coherence.

Kanye West at Coachella 2019
If Kanye West’s shtick has been about freedom, it’s also been about taming. (Amy Harris / AP)

Why does Kanye West matter? One reason is that he’s made the world rethink the human voice. In the early 2000s, his take on the “chipmunk soul” style of rap production used classic vocals for the retro-future fun that pop culture now devours. He later presided over the evolution of auto-tune and other vocal-manipulation tools from being seen as pitch-correcting crutches to being seen as instruments with as much versatility as a guitar. He used his own voice in ways that seemed incongruous to pop, to musicality, and to celebrity: rapping through a wired jaw; screaming and panting and “Huh!”ing in hits; making ill-timed blurts about presidents and prizes.

In this way, West stayed on trend with broader advancements in how voices can sound, and which ones get heard, in music and culture and politics alike. In this way, also, West has made particularly stressful entertainment. His art reflects the limitless versatility of the human voice yoked with technology. His unstable persona has highlighted something similar—maybe scarier—about the human soul. But if West’s shtick has been about freedom, it’s also been about taming. Even as he sputtered about croissants or made minutes-long vocoder meltdowns, the ancient logic of songcraft and the steadying power of the rap beat were employed exactingly. Wilding out within boundaries is West’s appeal, and not coincidentally, all of pop music’s too.

His recent reinvention as a born-again Christian reflects West’s taming impulse. Indeed, rather than marking a point of departure, it extends a long narrative. With 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus, he vented about his selfishness and lust as he geared up for marriage. The dirty gospel of 2016’s The Life of Pablo and bipolar-pride riffs of 2018’s Ye then saw him straining to reconcile family with his inner hedonist. “I been living without limits,” he said on Pablo’s “FML,” but as the title of that song indicated, his old life was now, in a word, fucked. Three years later, after a lurch into the simplistic delusions of Trumpism, he’s more fully embraced Christianity’s rules, including by swearing off swearing. So far, he suggested in an interview with Zane Lowe, the biggest struggle for him has been giving up porn.

All along, West has understood Christianity as an engine of innovations for the human voice. In the black church, the sorrow and hope of slave spirituals were institutionalized and embossed into works through which soloists could reach seemingly unthinkable heights with the firm anchoring of a community. Soul and its pop derivations grew directly from gospel’s breakthroughs. In Europe, a holy harmonic tradition stretched from medieval abbeys through the compositions of Bach and Handel to heavy metal. Especially on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The Life of Pablo, West raided from multiple divine lineages with rich choirs and countermelodies set to pop’s and hip-hop’s grids.

The scream of worship now meets the muffle of doctrine on Jesus Is King, a stunningly extreme and empty album. Take a breath before hitting Play: “Every Hour” seems to start mid-measure—I jumped—with a hurricane in full force. The members of West’s Sunday Service choir sing in ascending and descending zigzags, at a mishmash of tempos, as a piano spirals like a friendly gnat. The words arrive at such a pace that they resemble the hyper-speed samples that West so loves, and some of the vocalists praise God in the same distressed manner with which they’d call out a thief who snatched their purse. For all the frenzy, not a note feels misplaced. West not only isolated and intensified what a choir usually climbs up to. He plated it as if it were a Grant Achatz dish.

That confetti-blast song works so well—testifying not only to West’s songwriting and arranging, but also to the talents of the Sunday Service choir—that it might rank among his career’s greatest achievements. Not coincidentally, West’s voice isn’t in the song. When he begins rapping on the next track, “Selah,” the excitement comes to a thud. Much of what one might fear from an evangelical Kanye West is here. Organs reach for awe as if it’s a staple in the pantry. West’s faith results in simplistically drawled boasts: “God is king, we the soldiers.” It does get better, though. War drums knock in milliseconds offbeat—a smart if grating regaining of attention—and the choir’s “Hallelujah” chorus provides respite from West’s blasé motto-slinging.

The other high points of the album similarly involve other peoples’ voices: Ty Dolla $ign’s majestic croon on Everything We Need,” the gentle folk hum of Grupo Vocal Argentino on “Closed on Sunday,” the snarls of Pusha T and No Malice on “On God” (it’s the long-awaited reunion of the rap duo Clipse, which ended when No Malice had a Christian awakening). Even as West piles on samples and collaborators, the production remains clean and stark, prizing urgency over depth. The songs end before you expect them to; they unfold in steep escalations worthy of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Praising a West album for everything except the rapping is hackneyed by now, but this is another way in which Jesus Is King simply extends the trend lines of West’s career.

Still, saying he doesn’t reassert himself as a vocalist would be dishonest. His flow on “Follow God” conveys a focus and ease that recalls 2011’s Watch the Throne. On “Closed on Sunday,” there’s a controlled melancholy to his singing, even—especially—as he delivers the troll chorus of “You’re my Chick-fil-A.” By contrast, on “God Is,” the album’s fall-on-your-knees climax, his emotions come off as uncontrolled: He’s hoarse and ragged in a way that few other professional musicians would allow themselves to sound on record. The song is hard to get through, but its rawness is convincing.

What isn’t convincing are West’s words. Here and there, he lands a charmingly childlike punch line of the sort that’s long endeared him to fans. (“I can’t be out here dancing with the stars,” he says in an attempt to explain why his sneakers are so expensive.) Mostly, though, his verses feel body-snatched, with personality and complication replaced by pillow stitchings about devotion. He does not make a sustained case for God; he does not seem to understand that the Gospels worked because they spun a good story. His old tropes of embattlement in a world of doubters and users have simply been scrubbed of profanity and retrofitted with Jesus and Judases. By staying gauzy and aphoristic, strident and coy, he’s able to evade difficult questions about whether, for example, his affection for Chick-fil-A comes with a side of bigotry.

Between the brash-beautiful production and the propagandistic lyrics, Jesus Is King doesn’t depict one man’s faith journey, but rather one man’s continuing Messiah complex—even as he professes new humility. He’s not coming to Christianity; he’s coming to conquer it. “This ain’t ’bout a damn religion / Jesus brought a revolution,” he says on “God Is,” and on “Hands On” he disses other Christians for doubting him. West wants to redesign the Church in the same way he has, in the past, wanted to redesign hip-hop, and sneakers, and affordable housing. The stylish and cold Jesus Is King movie worked along the same lines—bringing iPhone maximal-minimal sleekness to a millennia-old institution. Religion, though, entails not just design but also beliefs, and West doesn’t really do ideology. His voice commands, yet he doesn’t know what to say.