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.