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Kanye’s turn to apparently deeply felt religious faith in his latest album Jesus is King may seem incongruous for a man who in magnificent blasphemy once called himself Yeezus. While he has professed his religious faith in music throughout his career, most notably in Jesus Walks, many have received this new phase of his life with extreme scepticism. His new Sunday Service can easily be interpreted as just another form of self-promotion, building hype and giving him a new slate to perform on, a terrifying self-published version of the Beyoncé Mass phenomenon.
While there may be some reasons for this scepticism there is no denying that this seems to be Kanye’s most self-effacing album. It is notable that on the album’s first track Every Hour Kanye is nowhere in sight. Instead, you are plunged into the middle of the Sunday Service Choir in full chorus so abruptly you can’t help but jump. To the sound of urgently dancing piano keys the lyrics themselves implore listeners: “Sing ’til the power of the Lord comes down”, a line repeated over and over with frenzied melodic urgency. It seems that Kanye who reportedly considered giving up rap considering it “the devil’s music” has decided his work must now be in service of the divine.
This is not to say Kanye absents himself from the album. The second track Selah starts abruptly transitioning briskly to slow organ tones and we hear Kanye’s voice for the first time. Taking centre stage Kanye makes the usual self-conscious references to his reputation and creative process before becoming more like a preacher firing off Biblical references. Notably it’s here that the song’s urgency grows. War drums set in and continue through a chorus of rapidly spiralling Hallelujahs building to a crescendo as Kanye offers a spiritual call to arms. This is a pattern for much of the album. Kanye’s usual self-conscious self-obsession is present, but for the first time he doesn’t necessarily seem to be playing the (anti-)hero.
The problem is that this new approach doesn’t seem to work. When Kanye turns to religion in his raps, too often he seems content with the occasional Biblical quotation. This is even more disappointing considering the truly affecting emotional rawness Kanye displayed in his previous album ye. Take the third track Follow God which trots along to a crisp constant drum beat and flowing lyrics. The bars themselves are messily opaque with little of the clever wordplay or startling self-revelation that used to define Kanye at his best. Only the backing repeating “Father, I stretch/Stretch my hands to You” gives a sense of emotional depth. It seems Kanye can no longer confidently rely on his own resources, in more ways than one.