West has a new life and new focus, but this is a short album of promise not quite fulfilled.

Label:     GOOD Music
Time:     11 tracks / 27 minutes

So often music is a steamed up window into an artist’s life, but then a release comes along like this one, where the window gets cleaned and you can see their life more clearly, with no filter.

Jesus is King celebrates West’s new-found faith, and reminds me of when Bob Dylan came to faith and released Slow Train Coming, with its blatantly Christian content alienating many of his core fans.

I’m not so sure that West is alienating his fans – his music has shown undercurrents of struggling with faith for years – but in terms of a major name turning round their life, this seems on a par. As with all life changes, there is still work to be done – his political connections are suspect, and in the build-up to this release, he allegedly proclaimed himself to be “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time. It’s not even a question anymore.”

But the depth of change and commitment is striking. For such a wealthy and business-aware personality, his “church merch” (“Jesus Walks” socks for $50 anyone?) and his association with Joel Osteen, sometimes accused of being a prosperity preacher, are reasons to suspect his motives. But holding his “Sunday service” worship-cum-concert events in the high-security Harris County Jail, as well as Osteen’s mega–church in Lakewood, California, suggests that he is looking to work across the spectrum of wealth.

Jesus is King packs a powerful punch per minute, with its mere 27 minutes crammed with praise to God, prayers and pleas for prayer, scripture references, proclamation of faith and encouragement to follow God instead of the devil.

Among these words come lines that suggest a personal experience (“This ain’t ‘bout a dead religion. Jesus brought a revolution. All the captives are forgiven”) and even more, his expectation that many will doubt his integrity and motivation, not least his new family (“What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first one to judge me. Make it feel like nobody love me…”) But its the lyrics that follow, which suggest a new humility (“I deserve all the criticism you got… To sing of change, you think I’m joking. To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking. Yes, I understand your reluctance. But I have a request… Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me. Please, pray for me.”)

The release has been historic, topping some five different American charts at once, which reveals some of the album’s strengths and weaknesses. It clearly appeals to various tastes, but I wonder how much it has been at the expense of cohesion.

The opening track is just his Sunday Service choir in gospel mode; “Selah” introduces his rapping against slamming drums and church organ; “Follow God” is a stream of funky hip hop; “Closed on Sunday” is built around some Spanish guitar until synths give a more orchestral feel; “Everything we Need” has more soulful feel and “Water” is a mellow pastel of a track. He even gives Kenny G a 40 second solo sax section on “Use this Gospel” – and I mean solo: nothing else is heard. So it goes in several directions at once.

But while some tracks (“On God”) are musically dispensable and the exultant “God Is” acts as a great role model to the rest of the collection, several tracks are more-ish. The hooks in “Closed on Sunday” and the vibe on “Water” are helped by their brevity, leaving you hungry for more; but that same brevity can make the album as a whole feel somewhat unfinished in places.

Jesus is King’s focus is already creating deep reactions. While the album feels like a work in progress, the follow-up Jesus is Born (Kanye-lite and Sunday Service choir-heavy, released on Christmas Day) appears to be a more thought-through work. The two together show that his has been quite a year for West.

Derek Walker
My 4-part account of 50 years of CCM begins here