One of the great rediscovered gospel albums of all time is Like a Ship (Without a Sail), the 1971 debut from Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir. A preacher by trade, Barrett spent his career spreading the word on the south side of Chicago, and the Youth for Christ Choir was an actual children’s choir that Barrett put together as part of an after-school program affiliated with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket.
Despite featuring some jaw-dropping performances by Barrett and the kids, the record never really went anywhere, and neither did the follow-up albums that he put together. But decades later, his work would find a new audience among record-collector types, and enthusiasm for Barrett’s ghostly, quirky homemade gospel gathered enough steam to warrant a reissue from the indispensable archival label Light in the Attic. While Barrett’s music was great and he was a positive influence on the city’s youth, his legacy is complicated by the fact that, in 1989, he was busted for using his own congregation’s goodwill, and more importantly money, to fuel a $2 million pyramid scheme.
It’s apt that Barrett is invoked on “Follow God,” the third track on Jesus Is King, Kanye West’s new gospel album, in the form of a callback to the Barrett-sampling “Father Stretch My Hands (Part One)” from his 2016 record The Life of Pablo. When Kanye first sampled Barrett, it was in service of a song that included a lyric about bleached assholes; this time around, the lyric, “Father I stretch my hands to you,” eggs West on as he delivers what may be the most conventional rap performance on the record, telling the listener about an argument with his dad that leaves Kanye himself feeling like a bleached asshole (metaphorically). To me, Barrett and Kanye feel like two sides of the same coin: Barrett made great gospel music and then did the most selfish thing possible, while Kanye spent a career doing the most selfish stuff possible only to turn around and create a gospel record that, if not great, is at least the one overtly Christian album that you’ll probably listen to this year.
Apologies in advance for waffling here, but I don’t really know if Jesus Is King is good, and to be honest, I don’t really think anyone can after just a few days. Kanye West is an artist so generationally monumental that even his bad music is still worth examining. He does not fail in the way that you or I fail, and his market share of the public consciousness is such that even when he misfires, we experience the entire process — from gestation to expectation to sudden collapse — in real time. This transparency used to feel exhilarating when Kanye was operating at his peak, but now chafes as he dives further into MAGA-dom and creative exhaustion while making us painfully aware of his process, like when he released a song where T.I. attempted to talk him out of his newfound conservatism, and then put out behind-the-scenes footage of T.I. berating him.
On a purely artistic level, the idea of Kanye West making a gospel record is intuitively intriguing. The best Kanye records are the ones in which he provides himself with a set of arbitrary constraints — think the AutoTuned emo-pop of 808s and Heartbreak, the industrial-and-hardcore-punk mishmash of Yeezus, or the minimalist hip-hop classicism that marked his production on Pusha T’s Daytona — and then pushes against those bounds with all his might to misshape them into something uniquely his own.
By working within the formal strictures of gospel, he gives his music a formal cohesion that so much of his recent solo work has lacked. There is some metatextual tension to be found when you consider that so much of Kanye’s work is about following his maximalist urges, giving into all of his impulses musically and lyrically (which usually means airing out his sexual impulses as well). And somewhat surprisingly, Kanye does fully commit to the conceit, adhering to gospel’s organ-and-choir-heavy template and writing songs that stick to the topic at hand for once in his life. It’s the antithesis of the anything-goes attitude that both has helped him achieve greatness (all nine minutes of “Runaway,” or having Chief Keef and Bon Iver duet on “Hold My Liquor”!) and has also led him to scatalogical catastrophes (Kanye and Lil Pump performing “I Love It” while dressed up as human seltzer bottles is maybe the most cursed video you will ever watch).
I honestly don’t know which is goofier: that Kanye promised that he was going to go on Joe Rogan’s podcast for an interview, or that the interview never ended up happening.
Now, it’s certain that Jesus Is King isn’t perfect. While Kanye spares us any praise of Trump, he exhibits his conservatism in other ways: When he’s not overtly praising God, his lyrics deal about how much he hates paying taxes and the importance of raising his family right. On my first listen, I was ready to instant-message a friend that the record was “pretty good,” only to be interrupted by Kanye squawking the lyric, “Closed on Sunday, you my Chik-Fil-A.” The sampling of pioneering electronic musician Bruce Haack’s song “Blow Job” on “Water” feels like a direct provocation, though I’m not sure to what end (then again, that’s how I’ve felt about everything Kanye’s been up to lately).
But the good outweighs the bad here, perhaps for the first time in years. Not only does Kanye get Clipse back together for the first time in nearly a decade on “Use This Gospel,” he swaps out the drum track for a single, beepy piano note and pairs it with orchestral swells and a whole lot of negative space, something which an older Kanye would have felt compelled to fill with a sample of Frank Zappa scatting or something. “God Is” is one of the prettiest songs in his catalog, and the multi-layered autotuned choral line that he sings over on “Hands On” feels of a pair with the experimental crossover composition playbook of artists like Holly Herndon and Caroline Shaw. None of the songs are longer than four minutes, and many clock in under two, coming across as gestures that enter, communicate their central musical idea, and then get out of the way before they wear out their welcome.
It’s tempting to make fun of Jesus Is King as yet another exercise in Kanye’s self-delusion, what with the accompanying church services, IMAX movie, and this $250 sweatshirt. This is also the third album in a row that he’s set an arbitrary deadline for releasing and then failed to meet it, as Jesus Is King follows the non-release of a record called Yandhi. I also honestly don’t know which is goofier: that Kanye promised that he was going to go on Joe Rogan’s podcast for an interview, or that the interview never ended up happening.
If it’s impossible for you to separate the antics from the artist, I understand. Before social media, Kanye was an artist who made great music and sometimes did crazy shit in public; now he’s the guy who does crazy shit in public and occasionally releases a record here and there. Obviously, the technological and cultural shifts of the past decade have led to us living in a permanent state of constant conversation, in which everything a person like Kanye does can become a trending topic on Twitter. There’s no way that hasn’t affected the way we think about him and his music.
Much like Bob Dylan, who during his commercial nadir put out a contemporary Christian record that was way better than it had any right to be, Kanye has a restless musical soul; he’s constantly shifting his approach in ways that both alienate and influence in equal measure. The way things work now, though, we’re privy to the shock of these rebrands months before the accompanying artistic work actually shows up, at which point we at least sort of know what to expect. That’s to say nothing of Kanye’s extramusical activities, which, outside of the very significant and alarming Trump stuff, include a waging public war with Los Angeles County over an experimental dome community that he erected before being ordered to tear down, getting mad at his wife for dressing “too sexy” in public, and attempting to rebrand Wyoming. And most of that was after he recommitted himself to Christianity!
This is a person whose documented history of assholery makes his claims of spirituality only go so far; the guy’s got a lot more good works to perform before he balms the self-inflicted burns on his own public image. Still, if there’s one thing you can say about Kanye, it’s that he still knows how to surprise — even if it’s by following through on his promise to create a honest-to-goodness gospel album and sound like he means it, no matter how unlikely it seems.
[Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the sample used on “Follow God” as being the same one used on “Father Stretch My Hands (Part One).” While the lyrics are similar, the samples are not. Thanks to Ty Howard for pointing out the error.]