Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is Born’ Is a Christmas Present for the Trump-MAGA Crowd
West “offers a mainstream window into the cultural and musical sphere of black gospel for people who have no investment in the experiences of black people,” writes Stereo Williams.
Pay no attention to the mind behind the curtain.
Kanye West’s latest offering seems to be a counter to the chaotic whirlwind that surrounds almost every West release. Jesus Is Born arrived at Christmas, and though it isn’t quite a manger, it’s presented as the closest we could possibly get to a low-key West-related project in 2019. Though he’s been hinting at the project since at least October, Kanye delivered his newly-announced second direct foray into gospel music without the circus that accompanied Jesus Is King in the fall—and the project is solely billed to the Sunday Service Choir, the collective of vocalists he’s been touring and recording with all year. This particular album, it seems, doesn’t want you to be preoccupied with Kanye West.
If Jesus Is Born isn’t trying to distance itself from the persona of Kanye West, at the very least it’s attempting to de-emphasize the Yeeziness of the proceedings this time around. With a cover of West's “Ultralight Beam” and an interpretation of “Balm In Gilead,” as well as nods to trap and ‘90s R&B, the 19-track release doesn’t do much that West hasn’t already showcased at churches, colleges, and his own Calabasas digs; the album soars, sags, and shouts through biblical references, praise and worship, and West’s own catalog over the course of an hour and 24 minutes. This is closer to the actual gospel album some pundits (and anticipatory buzz) seemed to believe Jesus Is King to be, as it centers the mass Sunday Service choir and features West’s sound outside of its typical contemporary trappings.
The Kanye-ness of the project is most present when the music offers awkward meldings of contemporary R&B and religiosity—as on the plaintive-but-goofy “Rain,” which interpolates SWV’s Jaco Pastorius-sampling hit ballad from 1998. The album reaches back to SWV again on “Weak,” reworking the adolescent infatuation of that 1993 hit into the fear of God and surrendering to faith. “Sunshine” takes on a classic by The Clark Sisters—gospel royalty who represent the best of the genre—with infectious results. It’s another showcase for the talents of a tremendous choir and band that shows how immaculate Mike Dean’s productions talents remain in any musical context. “Souls Anchored” is yet another ‘90s R&B hybrid—this time turning Ginuwine’s bedroom anthem “So Anxious” into—well, you see the title. It’s as awkward as using a song SWV sang as a metaphor for a certain sex act—you can’t tell if Maestro West is being cheeky or just doesn’t flinch at that sort of juxtaposition.
“Excellent” is a take on Brenda Joyce Moore’s contemporary gospel standard “Perfect Praise (How Excellent),” with choir director Jason White testifying: “That’s the name that heals / That’s the name that deliver s/ I tell you—call it…” West’s own “Father Stretch My Hands” is reimagined here as “Father Stretch,” turning Ye’s 2016 hit into a full-on gospel plea and full-band workout. “Fade” is reborn here as “Follow Me – Faith,” turning the restless uncertainty of the original into another paean to God. “Back To Life” is a standout, riding high on the powerhouse harmonies of the choir, with a pulsing rhythm section giving the grandeur of the song a groove-centric bottom. It shows how well the best parts of the project work, musically, when it’s not relying on retreads of older songs. “Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” reaches back to traditional spirituals, while “Paradise” feels like another of the most Kanye-leaning songs here—both carried by the choir’s effervescent performances.
Jesus Is Born is successful as a gospel album—and West’s persona not being so front-and-center makes it more engaging as an album of praise. It’s more deferential than Jesus Is King was allowed to be. Any critique of West-related content is tethered to commentary on the never-ending spectacle that is Kanye West, but Jesus Is Born seems to deliberately attempt to counter that notion. It doesn’t wholly succeed—how can it, really—but it’s a welcome attempt. It’s too bad that Kanye West has already burned so many with his antics; he’s alienated many of those who would most appreciate the music here. That reality also presents an uncomfortable truth about gospel Kanye: He has courted so much of a conservative white audience—one that by his own admission is fairly young—that he now offers a mainstream window into the cultural and musical sphere of black gospel for people who have no investment in the experiences of black people.
Gospel music has always thrived as an industry without much attention from mainstream white platforms. There will be people listening to this album who have never heard of The Clark Sisters. The optimist might suggest that means West is giving a spotlight to great black art that’s come before him; the cynic might say he’s using great black art to pander to a certain audience. Such is who he is that even a good Kanye West gospel album sits in an uncomfortable cultural place. After hearing Ye himself reduce so much of contemporary black culture to bling and sex while praising what he believes to be Middle American values, it’s hard to hear the uplifting lyrics and soaring performances here and not wonder if the man behind this sound intends it as an affirmation of his people’s art or a repudiation of who he believes them to be. Perhaps that’s why Jesus Is Born may be an easier listen on the surface—because that man isn’t so centered here. The album is a mostly solid, occasionally sublime, and more traditional take on gospel music. It succeeds on that front, at the very least.
Whether or not that simple success fills you with hope or dread greatly depends on how well you can ignore the man behind the curtain.