King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon from 605 BC to 562 BC, is a biblical figure, featured most prominently in the Book of Daniel. Despite being known as the “destroyer of nations,” he focused on the extensive rebuilding of Babylon, and claimed that he was “the one who set in the mouth of the people reverence for the great gods.” As punishment for his monumental ego and sense of self-importance, the Bible tells us that he is humbled twice by God and inflicted with seven years of madness. Unless you happen to have a background in Neo-Babylonian history or passing knowledge of the Major Prophets of the Old Testament, the only time you may have heard that name recently is in reference to rapper Kanye West. In recent interviews, but also during performances of his gospel-rap group “Sunday Service,” West has openly drawn parallels between his former outlook and that of the Babylonian King.
“Nebuchadnezzar had much of…Kanye West’s type of character. A lot of “I” energy. “I did this, it’s me, I’m the goat,” all that kind of stuff.”
“Lemme take this Nebuchadnezzar type character…who looked at his entire kingdom and said, “I did this” and God said, “Oh for real you did this?” Sounds kinda familiar right? I’m standing on the tip of the mountain talking about Yeezus saying I did this, that I am a God”
Third person self-referral aside, it only takes a surface-level understanding of West and his career to know that this does indeed sound familiar. Tracks like “I Am A God,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” or “I Love Kanye” induce cringe-worthy memories of the 2009 VMAs, when West ripped the mic out of a mortified Taylor Swift’s hands to casually share how he felt about her beating Beyoncé in the Best Female Video category.
In the five albums following West’s friendly VMA moment, very little changed about how the artist viewed himself and his place in popular culture. Both as an artist and a celebrity, he never missed an opportunity to remind his listeners of the grandiose image he had of his career and his impact on rap, fashion, business and design. And until 2016, we went along with it. You could even say we loved it. His music was so consistently innovative, his brand and his place in the spotlight stayed entertaining and alluring, and his ability to tap into, shape and influence trends meant that we could take his seemingly boundless ego with a grain of salt.
The grain of salt became difficult to swallow, however, after Kanye started taking political positions in support of Donald Trump, and became embroiled in controversies following comments he made on the innocence of Bill Cosby or the history of slavery in the United States. When his eighth studio album “Ye” dropped in June of 2018, the 24-minute long release quickly became the most forgettable album of West’s canon. West had lost the forward motion that had been a staple of his repertoire since “The College Dropout” debut. He lacked his usual unwavering progress and boldness, and “Ye” quickly fell off the charts, garnering listens from West’s clout alone. It ultimately did nothing to pull him off of the uneasy ground he found himself on with his listeners.
“I was canceled before they had the term”
Looking back, West describes his 2018 self as a victim of “cancel culture.” When asked a couple of weeks ago about whether he cared about the stance members of his audience and other artists in the industry had taken against him, he replied “I do! I care about everything!”
For all this “care,” his collaboration with Lil Pump on the 2018 stand-alone single “I Love It” didn’t exactly bolster his standing as a groundbreaking artist of this generation. The lyrics — ironically awful at best, entirely devoid of any musical or artistic value at worst — give us an overly detailed outline of what rock bottom looks like (we even catch a sad glimpse of self-awareness when Kanye repeatedly calls himself a “sick fuck”). Though the mediocrity of “I Love It” didn’t inspire any of West’s dedicated fans, it may have moved the rapper himself, even if he declares that “I’ve never been just ok, I’ve always been amazing.”
Almost immediately after the release of the track, West began what he described as an important personal and religious reorientation. He publicly announced his newfound dedication to Christianity on Twitter in January of 2019, the same month he joined “The Samples,” a pre-established gospel choir, to form “Sunday Service.” After several months of work alongside “The Samples,” he converted “Sunday Service” into a recognized church with a pastor. It was this Kanye West, founder of a church and mind behind his unreleased “Yandhi” project, who ultimately dropped “Jesus Is King” on October 25. And so began a new chapter of his ever-changing relationship with faith and religion.
If this album offers anything, it’s the refreshing and familiar sounds of more Kanye-esque musical innovation and experimentation. The opening track “Every Hour” allows “The Samples” to make their debut into mainstream rap. To West’s credit, “Jesus Is King” continues his pioneering of the integration of gospel into more mainstream music, which he introduced in his 2016 album “The Life of Pablo.” “The Samples” are blended creatively with his own voice and layered into the instrumentals to introduce the timbers of gospel to West’s usual use of bass, trap drums, ambient flourishes, and samples. As in “The Life of Pablo,” the musical brilliance of “Jesus is King” is reflected in West’s masterful sampling, which sets the tone for the most outstanding tracks on the album. Drawing on a number of genres to supplement his own interpretation of “gospel-rap,” West makes use of Buenos Aires artist Chango Farias Gómez and the Grupo Vocal Argentino for an intricate backdrop to “Closed on Sunday,” 1970s Quebecois prog rocker Claude Léveillée to support his closing track “Jesus is Lord,” and even a sample from 1974 Christian soul act “Whole Truth” on “Follow God.” Indeed, it’s hard to criticize West for any lack of sonic innovation when he manages to bring together Ty Dolla Sign (“Everything We Need”), Ant Clemons (“Water”), Fred Hammond (“Hands On”), and Kenny G (“Use This Gospel”) on a rap album in 2019.
Unfortunately, any intrigue derived from West’s regained musical progress quickly fades once the lyrics gradually start to sink in. In an album entitled “Jesus is King,” we expected an ode to a greater power, a figure to which the artist finds himself in servitude, a selfless tribute to anyone but West himself. And yet, this is where “Jesus is King” disappoints. Instead of a hymn to God, we’re left with an album overwhelmingly focused on the ways in which religion has served Kanye himself. There is no concern with spreading the religious teachings that supposedly changed West’s world view, there is only a familiar insistence on West’s own achievements and stature. We don’t gain insight into how finding God has influenced West’s understanding of music or artistry, or his view of religion’s place in the world. Where West should have extolled his new self-understanding, he is sure to insist on the fact that:
“I been telling y’all since ‘05 / The greatest artist resting or alive,” (“On God”)
Unfortunately for West, it’s difficult for others to see that when he spends an entire track exploring the subtleties of Chick Fil-A’s working hours:
“Closed on Sundays, you my Chick Fil-A” (“Closed on Sunday”)
Even the way West himself discusses the creation of the album tells us that “Jesus is King” is just another iteration of his persistent self-obsession and material fascination, both of which directly contradict the teachings of Christianity. In almost all of the interviews he has given on the album, West describes himself as a“a god-fearing married Christian innovator billionaire founder” who God uses to “show off.” In fact, it’s increasingly difficult for his listeners to reconcile his religious reaffirmation with West’s current lifestyle. When it costs us $50 to buy socks with the phrase “Jesus Walks” or $140 to buy Christian-inspired sweaters from West’s line of merchandise, it’s hard to see whether the rapper understands that one “cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). When West raps about attributing his material success to God in his track “On God”, we’re left with questions about the validity of his understanding of salvation.
And so this album embroils him further in a life of hypocrisy: one in which he is married to Kim Kardashian and says, “Hold the selfies, put the ‘Gram away / Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray.” One in which he is “not here for anyone’s entertainment” but has already put out 9 studio albums. His new album, while musically innovative at times, disappointingly reflects this lack of any newfound humility, delivering instead a series of contradictions between the artist’s ego and the supposed main intent and message of the project.
In attempting to narrow the scope of his work to his personal encounters with religion, West misses a critical opportunity to make his music bigger than his own experiences and allow it to transcend his own relationship with faith. He fails to reach a broader audience, one no longer interested in the flamboyance and allure of his grandiose self-obsession. We could have been attracted to a previously unparalleled integration of spirituality in mainstream rap, but he fell short.
West has already confirmed that he is working on another album, “Jesus Is Born”, set to be released on Christmas Day. In order for this album to be his escape from hypocrisy, Kanye needs to remember the story of Nebuchadnezzar, the story of humility, the story of madness.
Alex Wyckoff | firstname.lastname@example.org