People change. If nothing else, this is evident on the latest release from producer Kanye West, Jesus Is Born, performed by the West-led Sunday Service Choir. The album, which is not a Kanye West album, per se, but is very much of the musician in his contemporary creative state, is his latest homage to Christianity’s God and Jesus Christ. It is also a drastic shift from the earlier days of West in the center of the spotlight, with shirt collar popped, sunglasses on, and a general sense of “look at me” about him.
But that’s the point, if we are the believe it. People can change. And, for the record, I do believe West is genuine, which doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t expect Kanye to shift sonic shapes again on his next album. But the point on Jesus Is Born, besides worshiping and worshiping and worshiping God and Jesus, is that Kanye has changed. He’s a new person and, he says, he’s better for it. He’s seen the light. He’s no longer concerned with breasts and butts. Just as Saul became Paul in the Bible, Kanye has become a follower of Christ.
And is there anything wrong with this shift? There are few names as big as Kanye West on the globe, but attaching it to God and Jesus can only build the brand’s footprint, if you want to be cynical. This is the same guy who went face-to-face with 50 Cent on the cover of Rolling Stone in a battle over album sales (a commercial stunt, but a savvy one). But name a celebrity who hasn’t pulled a stunt? It’s a short list if it exists at all. But maybe Kanye really has taken to religion. It seems likely. And the record’s he’s made as a result – Jesus Is Born and Jesus Is King – are valuable.
In another way, though, praising God is nothing new for Kanye. His song, “Jesus Walks”, perhaps more than any other, cemented him as celebrity royalty. At the same time, Kanye has recently angered many of his fans by fraternizing with Donald Trump and touring with megachurch pastors known for being anti-LGBTQ. But is Kanye West supposed to make sense outside of the booth? Do we require consistency from our celebrities, from Kanye? If you ask Charles Barkley, celebrities aren’t our role models, not necessarily, anyway.
If you Google Kanye West on any given day, stories about him running for president pop up. Or stories about his uber-famous wife and their four kids. Or stories about his associations in and out of the studio. Or stories about his mom dying under the knife for plastic surgery Kanye paid for. Or stories about depression, prescription drugs, and weight gain. To borrow a phrase, Kanye West contains multitudes. He’s also unquestionably one of the best musicians in the past 25 years.
So, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, despite all these, shall we say, distractions from his creativity – perhaps they’re fodder – that Kanye can continue to put out high-quality music. That he even has time for it is staggering. And there are many things to say about Jesus Is Born, including the divine vocal prowess from the choir, as well as the lengthy album’s 19 tracks and its, at times, monotonous praise for God. In some ways, it’s an album to have in the background on repeat for an evening while you cook dinner. It’s a mood.
The record is solid, perhaps even better than that. Many of the songs include dramatic breaks or shifts in tone and rhythm, and they’re effective. The vocal performances are tremendous, and Kanye deserves a great deal of credit for assembling the choir, writing the music, and getting it to wax. Standout songs include the ragtime opener, “Count Your Blessings”, and the epic-operatic, “Back to Life”. Kanye and the Choir also reinterpret familiar soul-pop jams, like Ginuwine’s “So Anxious”, into the gospelfied, “Souls Anchored”.
But the album, also, isn’t as convincing as I imagine West wants it to be. If you love God, this is your soundtrack. If you love gospel music, you’ll dig it for sure. But if you’re a fan of good music, simply, it comes across at times as grating after a close listen. Rife with talent, but also irritatingly repetitive.”Jesus, how much can a choir sing its lungs out about loving God?” you might wryly wonder. But, you know what? It’s alright. Because we don’t need this record to be our gospel. We can enjoy it with a glass of wine and move on.