One night before releasing his ninth studio album of the same name, Kanye West treated his fans to JESUS IS KING, a 38-minute IMAX film which enjoyed a limited theatrical release worldwide. Despite being advertised as “A Kanye West Film,” his presence is barely felt throughout; instead, its cinematography and unique setting take precedence. Although pretty to look at, the film is otherwise an unnecessary contribution to Kanye’s once-visionary canon of work, and while this does not detract from the quality of the film, it did cause many audience members to leave the theatre expressing feelings of frustration and boredom.
Those looking for a documentarian insight into West’s born-again Christianity will be disappointed. Lacking any narrative or non-musical dialogue, JESUS IS KING is just a concert film.
The movie follows a series of 2019 summer performances by West’s new band, Sunday Service, a group of all-Black musicians that performs gospel renditions of West’s classic songs, alongside new material and traditional gospel. The film is directed by Nick Knight, who’s best known as an acclaimed fashion photographer for high-end brands such as Issey Miyake and Christian Dior, and for directing music videos for Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Björk’s “Pagan Poetry,” and 2013 Yeezus-era Kanye.
Performances in the film range from the anthemic to melancholic — one particularly moving and stripped back performance of “Street Lights,” off of West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, brought much of the theatre, myself included, to tears.
However, the most illuminating qualities of the film come from the presence of visual artist James Turrell’s “Roden Crater,” presented here in stunning, IMAX clarity. “Roden Crater” is Turrell’s large scale art installation and architectural marvel which is housed inside of a volcanic crater in the middle of the Painted Desert in Arizona. While construction on the site began in 1977, the work has not yet been completed, nor is it open to the public.
With 21 viewing sites and six interconnected tunnels which, according to the Roden Crater website, serve as “a naked eye observatory of earthly and celestial events that are both predictable and continually in flux,” this grandiose piece of land-art promises to amaze. Turrell’s towering structures and winding tunnels of light, while stunning, are in stark contrast to the beige and brown YEEZY-uniform-clad performers.
The greatest musical moments in the film come during evening performances, at which point Turrell’s walls and towers become muted as the spotlight shines down on the performers. The inclusion of this observatory as the principal setting for JESUS IS KING comes as no surprise, as West donated 10 million USD to the site’s construction earlier this year.
Despite running through some reworked West classics such as “Say You Will” and “Ultralight Beam,” JESUS IS KING ultimately feels less like the advertised Kanye West film, and more like a passion project that is desperately trying to convey the beauty of these three-dimensional, Turrell spaces through two-dimensional medium. In the end, JESUS IS KING is first and foremost a James Turrell movie, a great exercise in IMAX filmmaking second, and “A Kanye West Film” last.
Then there’s the album.
On Friday, October 25, after several weeks of delays, JESUS IS KING, the ninth full-length record from Kanye, was released. Clocking in at 28 minutes spread over 11 tracks, this is West’s weakest album to date, something that is in no part due to the religious lyricism or gospel genre dives that the record takes on, but rather due to a lack of substantial arrangements.
The Sunday Service members are missing from most of the songs here, instead replaced with cringe-worthy raps that bring — in classic West fashion — a narcissistic take on the often selfless concept of faith. Whereas the film highlighted the humanity and beauty present in gospel and the human body, the album is instead rife with sub-par raps, poor audio mixes, and underwhelming production choices.
this song is a sobering reminder of what West is capable of if he continues to exercise the same perfectionist work ethic that brought us almost 20 years of masterpieces
While the opening track “Every Hour” is a stunning choir piece, other tracks like “Selah” feature the choir only in small flourishes, such as the refrain of hallelujahs that make up the track’s outro. The best songs on the album are those where West embraces the gospel sound wholeheartedly and uses hip-hop’s trademarks to accentuate them, rather than the other way around.
Some songs also come off as unfinished, a strange occurrence considering the various delays surrounding JESUS IS KING’s release. The closing track, “Jesus Is Lord” features a booming horn arrangement and a lovely hook, but lasts only 49 seconds. The song ends before it even gets a chance to reach a satisfying cadence.
The Pi’erre Bourne-produced “On God” is similarly sparse, consisting of a looped-arpeggiator, thin synthesizers, and cliché, braggadocio bars like “I’ve been tellin’ y’all since ‘05 / The greatest artist restin’ or alive / That’s on L.A. Reid, that’s on Clive.” Furthermore, while the penultimate track “Use This Gospel” features the reuniting of the legendary hip-hop duo Clipse, it also features a poorly-mixed, blaring saxophone solo courtesy of Kenny G, as well as a verse from Clipse’s Pusha T that still has the studio’s room-noise present in the mix.
In his most recent interview with Zane Lowe for Beats 1 Radio, West discussed his past struggles with a pornography addiction accompanied by some bizarre tirades on how this addiction was often fueled by Instagram. At one point he claimed that other married men also struggle with this addiction because “social media prompts women, in particular, to put out [sexual] content,” thereby projecting his problems onto other men and women.
This man’s anxiety surrounding women’s agency and social media is immortalized on the track “Closed On Sunday,” which features one of the worst verses in the artist’s discography, instructing the audience to “Hold the selfies, put the ‘Gram away / Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray / When you got daughters, always keep ‘em safe.”
The verse continues on, “Watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate / Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A / You’re my number one, with the lemonade.”
On the other hand, track eight, entitled “God Is,” might be the record’s most powerful. Devotional to all the things that West’s reignited faith has gifted him, “God Is” best exemplifies the gospel and rap sound promised with this record. A pleasant mix of 808 bass, sample chops, and the Sunday Service, this song is a sobering reminder of what West is capable of if he continues to exercise the same perfectionist work ethic that brought us almost 20 years of masterpieces. An entire album in this vein could have been one of his best.
Although 2018 was plagued with similar unprofessional album delays and came at the peak of West’s Pro-Donald Trump advocacy, it at least brought fans some of West’s most powerful music, such as his track “Ghost Town,” and the revelatory collaborative album with Kid Cudi, KIDS SEE GHOSTS. However, 2019 has been a different monster altogether.
Quite simply, West in 2019 has lost the laser focus and keen attention to detail that brought us years of masterful work. From the moment West promoted Trump, to when he said slavery was a choice on TMZ, it has been startlingly clear that the ‘old Kanye’ is long gone.
To be a fan of West once meant being a fan of yourself, to be confident yet embracing of the positivity around you. Now, it’s more like a chore. Being a Kanye West fan, in fact, means being a Kanye West apologist. So, while the man may take himself very seriously, he needs to realize that we aren’t laughing with West, or even at him. The sad reality is that we don’t care.