| Nicholas Boyko | email@example.com | January 28, 2020 |
Since his first foray into music, Kanye West has been one of the most contentious modern musical artists. Although he wasn’t always motivated enough to create a fully religious album, his obsession with the spiritual and the powerful has long been at the forefront of his music; in one of his most famous songs, the single “Ultralight Beam” from his album The Life of Pablo, the recurring lyric, “I’m tryna keep my faith” is repeated throughout the whole song. (“Ultralight Beam” is also covered on Jesus Is Born.) As Kanye’s nine studio albums have garnered millions of fans, his personality and political opinions have garnered millions of critics. Whether you love him or hate him, his music is undeniably a staple of modern hip-hop and pop.
In September 2019, Kanye drew widespread media attention by announcing that he would no longer be releasing any secular music; meaning that, moving forward, he would only be producing religious albums and music. So far, Kanye has held true to his word, with the release of his wholeheartedly religious Jesus is King on October 25th, 2019. Despite receiving a fair amount of critical feedback from listeners, Kanye followed up shortly after with the production of the album Jesus is Born, featuring the Sunday Service Choir, a gospel choir that West formed in January 2019. Released on December 25th, 2019—the day of Jesus’s birth—the album ignores the hip-hop roots of Kanye’s other work, instead of providing 84 minutes of sprawling choral gospel.
Jesus is Born opens with the vocal-and-piano only “Count Your Blessings,” a soaring introduction to the album, with the choir singing shockingly high, grand notes, setting the stage for the religious epiphany of the rest of the album. “Revelations 19:1” introduces other instruments, introducing drums and horns for a more classic gospel feel. The lyrics are undeniably Christian in nature, proclaiming “Hallelujah, salvation, and glory, honor and power unto the Lord, our God.” “Back to Church” makes me feel like I’m at church, but I suppose that’s sort of the point of the album. As Jesus Is Born progresses, it becomes clear that a familiar aspect of the typical Kanye album is missing; his voice. In fact, Kanye is hardly musically featured in the album. Instead, Kanye’s production and command of the skilled choir carries through his religious message with impressive clarity.
Despite its overwhelmingly religious message, the album is surprisingly accessible to the average listener. It often references existing songs, like “Sunshine,” which references “Master Blaster” by Stevie Wonder, or “Follow Me – Faith,” whose synth stabs and progression sound like it could be a modern pop song with a bit of work. Although the style of the album is markedly different from Kanye’s usual, eschewing 808s and trap beats for vast choral expanses and funky drum and bass grooves, it still maintains a familiar atmosphere, harkening back to the sample-infused classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, often considered Kanye’s magnum opus. JIB’s renditions of familiar songs are strongly reminiscent of Kanye’s usual sample-heavy style, with songs different enough to feel novel, but familiar enough to feel comforting. Although Jesus Is Born doesn’t explicitly sample anything, the covers of gospel and soul classics like “Total Praise,” a cover of the 1996 gospel classic by Richard Smallwood, harken to the sentiment of sampling, the chorus’ voices acting as a familiar-yet-different reappropriation of the tune.
Although the album is jam-packed with works of classic gospel choir music, the runtime is probably its ultimate demise. The 84-minute, 19-song-deep release eventually feels somewhat grating, the repetition of the huge and loud vocals growing tiresome after an hour spent with them. Some songs feel like they could be removed entirely without changing the feel of the album in the slightest, such as “Lift Up Your Voices” and “Sweet Grace,” which flew by in my listens of the album without so much as a second thought. However, despite these shortcomings, Jesus is Born is still a satisfying listen for fans of gospel, RnB, soul, and funk. Although it may not be exactly what diehard Kanye fans are looking for, it still carries through his spirit (both figuratively and literally) and is definitely worth a listen.