In the mid-2000s, Joshua Rothman, researching a project on the contemporary hymn, was told by a scholar: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2.”
Kanye West, uber-narcissistic billionaire rap superstar and husband of Kim Kardashian, reinvented as a born-again Christian, has construed the term literally with his last two releases, the brilliant-in-parts Jesus Is King (which came out in late October) and Jesus Is Born (released on Christmas Day, a debut album by his choir Sunday Service, and executive-produced by himself).
The latter is pretty much a gospel album. Amid all the evangelical messaging – “I bow down to the King upon the throne”; “The army of God and we are the truth”; “He’s the strength in this race that I run” etc – are re-worked renditions of songs from his 2016 album The Life Of Pablo, including Ultralight Beam. The baseline of Fade re-emerges on Follow Me – Faith. Most remarkable is the porno hip-hop of The Life Of Pablo’s Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.
On Jesus Is Born, it becomes a hymn to the heavenly that is Father Stretch with these words : “Some call Him Jehovah/Yes, that’s right/Some call Him Yahweh/Yes, they do/Some call Him Adonai/Yes, that’s right’/But we lift our eyes to heaven and call Him.”
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Whether you think this is all painfully preachy or in some way transcendent, Jesus Is Born does have its moments. That’s How the Good Lord Works has a piano riff that is entirely infectious, worthy of Prince or Ray Charles or Bach or Handel.
Souls Anchored, meanwhile, is entrancing 1990s R&B, as is the cover of Lamar Campbell and Spirit Of Praise’s More Than Anything, to say nothing of the version of North Carolina pastor Shirley Caesar’s Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down or African-American spiritual Balm in Gilead.
If you can enjoy decades of American gospel and soul -whatever about Prince or Mahalia Jackson or Elvis Presley’s god-fearing stuff, whatever about Nick Cave or Johnny Cash’s or Bob Dylan’s godly rants – then you will find something here.
Whether you can get past West’s praise for Donald Trump, or his vast ego (he has called himself “unquestionably, the greatest human artist of all time”) is another matter.
Some think Kanye is a pious fraud in the Church of Celebrity doing this to market himself and make as much money as he can. Others disagree.
John Legend said: “Kanye made it OK to talk about your faith in songs that weren’t Christian songs.”
Maybe the final word should go to Kanye. “I don’t attest to any religion that tells me that other people gotta go to hell,” he said in 2008. “I don’t believe in a religion that has something against gay people. That has something against Muslims. That has something against Buddhists. You know? And I don’t really believe in any of that. I really believe in absolute truth.”
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