While Jesus Is King waits in the wings, keen-eyed and -eared fans have been collating lyrics from snippets and live performance leaks. These can all be found online, so we decided to perform a track-by-track analysis on the one week anniversary of its (intended) release.
Lyrically, it has some peak Kanye flow as well as Pentecostal influence of repeated refrains and calling on the Most High. Guest spots are kept to a minimum, but Kanye has made an effort to keep the focus on Jesus and God. Thematically, there are signs of both spiritual weakness and strength, proving that making a Kanye religious album doesn’t mean he has shied away from the dark side of his experiences. Much like the Psalmists in the Bible, he uses song and music to work through his emotions, spread the good news he has found, but most importantly as an act of worship.
1. Up From The Ashes
Kanye uses the image of rising from the ashes to symbolise a new life after a period of destruction. The image is usually associated with the mythological creature, the phoenix, who is able to resurrect itself from nothing but a pile of ashes – obviously paralleling Christ’s own resurrection from death, a central idea for the Christian gospel.
The image of rising from the ashes is never really mentioned in the Bible, instead it is understood to be an ancient Israelite tradition concerned with expressing repentance and grief. The prophet Daniel and King David are two Old Testament figures who are described as rubbing ashes on their heads.
Thus, it’s a bold opening statement for the album, as Kanye expresses remorse over his past behaviour. According to reports from his listening parties, he openly admits to being lost recently, and even regrets ever calling himself ‘Yeezus’. As he burns down his past, he looks forward to rising anew – even if that means never making ‘secular music’ again.
A prominent image is also that of Mary, mother of Jesus. The maternal figure is a significant part of Kanye’s spiritual journey, having lost his own mother Donda West in 2007. This thread subtly recurs later on in Jesus Is King. (We explored the impact this had on his lyrics in our post Kanye Walks).
2. Follow God
Father, I stretch my hands
Stretch my hands to you
Lifelike, this is what your life like
Try to live your life right
People really know you, push your buttons like type write
This is like a movie, but it’s really game of life, right
Every single night right, every single bright right
“Follow God” reads like a sequel to two tracks and ideas introduced on The Life of Pablo: “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”. The idea of outstretched hands represents humble need, or as a symbol of prayer to God above. With that in mind, Kanye’s opening lines on “Pt. 1” are quite controversial, about being in a one-night stand with a model. However, “Pt. 2” finishes with a sample from southside Chicago pastor and gospel recording artist T.L. Barrett:
If I don’t turn to you
No other help I know, I stretch my hands
On this spiritual successor to “Father Stretch My Hands” (call it “Pt. 3”), Kanye plays with the idea of “followers” in our digital lives. He challenges listeners to consider what exactly does ‘Christ-like’ mean, in an age when everybody is obsessed with is ‘likes’ and ‘follows’.
Note that this song does contain a “fuck” and a “shit”, so don’t expect this one to be on your church’s playlist anytime soon.
3. On God
They had the chain, then snatched it, that’s all pride
Oh my God, what’s the lesson, all, we try
When you thought the Book of Job was your job
The devil had my soul, I can’t lie
Life gon’ have some lows and some highs
Throwin’ Grammys, never get enough
I wore my heart on my sleeve, I couldn’t hide
They know the pretty told me not to drive
I bleached my hair for every time I could’ve died
But I survived, that’s on God
“On God” is a reminder that ultimately, God has everything in control. Kanye openly addresses many events and controversies in his public life, before spinning it back to the recurring line that it’s all “on God” to either sort out, use to his purpose, or take the blame for. He also references other rappers and personalities in his life that are no strangers to controversy, including the late XXXTentacion, disgraced record executive L.A. Reid, and a subtle nod at POTUS too.
The book of Job line is also a deep Old Testament reference, as it is a tale of God’s faithful being tested through extreme hardships. Kanye realises that he was probably the devil’s plaything for a while, just like Job was.
Water is a key symbol of rebirth and cleansing in the Bible. After some technically complex and conceptually dense bars on “On God”, “Water” keeps it simple by using Pentecostal-esque refrains of calling on Jesus to heal, to help, to clean etc.
The track closes with a characteristic Kanye-ism, that appears deep, but is factually incorrect, and makes you wonder whether he’s in on the joke or not.
I know I might not be as perfect as Christ
But, we’re made up of 90 percent water
5. Closed on Sunday
Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A
This ain’t game day, get your house in shape
Train your sons, raise them in the faith
To temptations, make sure they’re wide awake
Follow Jesus, listen and obey
No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave
With its references to popular fast food chain Chick-fil-A, rhymes about skipping football games and holding hands in prayer, verse 1 of “Close on Sunday” reads like it could be a junior high religious education homework assignment. Verse 2 however, contains some legit bars about Kanye’s home life, and his desire to fight the spiritual battle to maintain its health. It’s a key example of Kanye’s earnestness on this new Gospel era of his career.
6. LA Monster
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
Lord, save these people, they asleep
They lettin’ Satan run they streets
Lord, save us from
Kanye addresses the literal demons he sees possessing the soul of Los Angeles, the nexus of the entire entertainment industry. He also addressed his pessimistic view of LA on “No More Parties in LA”, but this time it comes with a haunting, supernatural edge.
This stance against LA can be traced back, to some degree, to his experience with his mother who passed away from complications after plastic surgery. It’s a heartbreaking example of the pressures the entertainment industry places on ordinary people, and in some ways, Kanye is still working through the guilt and paradox of fully embracing and benefitting from that lifestyle. On “LA Monster” however, he is no longer messing about, personifying the devil as master of the streets.
7. New Body
“New Body” has proven to be the most controversial track on JIK, due to its original sexually explicit lyrics featuring Nicki Minaj (who has since been dropped). The title is a reference to the doctrine of resurrection; that all Christians look forward to a spiritual and physical rebirth where new bodies without pain or imperfection will be given to the faithful. Ty Dolla $ign opens the track with his hook:
Can’t wait to see your new body
Your Holy, Holy and new body
You’ll be born again in your new body
So it’s only fair to your new body, woah
It sounds sexual, but reports say that the track is being reworked to be more focused on Jesus, and looking forward to the future of promised heaven.
Reportedly the hottest track on the album, “Selah” proved to be a fan favourite at listening sessions. The word itself is something of a mystery. It appears in the Hebrew Bible a total of 74 times (‘סֶלָה’), mostly in the book of Psalms as a liturgical direction. The exact meaning is unknown, although functionally it is considered similar to the use of ‘Amen’ in modern Christianity.
Kanye uses the track as a way of addressing his issues with names and titles, including self-given ones. He references Yandhi, Yeezy, “slave names”, Zeus, and repeats ‘Hallelujah’ as a way of praising God. ‘Hallelujah’ literally translates to “Praise ye, Yah” (Yah being a way of addressing ‘Yahweh’, and is often accompanied by worshipping God’s name above every other name.
If you woke, then wake up
Try to stomp, we make up
Stop killing and make up
Gotta shake this shit up
God’s something they can’t front
By naming this track ‘Selah’, Kanye places himself in a millennia-old line of songwriters and poems expressing humility and worship before God. He is slowly stripping away his layers of hubris to reveal someone who is actively pursuing a Christian faith.
9. Hands On
Arguably the most personal track on JIK, Kanye reflects on his public persona, especially in light of his recent trajectory. He sounds most alone and hurt here, although he places trust in God’s ‘hands on’ approach to his life. The image of ‘hands on’ is also a possible reference to the Christian practice of ‘laying hands on in prayer’, for added intimacy and spiritual power.
Ask for advice and they dissed him
Said I finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
10. Use This Gospel for Protection
The album’s closing statement is a straight up worship song with guest verses from Pusha T and No Malice. He’s laid out his story for us, and now he wants us to take it on board to apply it to our lives, just like any preacher would.
Kanye’s hook on this track is a reminder that life will always be a spiritual battle between good and evil, and that only faith in God can carry us through.
Use this gospel for protection
It’s a hard road to Heaven
We call on your blessings
In the Father, we put our faith
Oh, and there’s a Kenny G solo too.
Across these ten tracks, Kanye explores ideas of faith, prayer, worship and temptation. He can he heard often asking for help in his struggles but takes assurance in his newfound faith. Whether it truly marks the beginning of a Gospel era for Kanye West, or if it ends up being an anomaly (or if it even ends up being ever released), it is a collection of modern gospel trap songs, proving that there is no boundary Kanye won’t push.
While it is contemporary in delivery and scope, Jesus Is King is spiritually and thematically in line with any of the millennia-old Psalms in the Bible – a human portrayal of pain, a celebration of faith, and an expression of what it means to finally find trust in something higher than yourself.
Cover image album fanart for ‘Jesus Is King’ by Clott Media.
All lyrics sourced from Genius as of Sunday October 6, 2019.
This post is part 2 of an ongoing series examining Kanye West’s spiritual journey. Read part 1 here.