The Biggest Takeaways From a First Listen of Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’

Kanye West’s ninth solo studio album has arrived. After a first listen, the Complex Music staff put together a list of initial thoughts and takeaways.

Kanye West

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Kanye West

After a few false starts, Kanye West’s new album, Jesus Is King, has arrived. Consequence stayed up all night (and even skipped dinner!) to make sure the album finally hit streaming services at noon on Friday. 

Like the title suggests, the lyrics on Jesus Is King are extremely religious, reflecting Kanye’s re-commitment to Christianity. There is no cursing on the album, and songs that strayed from the project’s Christian themes, like the Nicki Minaj-assisted “New Body” (which appeared on preliminary tracklists), did not make the final cut.

Jesus Is King has only been on streaming services for a few hours, and there’s a lot to unpack here. After additional spins this weekend, we’ll share a review and dive into bigger questions. Did Kanye pull off the near-impossible task of creating a Christian rap album for a mainstream audience? Will anyone be listening to this a month from now? Until then, the Complex Music team put together some initial thoughts and takeaways after a first listen to Kanye’s ninth solo studio album.

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It sounds like a Kanye West album

This isn’t Sunday Service, the album. Kanye’s Sunday Service choir album, titled Jesus Is Born, will arrive on Christmas, and that project will likely be built around traditional gospel sounds. But don’t expect to hear that on Jesus Is King. Musically, this is in line with what we’ve come to expect from Kanye West albums. There are songs on here that sound like holdovers from past eras that Kanye dug up and swapped in lyrics about Jesus. The synth-heavy beat of “On God” would have comfortably found a home on Yeezus or The Life of Pablo. The watery, simplistic production of “Hands On” feels like a Ye song. There are a few organ-heavy tracks like “Selah” that heavily draw inspiration from gospel music, but even on the more traditional songs, he finds ways to put his own spin on things. Even “Selah” morphs into an unmistakably Kanye West production that finishes with thunderous drums and a fiery verse. Fans who are put off by the religious lyrics will find something to like in the production (although there might be some disappointment about how well this album could have resonated with a secular audience if it didn’t include all the Jesus references). —Eric Skelton

Kanye isn’t afraid to sing

Long ago, Kanye acknowledged that he “can’t sing that well.” On albums like 808s & Heartbreak, he attempted to smooth over imperfections by lathering his voice in Auto-Tune. On Jesus Is King, though, he sings early and often, far less self-conscious about his shortcomings. The Sunday Service choir appears on a few songs, but Kanye handles the majority of the vocal duties himself, often without heavily relying on vocoders. “God Is” begins with an emotional falsetto and develops into a raw, ragged vocal performance that hits home on a visceral level. Elsewhere, he sing-raps one of the album’s catchiest melodies on “Closed On Sunday.” Kanye will never be a great singer, but he is getting more comfortable and finding effective ways to use his voice without Auto-Tune. —Eric Skelton

It really is all about Jesus

Kanye wasn’t lying; this is all about God. From the song titles to lyrics, Jesus Is King is centered around Christianity. If you haven’t listened yet, expect lines that illustrate Ye’s relationship to Christ and mission to spread the gospel. “I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup/I know God is alive,” he sings on “God Is.” While some lyrics are celebratory and sound like testimony, Kanye also sprinkles in more aggressive bars that could be interpreted as commands: “Follow Jesus, listen, and obey,” he spits on “Closed on Sunday.” Later on “God Is,” he instructs fans to “worship Christ with the best of your portions.” What you won’t hear on this project is profanity or overtly sexual lyrics. The popular Nicki Minaj collaboration, “New Body,” is noticeably missing from the project because Nicki and Yeezy “weren’t seeing eye to eye” on the clean direction he was taking his music. Lyrically, this is what Kanye intended it to be: a family-friendly project. —Jessica McKinney

It’s unclear who the target audience is

Midway through Jesus Is King, it becomes clear just how difficult of a task it is for a massively successful pop artist like Kanye West to pull off a Christian album and make everyone happy. Kanye does a good job of producing a musically accessible album that takes risks while also delivering catchy moments, but it’s unlikely that songs with this many Jesus references will get played on the radio, and there’s no way you’ll hear it in the club. Alternatively, will this find heavy rotation within the Christian community? Even Kanye seems to have his doubts about that. On “Hands On,” he raps, “Said I’m finna do a gospel album/What have you been hearin' from the Christians?/They'll be the first one to judge me.” The first week sales will be strong, because curiosity levels are high, but we’ll have to wait and see who keeps this in rotation (if anyone). Outside of Kanye’s own children, it’s unclear who exactly Jesus Is King was made for. —Eric Skelton

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“Follow God” is a standout

It’s a tradition in the Complex office to stop what we’re doing and have a bullpen listening session whenever Kanye West drops a new album. And on first listen, the office favorite is unanimous: “Follow God.” Despite the title, Kanye chills on the heavy-handed Jesus references somewhat and delivers the album’s best song. This is the kind of “Jesus Walks”-type track that manages to touch on religious themes without sounding corny, while still appealing to a wide audience. Settling into a nice pocket, Kanye flows on “Follow God” better than we’ve heard from him in years. And the production? Try listening to this without bobbing your head. Shout out BoogzDaBeast and Xcelence. If the rest of the album followed the same blueprint, we’d be seeing a lot less criticism on Twitter right now. “Follow God” is the one. —Eric Skelton

The production is a team effort

All hands were on deck in regards to the album’s production. Each track boasts three or more producers. Timbaland snagged multiple credits on songs like “Closed on Sundays,” “Hands On,” “Use This Gospel,” and “Jesus Is Lord.” Other well-known producers like Benny Blanco and Pi’erre Bourne showed up on tracks like “Selah” and “On God,” respectively. Kanye also recruited new talent on the album, including BoogzDaBeast, who nabbed credits on six of the 11 tracks. This was a team effort. —Jessica McKinney

At times, it sounds unfinished

Kanye has been playing versions of the album to the public for weeks now. Despite that, it still feels rushed and unfinished at times. This is particularly true when it comes to Kanye’s vocals. From the time they enter on “Selah,” they sound breathy and raw. And not necessarily raw in a good, stripped-down, punk rock way. But raw in a “we didn’t have much time to think about vocal tone” way. Same with “Hands On,” where Kanye’s religious message gets overshadowed by vocals that are meant to be intimate, but instead sound unmixed. The album may have benefited from a couple more 4 a.m. mastering sessions. —Shawn Setaro

His short album habit continues

It’s unlikely we’ll be getting another hour-long Kanye album anytime soon. Clocking in at just 27 minutes, Jesus Is King is short, giving us a sample-sized taste of the new music he’s been teasing for over a year. Shorter projects have become rather consistent for Kanye in recent years. The summer of 2018 was marked by the releases of Ye (24 minutes) and Kids See Ghosts (24 minutes). Teyana Taylor, Pusha-T, and Nas individually dropped Kanye-produced G.O.O.D. Music albums the same summer, adopting a 7-track standard that never exceeded 30 minutes. Although there are 11 songs on Jesus Is King, don’t come into this one ready to zone out, because the album will come to a halt. Jesus Is King is widely open to interpretation, but there is one question we all asked upon its conclusion: Is that it? —Kemet High

Where does it stand in his discography?

A few hours removed from the release of Jesus Is King, everyone is already asking where it ranks among the rest of Kanye’s catalog. The immediate response in the Complex office is that Jesus Is King is better than Ye. The religious themes give the album a sense of focus that has been lacking from Kanye’s recent releases. But at the same time, some of the lyrics come across as hollow, which gives Jesus Is King the feel, at times, of a Christian album made by someone who just re-discovered God a few months ago. This isn’t a horrible album, but it certainly has flaws. We’ll give it a little more time to digest before sharing a full review and updating our Kanye West album rankings. Stay tuned. —Eric Skelton

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