I remember watching Showtime at the Apollo as a child. Broadcast from the famed Harlem theater, the show focused on the venue’s amateur night, with people attempting to do anything from comedy to tricks to singing. Some of entertainment's biggest names have been victims of the Sandman, the character that comes out to sweep you off stage when the crowd boos. Names like Lauryn Hill, Dave Chappelle and even Luther Vandross have been swept off the stage.
But the crowd always seems to adhere to one rule: Regardless of how terrible a singer was, if you sing a gospel song, the crowd will never boo.
I’m reminded of this as I contemplate Kanye West's recently released attempt at a gospel album, Jesus Is King. If the Kayne of recent years — the MAGA hat-wearing, “Slavery ... for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” “I'm the best living recording artist” version — was an Apollo act, he’d get the Sandman treatment in a heartbeat.
Solution: Go to Jesus. What better way is there to convince black folks not to disown you?
This may be a CliffsNotes approach to how I feel about the new, overtly religious Kanye, but I don't think the comparison is far off.
If you have never heard of him, go to YouTube and look up “Cholo Jesus.” You will find videos of Mike Servin, a man who quotes the Bible and then breaks into a pop-in-lock session while yelling “Jesus Chrooist!” in a thick-ass West Coast accent. You can even find him dancing to the new Ye album. In all the time I laughed at these adorable videos, there was one thing I never questioned: the dancer's sincerity.
But for me, skepticism is ground level for Jesus Is King. Kanye reportedly went full Christian, telling collaborators to not engage in pre-marital sex while working on the album, prohibiting profanity among the people around him, and even publicly arguing with his wife, Kim Kardshian West, about how she dresses too sexy.
This is the same man that had that same wife pose buck-ass naked in his “Bound” video. “I Love It,” a song and video he released earlier this year, finds Lil' Pump delivering the hook: “You're such a f#!kin' ho, I love it.”
Insert emoji with hand on chin.
Still, as with any Kanye album, it boils down to what always bolsters the Chicago rapper and producer against public scrutiny: Is the music jammin'? Unfortunately, for this record, the answer is, “Nah.”
Not saying there aren't cool moments. Opener “Every Hour” makes good use of his Sunday Service choir — who performed at those much-talked-about shows that found him doing his best Kirk Franklin impression — parlaying well into the rapper’s confessions on the subsequent “Selah”: “God is King, we the soldiers / Ultrabeam out the solar / When I get to Heaven's gates / I ain’t gotta peak over / Keepin' perfect composure / When I scream at the chauffeur.”
Secular Ye and Christian Ye seem to battle during such moments, which is compelling, but his lyricism leaves much to be desired.
The Sunday Service choir remains a star and a bright spot throughout, but it’s not enough to buoy Kanye’s weak words. Take “Closed On Sundays,” where he lazily croons, “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A / You're my No. 1, with the lemonade.” It makes you wonder why the hell the album’s release was pushed half a dozen times if this is what we ended up with.
Other notable moments are notable in name only. He gets the famed brother rap duo Clipse back together, collaborating alongside Kenny G (no, that’s not a typo) on “Use This Gospel.” But like much of the album, it feels half-hearted and uninspired, similar to his 2018 EP Ye.
Throughout the album and in recent interviews, you see Kanye going through his regular motions, even though there are moments that make it difficult to listen — musically and otherwise. He showed up at D.C.’s Howard University, a historically black school, for homecoming and brought his Sunday Service to the students for a pop-up performance. He went on a rant and once again said something that's insulting to the ancestors: “If they throwing slave nets again, how about we all don't stand in the same place?"
A phrase that doesn't even make sense but also trivializes the atrocities of slavery? This is the anti-black rhetoric that, if a white public figure said it, would receive outcry from black pundits and the general public alike. Kanye shouldn’t get a pass because he's black, and he shouldn't get a pass because he's armed with a choir.
It’s a moment that makes it feel like black people are having our faith weaponized against us.
I don't see myself exploring Jesus Is King any further. Not just because I don't think this newly Christian Ye is a temporary phase — he's been calling himself Yeezus for a while now — but because it doesn’t even feel like he believes it.