Baptisms, Sundays and water are all symbols of a morning spent in church. They’re also the track titles of Kanye West’s yet-to-be-released ninth studio album, Jesus is King.
Yes, the rapper who has referred to himself as both a god and pseudo-messiah name, “Yeezus,” is releasing his first self-professed gospel album. However, it’s unclear who’s taking the center stage: Jesus or West?
“While West is clearly deeply influenced by gospel arrangements — and, as some have noted, this may become the rappers’ first clean album — it’s still, first and foremost, a Kanye West album,” writes The Rolling Stone after Friday’s private album premiere party in Detroit.
The release of Jesus is King comes on the heels of nine months of West’s Sunday Services, which have been referred to as both “a case-study in damage control” and “ a celebrity cult,” driven by the desire to provoke and reap commercial profits from the Christian faith–merchandise for West’s Sunday Services range in price from $50 tee shirts to $140 crewnecks.
Despite criticism of the star-studded services, which feature brunch and non-disclosure disagreements, wife Kim Kardashian-West says her husband is ultimately committed to sharing his faith.
“Kanye started this, I think, just to heal himself. It was a really personal thing, and it was just friends and family, and he has had an amazing evolution of being born again and being saved by Christ,” Kardashian-West said on The View. “People always ask, ‘Well, what are you worshipping?’ and ‘What is this?’ It is a Christian service, like a musical ministry. They talk about Jesus and God.”
While Sunday Services have only been a Kardashian-West tradition since the start of this year, West’s religious roots have played a role in his career since the beginning.
“Kanye isn’t doing anything different than he’s done before. His beliefs and love of God have been shown throughout his career. It’s just that now, the vessel seems to be a bit more prominent,” said Pierce Simpson, host of Complex News who argues that “Jesus is King” has been 15 years in the making.
West was raised by his mother, English professor Donda West, and father, pastoral counselor Ray West. His Christian upbringing has been on display since his debut album, The College Dropout, with single “Jesus Walks.”
“So here go my single dawg, radio needs this. They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus,” West raps.
West rolled out a Holy Trinity of three music videos for Jesus Walks: the first two cloaked heavily in symbolism, exploring the life and redemption of sinners in both urban America and the South, and the third featuring Jesus literally following West around town performing Biblical miracles. The latter appears to be a glimpse into West’s soon to be revealed God complex.
On a 2006 Rolling Stones cover, West posed as Christ himself, crown of thorns and all, with a headline reading: “The Passion of Kanye West.”
In 2007, West’s mother died after complications from cosmetic surgery. In a press conference shortly after, he made an off-kilter comment about his relationship with Jesus.
“I don’t want to be James Bond. I don’t want to fit into this iconic figure that someone else has made. Just like how I don’t want to be Jesus Christ,” he said. “I was raised as a Christian, and they’re like ‘Be Christ-like. Be Christ-like.’ I’m like, ‘No! I don’t wanna f*ckin’ be Christ-like. I want to be me-like. I want to be the best me. ‘Cause you’re gonna fall short of being Christ-like and then you’ll never quite be happy.”
West later admitted he was “pretty harsh,” further explaining what he meant in a blog post.
“When I was at my mom’s funeral a f*cking stranger came up to me and said, ‘I hope you’ve accepted Jesus as your savior so you can see your mother again!’” he wrote. “I was in situations where someone constantly used Jesus to show me how baaaad a person I was or how not perfect or not Christ-like I was. When I say I don’t want to be Christ-like, I’m saying I’m fine with not being perfect. I’m fine with being a human being. I’m happy with just that.”
That wasn’t the last of West’s controversial statements regarding his faith. West debuted his single “I AM A God” at the 2013 Met Gala, which list a track credit “ft. God.”
“I just talked to Jesus/he said, ‘What up, Yeezus?’/I said “S*** I’m chilling/trying to stack these millions’/I know he’s the most high, but I am a close high,” West raps.
“[Christians] should want to be like Christ (in a humble way), follow Him, but any reference to equality means that you are wrong from the very beginning,” Pastor C. Andre Grier of Lithonia, Georgia’s Union Missionary Baptist Church told CNN.
Fast forward to 2016, and West returns to a gospel-centered sound with album The Life of Pablo, an homage to St. Paul the Apostle who is often considered the most important Christian leader in history after Jesus. The song “Ultralight Beam” begins and closes with a prayer much more humble than the lyrics of “I AM A God”: “Father, this prayer is for everyone who feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels they’re too messed up.”
But the statement of faith that was The Life of Pablo quickly faded. West cancelled his tour and was hospitalized for a “psychiatric emergency” in November 2016, later confirming he has bipolar disorder.
“After Pablo, West seemed to lose faith,” writes Ben Roazen in Okayplayer. “There were the erratic tweets, the “Make America Great Again“ hat selfie, the chaotic Dragon Energy. West had pivoted away from religion and into politics with disastrous results.”
West’s assertion that “slavery was a choice” and his continued support of President Donald Trump, culminating in a bizzarre visit to the White House, alienated much of the artist’s fanbase. Sunday Services and “Jesus Is King” could be just the modern day redemption story West’s career needs.
“West’s audience—his curated guests, his festival acolytes—has been primed by our cultural moment to overlook the deep bleakness of invite-only worship, of a 225 dollar bleach-stained sweatshirt that’s supposed to promote God and Kanye at the same time,” writes Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker. “But, even worse, many of them are surely drawn to Sunday Service out of some sort of meaningful longing: these young people who can afford to pay four figures to behave badly and photograph well in the desert are pursuing absolution, too, in their way.”
“Whether you believe the sincerity of it or have a hard time justifying the potential commercialization of it, all that is fair,” Simpson said. “However, if Kanye has shown us something throughout his career, it’s that if he believes in something, he’s gonna go all out.”
While a new church and gospel album could just be West’s latest business venture, he may also be turning a new leaf. From a season of controversy, to a season of healing; from politics, to psalms. We’re not here to prophesize what the future holds for him, but the Church of Kanye doesn’t seem to be closing its doors anytime soon.