There’s a much longer and larger conversation that is already underway about Kanye West’s spiritual awakening. If you were unaware, the rapper/producer/impresario/blowhard has become a born again Christian and is preaching the gospel far and wide through performances he’s calling “Sunday Services.” To these eyes and ears, particularly after listening to the wide-ranging and, at times, delusional interview he gave to Beats 1’s Zane Lowe that aired yesterday, it feels entirely performative. It's also a way to sidestep his actions and words of recent years—hanging with Trump, sporting a MAGA hat, claiming that slavery was “a choice”—and seek some kind of faulty redemption.
Whatever your feelings about Kanye’s conversion and all the ridiculous shit that has spilled out of his mouth because of it, one thing is undeniable: It has resulted in some of the best work of his career.
That definitely goes for Jesus Is King, the new album Kanye dropped into the world today. The short, powerful record is as musically challenging as anything on Yeezus or ye, but stands out due to the straining, self-reflective lyrical tone. Throughout, he rightfully chastises himself for his cosmically stupid slavery rant and wrestles with how his faith fits in with lavish lifestyle. In contrast to his Beats 1 interview, Kanye doesn’t sound like he has anything quite figured out, but has found some solace in the Lord. Despite the dumb Chick-fil-A riff in “Closed on Sunday,” and his potentially problematic claims that Christianity cured his sex addiction, the album soars.
Even better is Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Film, the IMAX movie that was also released today. Directed by Nick Knight, a filmmaker who has worked in the past with Björk and Asia Argento, this visual treat is also short, running just over 30 minutes. But what Knight and West pack into that slim duration are a wealth of indelible images and music.
Almost the entire film was shot within Roden Crater, a large-scale artwork built into a volcanic cinder cone by James Turrell. Into it, West brings a large gospel choir and lets them cut loose on a series of songs, accompanied only by Hammond organ and piano, using the natural resonance of the round room known as the Crater’s Eye. As this is an IMAX film, the sound of these vocalists is loud, nudging right up to the point of discomfort. The beauty of it balances out the volume. These are seasoned singers (all of them perform at West’s Sunday Services) who know how to blend together and create a mighty noise. At a certain point, they are so overtaken by the experience, they start muttering quiet prayers or drop to the ground and prostrate themselves.
The spiritual taken care of, Knight is allowed to play around with visuals that treble the music’s impact—especially an extended sequence that focuses on the choir’s conductor, Jason White. The camera stays still, shooting up at the round hole in the ceiling as the cloud cover above changes from blue to grey. White takes over the left side of the frame, directing the singers with wide motions of his arms and hands. He looks like a Titan as he splays out his fingers and an unseen array of voices take flight in response.
Although his name is in the title, West is barely in the film. He appears quietly, standing next to the piano and nodding his head as the choir fills the room with sound, at first blissful and then overwhelmed with emotion. Eventually, as the camera slowly tracks in a circle around him and the musicians, he takes center stage, singing “Street Lights” (from 808s & Heartbreak) in a creaking, quiet voice as dusk falls. The last we see of him is just parts of his hands and torso as he cradles his new baby Psalm and sings “Use this Gospel” (also from 808s) as a lullaby.
Every criticism you want to mete out about Jesus Is King, the film, is entirely valid. The closing shot of father and son is knowingly manipulative. And there are several moments throughout—a shot of a deer running through the woods, cotton boll shuddering in the breeze—that read as pretentious. Yet, the shuddering brunt of the music and the gorgeous locale supplants all of that. No matter your faith or your feelings about West, this film will leave you buzzing.
Jesus Is King is currently playing at local theaters.