Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Most of us expected that we’d be listening to Kanye West’s ninth studio album Jesus Is King by now and yet, three days after its release date, we’re left to refresh streaming services in the hope that it will arrive. While West fans spent the weekend looking for updates, the rapper was travelling around the US, playing the album in intimate venues.
When the album didn’t arrive on Friday, Kim Kardashian said that it would drop on Sunday around the time of a New York listening party. As planned, West arrived in New York on Sunday, treating Queens to a stirring Sunday Service. Online, details began to filter out about the listening party but by mid-afternoon nothing had been confirmed. In true West style, tickets were released just hours before the doors opened and fans lined the blocks surrounding United Palace - a Manhattan theatre with a capacity over 3,300.
It wasn’t your typical Kanye venue. United Palace is a decadent, seated theatre that does not often play host to hip-hop events. Yeezy had spent the weekend occupying theatres like it across the US and it felt like the right place to debut Jesus Is King. While Madison Square Garden captured the wide-lens, ambitious epic The Life Of Pablo, this latest album was expected to scale it back, focussing on faith rather than ego.
While photos from the infamous Madison Square Garden listening party almost two-and-a-half years ago showed Kanye in near-holy poses, he was far more reserved launching this album. From the pit, he introduced a clip of his forthcoming IMAX film and allowed his kids North West and Saint to dance in front of the screen, snatching some of his attention.
When it came time to introduce the album, he calmly delivered an intro where he talked about his journey back to faith. He was clearly excited but his usual boisterous tone was replaced with something more considered. “This album has been made to be an expression of the gospel and to share the gospel and the truth of what Jesus has done to me,” he said. Whether or not that enthused the crowd, they cheered anyway, excited to hear what was coming.
The album’s tracklist changed throughout the weekend and the version that was played in New York was already different to the one he’d played the night before in Chicago. Beauty From The Ashes, a lush, auto-tuned heavy track kicked it off. It’s a gentle, flowering track that recalls the intimacy of 808s & Heartbreak more than anything. It’s also not really an indication of the rest of the album which reaches for something larger.
By the time he hit play on the second track, he had asked the crowd to come closer, stepping into the aisles of the theatre. The staff looked nervous and they had every reason to be. Yeezy’s disciples stampeded towards the front, racing down the stairs with haste. Follow God and On God hit next, introducing the album’s strong gospel influence. He announced in Chicago that he would no longer be making any secular music and it was clear early on that this was all about his journey back to faith. It’s a personal album but for the most part he strips his usual personality for wide-lens look at how he’s been saved.
There are still some Kanye-isms thrown in throughout, particularly on Closed On Sunday where he raps about Chick-fil-A. It’s a clear favourite of his as he runs it back immediately after it finishes. It’s the first track on the album that sounds somewhat light-hearted.
It also seems to mark the point at which the album starts to lift off. Earlier in the year, Yeezy treated a Coachella crowd to his Sunday Service, debuting a new track Water. That song has made the Jesus Is King tracklist and sounds sublime in its recorded glory. The beat sounds aquatic, unlike anything he’s ever rapped over before. Like much of the album, when a choir is not blaring, the production is minimal.
That is apart from Saleh - a mighty, thundering track that captures more attention than any other cut on the record. His delivery is aggressive and it sent the crowd running back down the aisles again. A choir raucously sings “Hallelujah!” conjuring a cinematic and stirring soundscape. Regardless of your thoughts on religion, it’s hard not to feel something from this song. It towers just like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s most rousing moments.
— Eli stoken (@Eli_Stoken) September 30, 2019
Much to the theatre staff’s dismay, the mood only gets more excitable as he drops New Body. New Body leaked online after Yandhi never arrived and has become a superfan favourite. It wasn’t on the original album tracklist but it was added at the Detroit listening party on Friday. Nicki Minaj originally featured on it but it looks as if her verse hasn’t been cleared as she’d been dropped from it by New York. For anyone wondering why the album wasn’t out, it’s moments like this that made it clear it was unfinished.
Still, the crowd went wild for the least religious track on the album. It’s the club joint and the closest thing you’re going to find to 2018’s ridiculous I Love It - in sound, not content. Ty Dolla $ign features on the hook. He’s one of the few guests that appear on the album. Where The Life Of Pablo offered up a hip-hop superclass, this album largely features Kanye on his own.
Just before Kanye hits play on the final song, he tells the crowd that the NYPD want to shut down the event. They don’t but it’s clear that the theatre is eager to get everyone out. The final song Use This Gospel, however, recruits saxophonist Kenny G and Clipse. Clipse features Pusha T and his brother No Malice. No Malice once left the rap game to focus on Christianity and Clipse haven’t featured on anything since 2013. Their verses on Jesus Is King’s final moments are some of the finest on the record.
— CALVIN Q (@CalvinAngel_) September 30, 2019
As fans cleared out with bags full of Jesus Is King merch, it was clear that people were excited about the record. It’s more cohesive and realised than ye but, given what he’s saying, it’s unlikely to hit as universally as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Regardless, Kanye still has the ability to create mass hysteria even when people are growing impatient. Venturing back home on Sunday night, Jesus Is King had still not hit commercial platforms. Once it arrives, it may be what we heard in New York or it may be something completely different. For Kanye fans, it’s just another Yeezy album release.