This past weekend, Kanye West finally deemed his latest album fit for the ears of the general public. The not-so-subtly titled JESUS IS KING is Kanye’s first album after he professed a radical conversion to Christianity, features heavy gospel music influences, contains no foul language, and is even categorized as a Christian hip-hop album. Kanye isn’t the first musical artist to pivot so suddenly and completely to religious music, but he’s certainly one of the most prominent figures in American music to do so in recent years. And I can’t help but compare it to a similar conversion that happened 40 years ago.
In August of 1979 Bob Dylan released Slow Train Coming, the first album of what would come to be known as Dylan’s “Christian Era.” 17 years and 18 albums into his recording career, Dylan had established and re-established himself as one of the greatest songwriters in American history and indisputably as a key figure in American music. Slow Train Coming came after contact with the Vineyard Movement and a conversion to evangelical Christianity. The lyrics featured strong references to Dylan’s newfound faith and Christian philosophy. Obviously these sudden changes were polarizing and while the reception was mixed, reviews of the album were generally positive, citing Dylan’s conviction on the subject and its cohesiveness. Robert Christgau even said at the time that it was his best release since Blood on the Tracks.
At the start of this era Dylan stopped performing his previous secular material in favor of his new Christian songs. He would evangelize from the stage, especially when heckled, and there are even accounts of Dylan attempting to evangelize to producer Jerry Wexler during the recording of Slow Train Coming. This era brought another Christian album in 1980’s Saved, which was met with less critical acclaim. The final Christian release was 1981’s Shot of Love that contained a mixture of Christian and secular songs. This and the reintroduction of songs from the ’60s in live performances signaled Dylan’s movement away from a strictly religious approach to his music. 1983’s Infidels marked the official end of this period as it contained all secular material. In the years that followed, there have been hints here and there that Dylan hasn’t completely abandoned religion or at least a belief in God, but he hasn’t released any strictly Christian music.
Over the past 15 years Kanye West has proven to be one of the most talented, if not controversial figures in hip-hop music. Not only has he released genre-defining albums, but he’s proven that he’s not content to sit back on a formula that works and is willing to challenge himself and his fans. This has led to a variety of albums with varying quality, but there’s always been a sense that it was the album that Kanye wanted to make at that time. That sense is still present with JESUS IS KING. In fact, Kanye was so convicted about this album, that the previously announced Yandhi album was shelved or scrapped so JESUS IS KING could be made instead. So now I ask the question, is JESUS IS KING Kanye’s Slow Train Coming? Does this album mark the beginning of Kanye’s “Christian Era?”
The similarities between the two actually go beyond just the sudden pivot to more religious content. Kanye has spent the majority of 2019 holding “Sunday Services” where he performs covers of gospel songs and modified, gospel themed versions of his own material. He said in an interview that he almost quit making rap music because it’s “the devil’s music.” And there’s even claims that he requested that people involved in the production of JESUS IS KING who were not married abstain from sex during the course of the production. So here again we have a radical devotion to a newfound faith.
But when you bring the final product into the comparison, similarities begin to come fewer and farther between. The critical reception of JESUS IS KING has been mixed at best. It currently sits at a 48 on Metacritic (at the time of writing), which puts it in the lowest five scores for the year so far. The production is uneven with evidence of Kanye’s constant meddling throughout. And where Dylan was convicted in his new faith and shared the Gospel as he understood it, Kanye is more using his Christianity as a vehicle to call out his naysayers. One can only hope that if we get more albums out of this Christian era, that they increase in quality and content rather than decrease like they did with Dylan.
Kanye also has a history of being incredibly impulsive. That coupled with the uncertainty of the future makes the longevity of this Christian period a big, fat question mark. We have no way of knowing if Kanye is in this for the long haul or if this will just be a short detour like Dylan’s. And if I’m honest, I don’t think Kanye really knows either. What I do know is that, regardless of your opinions of it, religion can be a very helpful thing for some people. Kanye West is clearly a man with a lot of personal demons. I think we can endure some disappointing music if that’s the price we have to pay for someone to become a happier and healthier person. Personally, I’d like to see another attempt at a gospel rap album, one that’s more focused and thought out. I believe that Kanye certainly has the ability to create a great album in that style. But we won’t know until his next album gets announced and then delayed… and delayed again.