My thoughts on Jesus is King and Kanye’s new “direction” *Spoiler alert*
On Thursday, October 24, after not one, not two, but three completely disregarded release dates, Kanye West premiered his long-awaited Jesus is King film, meant to coincide with the Friday release of his album of the same name.
The film is meant to be shown only in IMAX, leaving the number of theatres premiering it few and far between in New York City. And even though the ticket price was the same as a feature-length film, Jesus is King at least partially quenched audience’s thirst of the recently stagnant artist.
Though the artist has famously gone through a number of phases, each album marking a separate chapter in his artistic development and growth, fans were quickly becoming discouraged by West’s apparent inability to come through on release dates. But finally – and even though, of course, the album did not drop right on time – the Jesus is King film marks an important creation for an artist who up until now has made himself the star of the show.
What Kanye West provides, although short and at times lacking in West himself, is a project that he has allowed to form himself. The art is the choir’s love for God; the art is the voices venerating the most high. However, even though it was visually and sonically beautiful, there was still something missing from West’s venture into gospel.
Jesus is King was shot by Nick Knight, director of both the “Bound 2” and “Black Skinhead” music videos. West has directed his own films in the past, including Runaway (2010), a short released to coincide with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The film is shot at an art installation by James Turrell called the Roden Crater, located in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona. A more idyllic and heavenly location could not exist; many long shots focus on the still and sparse beauty of the structure itself against the southwestern sky. A temple indeed, the Roden Crater swallows light and reflects the unfathomable range of the Sunday Service choir, whose voices are only augmented by the echo that Turrell’s passion project allows. The space itself becomes part of the art presented in Jesus is King, a character in itself; it appears at times that the veneration towards the sky implies a true godly presence in our natural world.
Over the haunting tune of vespers, Jesus is King begins. Heavenly images of golden stairways leading to orbs of sunlight feel divine, though they are quickly replaced with a dark, twisting black-and-white tunnel sequence. After a truly tantalizing introduction, in which the perfect geometry of the Turrell project produce a trancelike state, the Sunday Service choir begins what will ultimately be a 16-chapter story told through some absolutely astounding vocalizations.
The world that Kanye West creates is futuristic, uniform, sparse, earthy, but still somehow human, whether because of the voices filling up the air or because of the necessity of each voice in creating such a powerful choir. In brown pants and shirts, one by one, the Sunday Service choir leave nothing unsung. Jason White directs the choir with the power of a ship’s captain.
West only appears halfway through the film – standing beside Kid Cudi, fellow artist and supporter of everything Kanye does – and even then gives only two solo performances: a bone-chilling cover of “Street Lights” and an acapella sample of “Use This Gospel.” West sings “Street Lights” with piano and organ accompaniment against the blue-lit room. This is one of the film’s more intimate moments.
Whatever vocal training West has been undertaking is obviously working; his voice comes across clearly and consistently. The men engage in something so intimate, so emotional, over the rendition of “Street Lights,” so much so that when it ends and each member walks in front of the camera, leaving behind the piano only, it feels as though something was ripped away – as though they had just experienced something so transcendent that to simply return to normal life felt uncomfortable.
After the choir’s final performance, which leaves many weeping and embracing, West hangs back to hug some of the members. A sense of humanity takes over the picture – a gathering of people feeling something that surpasses the material world, that has lifted them out of their bodies. What else could we ask of art to portray?
In the final scene, the camera focuses on West’s hand as he cradles the head of his son Psalm and sings. Here is West with his son, the new Madonna with child; suddenly, the emotion and power and intensity of the film boil down into a small, intimate moment with this tiny child. It suddenly all makes sense – the devotion, the love, the beauty is all for West’s child. That same emotional love driving the choir to unfathomable vocal heights is what fulfills West.
If nothing else, Jesus is King truly feels like something that West adores. The vigor with which West listens to the choir feels authentic and contagious. It makes the entire film make sense, as if this new path for West’s career makes sense – like this is only exactly what West is supposed to be doing. In Kids See Ghosts, he sang, “I’m so reborn.” In Jesus is King, it’s clear to see that he is.
At the film’s completion, the first thought was only that it was quite short – only 31 minutes. It leaves you washed in a golden haze, ending on an oddly bright blue screen in contrast with the skyscapes of the film. There was a heavy reliance on the architecture of the location, which of course tells its own story, though at times felt like the main focus of the piece in an unbalanced way.
Still, the songs felt strong throughout, and the emotion was absolutely palpable, but there was something missing nonetheless. And though West announced on Jimmy Kimmel Live that the album was available for streaming, it would not be until later on Friday that it actually appeared on sites, due to last-minute tweaks on a few of the songs, West confirmed on Twitter. This seems only fitting for this never-ending Kanye West release date saga, and unfortunately feels like the final nail in the coffin for what generally felt underwhelming as a standalone project.
The minimalist, natural project stands in contrast to some of Ye’s other themes, although his deeper exploration of god and religion is nothing new. Jesus is King mirrors, in some ways, the 2010 release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Back in 2010, West had GOOD Fridays – his weekly music releases – to promote the album. Now, it had become Sunday Service, with some song snippets appearing on the Wests’ social media pages, like “We Have Everything We Need.” Religion is a theme in some of his most incredible songs, like “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam.” And in Runaway, the short film coinciding with the MBDTF release, the idea of belief, discipleship, and reincarnation were similarly explored. The Phoenix asks, “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different, you try to change.” In Kanye West’s Jesus is King version of the world, one with smooth plains and music only about love, the robotic and industrial Runaway feels like another chapter, another world, and perhaps another artist.
Kanye feels more distant in this film. Though it was oddly satisfying to scan the curved screen to try to find a uniformly brown-clad West, his uncharacteristic absence leaves the project feeling more like a modern art showcase than something inherently Kanye West. It is so un-Kanye to not be Kanye – present, honest, individual, proud. But then again, Kanye is the human embodiment of what it means to be spontaneous. This exploration of a more reserved side demonstrates a difference in his character. Never before have his moves been predicted or even explained – he simply is what he is. That makes this reflective, soft-spoken, emotional, honest project one that does not feel like it’s his – but perhaps that is all its appeal.
Still, something about the final scene where West holds Psalm returns as the most gripping part of the film. Perhaps it was the true and unfettered display of fatherhood, or the plain existence of West’s singing voice. But there’s nonetheless something spiritual of just that image, of Kanye’s twenty-foot wide hand on the IMAX screen cradling a small life. That alone took what was otherwise a disjointed, fragmented collection of performance art and made it something that still had his name on it.
Though his absence allowed other aspects of his artistic repertoire to shine – his songwriting, directing, styling – it was that human touch at the end of the film that made it attainable. In true Kanye fashion, he has set his sights on something different, out-of-reach, ready to be explored. Intersecting the natural landscape of western America with the backdrop of a celestially flawless choir is likely the last thing we expected Kanye to do. And it was also somehow the first.