It’s not a secret that I’m a Kanye West convert. When he started doing Sunday Service with that magnificent choir, I was all in. As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I like rap music, but over the years it morphed into something dark and angry and sinister. It became unlistenable. Kanye’s first album in the Christian genre, “Jesus is King,” brought rap back in a positive way, mixed with a rocking gospel choir, and showed how powerful a medium it can be for a positive message.
When the second album, “Jesus is Born,” dropped in December, I expected more of the same but was completely surprised by what the album actually is. Where “Jesus is King” is a mix of short gospel choruses mixed with Kanye’s verse that left you wanting more, “Jesus is Born” is a full-gospel choir album. Kanye doesn’t make an appearance for the entire hour and twenty-four minutes. There are full versions of the choruses we came to love in “Jesus is King” and so much more. “Jesus is Born” debuted at number 2 on the gospel charts.
I’m partial to gospel choir music, having grown up in a gospel church outside of Chicago whose youth choir sang “Excellent” (track 2) more times than I can count, had a rocking bassman, and if you wanted the drum kit quieter you invested in earplugs. The one thing that separates gospel music, specifically black gospel choir music, from all other forms of Christian music is joy. Traditional black gospel choirs have always effused joy with every note. There is so much delight in “Jesus is Born” that it may lift you out of your seat and into another realm.
It begins with “Count Your Blessings,” which has a vocal exercise in it that is darn near impossible to sing along with, even for a trained singer (3:19). The vocal calisthenics of the Sunday Service Choir is a marvel.
Your first listen through this album should be with headphones to get the full effect and to hear every detail because there’s so much there it takes several times to hear it all. Not only is it technically perfect, but it is also theologically profound. After “Count Your Blessings,” the album continues through a narrative that says God is good, all the time, He is holy, He is your father, He cares for you, He wants to hear your praises and your love, He’s a healer, the Creator, the Source of all that is good, the Bearer of sunshine, the Author of all good works, so stand on the Word. It ends with “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down,” followed by “Total Praise,” a song of thanksgiving for the work He will do. Christian critics, who are often so vocal about West’s conversion, will find nothing in this narrative that strays from biblical truth.
The best thing about the album is the feeling of pure joy that permeates through it. It embodies Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” There is nothing maudlin or gray about this album. It is an unapologetic celebration of the joy of the Lord and the peace that Christians who have had an encounter with Jesus can’t wait to tell you about. The absence of Kanye on the album is more evidence that he wants to share something with you. It’s not about him. In “Sunshine,” the choir belts out “I’m a witness that Jesus will make a difference in your life” over and over again with an incredible soprano belting out the solo. It’s a message from someone who has experienced it to someone who needs it.
Some highlights include throwbacks to favorite R&B tunes like “Weak” by SWV reworked to send a Christian message and the appearance of a Soul II Soul remixed chorus in “Back to Life” that is absolutely stunning.
For me, the best songs (and it’s incredibly hard to choose) are “Father Stretch,” which is a reworking of West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1” from his 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” that is turned into a full gospel anthem. Here is an awesome portion of a live performance of this song at Howard University.
— Howard University (@HowardU) October 12, 2019
If you don’t feel joy radiating off that performance, you’re dead inside. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that West has battled with depression and has thrown himself fully into producing this uplifting, joyful music. It makes me feel new. Another favorite is “Follow Me,” which has a groove so intense you cannot hear it and stay still. It’s physically impossible. The beats on this album are not only irresistible but complicated. I’ve listened to it at least six times and I’m still figuring some of them out. When they break down “Follow Me” I lose all semblance of decorum and if you see me wiggling in the CVS it’s because I’m listening to this. “Your love is favor, we feel its faith! (Next part everybody to the right let’s go) Fay-yay-yay-yay-yay-yay fay-yay-yay-yay-yay-yay we feel its faith” — and just when you think it can’t get any better, it breaks down even more and the sopranos come in, killing it with “He’s alive, He-He-HE’S ALIVE!”
STOP IT, KANYE!
But wait! Here come the tenors and they’re going to rock your world. It just doesn’t stop and it’s glorious. (Breakdown starts at the 2:00 mark but hear the whole thing, please.)
The momentum of this album is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It starts at an intense pace and it keeps going until you feel like you’re going to burst. Just when you think it’s going to chill out for a while in “Lift Up Your Voices” with a slower, smooth moment the altos launch an assault on your heart with the bridge, “We worship, we praise you, adore you, we love you,” followed by the tenors and the full choir taking it to unbelievable heights appreciated fully on your knees. (Altos begin at 2:03.)
Picking a favorite is impossible, but “That’s How the Good Lord Works” is close. Maybe it’s the power of the tenors mixed with the (everybody put your hands on it) groove that drives it into your soul, but this song is in my bones. “In choirs, we gotta rock,” says the director and boy, do they! This is epic. When they break it down in this one and start the “There is nothing too hard for God” bridge with the key changes, it’s a journey to genius land. I had to listen to it at least five times to get the rhythm down and sing along, and I spent my teen years touring with a professional gospel choir. There’s nothing more exciting to a musician than difficult arrangements. Headphones, people. Just do it. Rock with me.
My criticism of “Jesus is King” was that the choir moments were too short to be truly appreciated at a combined total of just over twenty minutes for the entire album. “Jesus is Born” delivers the full experience that “Jesus is King” only hinted at. It was a masterful decision to tease the Sunday Service choir and leave people desperate for more and then deliver this full album on Christmas like the amazing gift it is.
The Christian music genre has for too long been in a cycle of trying to sound like what they hear on Top 40 stations. That’s not who we are and we will never dominate there. It has become a sad imitation of good music. Forget that. Do this instead. Buy this album and let it lift you up and renew you.
Megan Fox is the author of “Believe Evidence; The Death of Due Process from Salome to #MeToo.” Follow on Twitter @MeganFoxWriter