We should have seen the writing on the wall. Last year, Kanye West's Ye publicized the deepest recesses of his id, arriving amid months of questionable behavior from the rapper. He suggested slavery was a choice, sported a "Make America Great Again" cap, and extended support to perhaps the most divisive president in history. The album marked a troubling entry in his lengthy discography before it was even released.
So it wasn't too surprising when Kanye quickly left Ye as a relic of the summer, moving on to albums he executive produced for the GOOD Music camp, including his Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts. He revealed that he would be dropping another album in September 2018 called Yandhi. Then, delays. Then, silence.
When he re-emerged in 2019, it seemed like it was to purge himself of himself. Kanye began hosting Sunday Service, a weekly traveling public worship featuring choir music (with performances by his children North and Saint), dancing, and general rejoicing, all in the name of Jesus Christ. It's been attended by A$AP Rocky, Brad Pitt, Big Sean, and throngs of everyday worshippers. These services, along with the release of the humanizing single "Water," suggested that the presumably self-centered Yandhi couldn't possibly be his next musical step; he was back on a path closer to the religious walk of his early career.
The defining statement of this era likely would've been Jesus Is King, an album announced by Kim Kardashian West and confirmed via Kanye's website for a September 27 release. But this week, multiple reports came of even more delays. As of today, there's no album to speak of, though there is apparently a live show in Detroit called "Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Experience."
Despite the lack of a new album, Kanye's music has held a pious slant — both in grappling with God and with deeming himself one — from the very beginning. Now, as we wait to see if we'll ever be able to hear Jesus Is King, we've trekked this religious journey across seven different eras of Kanye.
"Jesus Walks" (2004)
Kanye's 2004 ode to Christianity "Jesus Walks" — the fourth single from his debut album, The College Dropout — is still one of his signature songs. Supported by the spiritual voices of Harlem a capella group the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir, Kanye kicked his career off asking God to show him the way. The rapper reportedly shopped the track to labels prior to getting signed by Roc-A-Fella Records, but no one would take the bait. "They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus," Kanye spits. "That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won't get played." Kanye proved them wrong: It peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, went double platinum, and won a Grammy for Best Rap Song. The foundation had been laid.
"Devil In a New Dress" (2010)
A lot happened in the six long years between Kanye's religion-referencing debut and 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: a 2006 Rolling Stone cover that depicted the rapper in a crown of thorns; the 2008 death of his mother, which, along with the end of an engagement, spurred the creation of 808s and Heartbreak; the 2009 VMAs and his infamous Taylor Swift interruption. Kanye was never humble, but by now, he'd turned his gaze toward his satanic sexual impulses. Instead of worship, Kanye roots "Devil" in hedonism. "The way you look should be a sin, you my sensation / I know I'm preaching to the congregation / We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan," he raps. It's a far cry from the Christian embrace in his earlier music. He's not seeking guidance from God; he's casting Him away and caving to his most devilish temptations.
"No Church in the Wild" (2011)
By 2011, Kanye and Jay-Z had become rap titans, so naturally, their collaborative album, Watch the Throne, was all braggadocio. But opener "No Church in the Wild" raised the stakes, beginning with a telling Frank Ocean hook: "What's a mob to a king? / What's a king to a god? / What's a god to a non-believer / Who don't believe in anything?" Jay's verse yanks heaven down from the sky with a biting bar: "Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats / Hova flow the Holy Ghost." Kanye continues the blasphemy by framing the verse around a threesome where he's the one being worshipped. And if sex is their hymn, then lower back tattoos are their scripture: "Two tattoos: one read 'no apologies' / The other said 'love is cursed by monogamy' / It's something that the pastor don't preach." He'd set the stage for the pure bile yet to come.
"I Am a God" (2013)
An album named Yeezus would seem incomplete without a song called "I Am a God." The inspiration came after a 2012 Paris Fashion Week dis from a designer who invited the rapper to a show on the condition that he not come to any other ones. The very next day, Kanye sprinted to the studio; on the song, he repeats that he's the highest worship point. The song's official credits note God as a featured artist. On the Yeezus tour throughout 2013 and 2014, Kanye brought out a man dressed as Jesus to talk with as equals, bringing to life the song's line, "I just talked to Jesus / He said, 'What up, Yeezus?'" In fan-captured footage of a Seattle show, someone off-camera notes that the rapper's "going way too far, man" — but no one could touch Kanye when he's reigning from above.
"Ultralight Beam" (2016)
Featuring Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper, and a 10-person choir, gospel anthem "Ultralight Beam" is the religious fulcrum of Kanye's 2016 album The Life of Pablo (originally titled So Help Me God). With chants and prayers littered throughout, it's Kanye at his most vulnerable, open to change, pleading with God for strength. "Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they're not good enough," Franklin prays at the end of the track. "This prayer’s for everybody that feel that they're too messed up / For everyone that feels they’ve said 'I'm sorry' too many times." Ironically, "Ultralight Beam" leads into "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1," the critically acclaimed gospel-sampling song with a name that invokes prayer, but with a sexual twist. The rest of the album continues down that subversive rabbit hole.
The spectacle of Ye nearly enveloped the extremely personal album, but flecks of religious light shine through. Deep within the ramblings and confessions ("I Thought About Killing You") are quiet nods to God, heaven, and past sins, a subtle return to the humbled Kanye we once knew. On "No Mistakes," Kanye offers divine forgiveness: "Make no mistake girl, I still love you / (Believe it or not, the Lord still shines on you)." Later on "Ghost Town," sampled dreams of ascending to heaven surround modest verses: "Someday I wanna wear a starry crown / Someday I wanna lay down like God did on Sunday." And "Violent Crimes" finds Kanye asking for forgiveness for the very sins that once made him a god: "Father forgive me, I'm scared of the karma / 'Cause now I see women as something to nurture / Not something to conquer." Kanye's slow walk back into the church turned into a brisk jog toward the pearly gates.
In December 2018, Kanye revealed that Chance the Rapper had helped him reconnect with his faith, and at the turn of the new year, he began leading the gospel choir that would become his Sunday Service. During one of these services, he debuted "Water," a track he executive produced but doesn't perform on. "Water" is about rebirth, purification, and the celebration of life with God's love. It's Kanye reckoning with his human form. Throughout the track, collaborator Ant Clemons delivers frequent chants of "water," like he's purging individual sins with each melody. Kanye ceding the spotlight feels like it might be another authentic step toward his religious return — a paying of respects before kneeling at the altar and declaring, "Jesus is King." We'll see if we ever get to hear it outside of Detroit.