West & Co. Bend Light and Joy on Jesus Is Born
For years, Kanye West’s Twitter avatar was the George Condo painting of Kanye’s screaming, severed head with a sword shoved through the ear. It was a fitting image for an artist who’s made a tradition of saying exactly what he wants, even when it seems as if he’s been cast outside of the mainstream’s good graces — that, no matter what, he will be heard. Even if West has since traded the severed head avatar for a more peaceful rendering of Earth, he still makes it clear that he refuses to be silenced. He told Zane Lowe last October in his classic prophetic, third-person voice: “’Ye cannot die. ‘Ye cannot be buried.”
Of course, he’s been speaking like this from the beginning, in broad, ego-driven brushstrokes. But maybe this isn’t all braggadocio. For someone who’s made a career out of extracting vocal loops from obscure, sometimes decades old songs, he’s experienced first-hand the way dead musicians can be plucked from time and repurposed. The art of sampling, especially at Kanye’s level, offers a new chance for an old voice to be heard in a new context — no matter how much time has passed. So, maybe what he means by he can’t die, is that perhaps through music, his voice is incapable of death. Unearthing the voices of the dead almost makes time travelers of some forgotten artists. They are fed through the sampler, chopped and warped and given new life in a new song, then, almost magically, spill from speakers in cars and arenas. It is, in a way, a form of resurrection and immortality.
Part of Kanye’s process is the meticulousness with which he works to flip samples by tweaking the speed, pitch, and phrasing to become something totally new. He’s done this from the very beginning. From songs like Through the Wire where he flipped Chaka Khan’s Through the Fire, and also, on his breakout hit, Jesus Walks — where he sampled the Arc Choir and gave us the first real taste of the way he fuses unlike things: the club and the church. Or, most recently: verses from the Clipse with a saxophone solo from Kenny G.
After the last few tumultuous years, Kanye absconded with his family to Africa. In October 2018, Kim and Kanye traveled to an orphanage in Uganda. This was back when he was still working towards a Yandhi release date. The children put on a performance where they sang trance-like chants, punctuated with clapping and jumping. The performance moved Kanye so much that he handed his phone to Kim, and said he wanted to rap over it. Then, not long after, on the first Sunday of 2019, the world got its first glimpse of Kanye’s Sunday Service.
Not even a year after the very first Sunday Service, West released Jesus Is Born, a purely gospel album, on Christmas Day. One of the most radical elements of the album is what’s absent: Kanye’s voice. Instead, he’s assembled a massive choir to channel his Christ-based message through a joyous, all-consuming, and immediate wave of sound. Although there are no samples here, per se, it’s as if Kanye is using a choir as a living, breathing sampler. He’s still choosing old songs, whether they’re traditional hymns or late 90s R&B hits, and recontextualizing them. (Before they were called the Sunday Service, they were called The Samples.) The voices almost seem to warp in real time as though Kanye were at the sampler tweaking speed and pitch. The effect is almost hallucinatory when the choir climbs scales that reach notes so high it makes the listener wince as though you’re staring directly into the sun. Like, on the opening track, Count Your Blessings a rendition of Rev. Timothy Wright’s song.
If Kanye’s mission is to spread the word of God, then he actually seems to be saying more about it on Jesus Is Born by saying nothing at all himself. But, even without Kanye’s actual singing, his producer fingerprints exist throughout. It is a thoroughly, sonically, Kanye West production. The album is at times minimal, just voice and piano, and at other times erupts into maximal textures of trombones, drums, and fluctuating voices that are all in service of praise and joy.
Not unlike rap, modern gospel is tough to define. Much of the contemporary gospel, especially the recent Grammy nominated albums, sound like they are striving to be too “modern.” If they weren’t overtly Christian-based, one might easily mistake some of these acts for Bruno Mars or Mumford and Sons. But, for the casual, secular listener, these songs that attempt to stretch gospel influences over sleek, radio-friendly textures come off sounding like Kidz Bop compilations.
West’s collection of songs is a descendent of the lineage of gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and The Clark Sisters. The Sunday Service Choir also seems to be taking cues from groups like The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 4 Dixie Hummingbirds, and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, in that they have no real “lead singer.” They are collectives working in tandem with one goal: to praise God. Some of these acts have existed for over a hundred years. They’ve become a revolving door of members in service to one goal. One gets a sense that Kanye wants to see his Sunday Service have similar longevity — something that outlasts him. This might be why Kanye’s name is left off of the Sunday Service album cover. It’s not about him, it’s about the service, the mission. One of Jesus Is Born’s greatest achievements is how Kanye has captured the pure energy of the live performances that feature so many vocals and instruments. There seems to be no space between the choir and the listener. It puts the listener right in the front row.
West has described himself as an artist with synesthesia — he sees sound as color. Light plays a major role in his creations. So it makes sense that he chose Roden’s Crater, an extinct volcano that the artist James Turrell has been transforming into a naked-eye observatory for the last forty years, to create what would become the IMAX film Jesus Is King. The Sunday Service Choir is featured prominently in the film, singing in the naked-eye observatory, as though they were shooting their voices through a giant telescope into the sky as light moves through them. Kanye has referred to the Crater as the 8th wonder of the world — and likewise has called Turell one of today’s greatest living artists. Turrell, like West, also comes at art with a deeply spiritual background. So it’s interesting to see Kanye manipulate his light-inspired sounds in a space that’s been built within a volcano to manipulate light itself.
It seems like Turrell has been an inspiration to the Sunday Service from the very beginning. The first Sunday Service, on Jaunary 6th, 2018, took place in a space that was bathed in a dense fog of neon red and purple — a staple of Turrell’s. When those early videos found their way online, as the choir sang renditions of Soul II Soul’s Back to Life, it was also hard to not think of the way light played a major part in the introduction to the Hype William’s film, Belly, that opens with the same song in a neon infused club.
There is an impermeable quality of light in the DNA of Jesus Is Born. Even when Satan is mentioned toward the end of Jesus Is Born, the songs still exude a clear, white, blue shimmer — just like the album cover — a bright sun suspended over blue water, framed in dark blue. The voices actually sound like they are trying to tear a hole in the fabric of space-time to conquer darkness. This, of course, is the point of Jesus Is Born. Aside from spreading the gospel, it’s a way to bottle light and joy.
This is most clear on the songs final cut: Total Praise. Just like Kanye would start other songs, he has a singer begin by singing one line, verbatim, just once, from the original source — Richard Smallwood’s 1990 song of the same name. Then, just as Kanye would when he samples for a rap beat, he’s chosen to extract what he thinks is the most affecting segment of the original song, and has the choir repeat the word “amen,” as tenors, sopranos, and altos pile on in sections, until the song crescendos. It’s trance-like.
Even in the absence of Kanye’s actual voice, which tends to showoff double-entrendes and cultural references, moments of his humor still shine through, if not subtly, in the songs he’s selected. For instance, he’s flipped Ginuwine’s So Anxious, a song about sexual anticipation, into a gospel anthem, Souls Anchored. The new rendition is also a way of Kanye expressing his own addictions to porn and sex by flipping Ginuwine’s original lyrics:
So meet me at eleven-thirty
I love the way you’re talkin’ dirty said I’m so anxious, girl could you quit this stallin’, you know I’m a sexaholic…
Every single day you’re worthy
To you we give the glory ’cause our Souls anchored
When we tink back where we started, we were brokenhearted
He is striving for happiness and salvation, and on Jesus Is Born, he might be hitting that note even more so than on Jesus Is King.
For someone as detail-oriented as Kanye, when he changed his Twitter avatar, he’s attempting to shed his past self, the anger, the rage. It’s a small detail, but to an artist who is meticulous with detail as he is, it seems like he’s really signaling an effort for change and growth — whether we like it or not. Even on an album like, Yeezus, where he bragged that he was a God, he also told us right away in the very first song, with the help of the interpolation of Holy Name of Mary Choral Family:
Oh, he’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want...
The image of Kanye’s severed head also calls to mind the Greek myth of Orpheus — the poet-musician who fell into a horrible depression after losing his wife, Eurydice, to a nest of vipers. Orpheus, the story goes, spent the rest of his life singing songs so sad that the gods wept whenever they heard his voice. Later in his life, it was written, he only worshipped one God, Apollo, the God of the Sun. Well, after refusing to sleep with the women followers of the God Dionysus, they ripped his body to shreds. His severed head continued to sing as it floated down the River Hebrus. When the head finally washed ashore the island of Lesbos, citizens buried it, and yet it still sang from the grave.
The best we can ask from any artist we love is that they continue to redefine the things that made us love them in the first place. Whether or not all of his fans can back his rebirth as a devout Christian, Kanye is still working overtime to direct the human voice in new and engrossing ways. He’s recontextualing himself even, by extracting his old songs and giving them new life in new space with new meaning.
This is the same guy who rapped through a jaw that’d been wired shut on Through the Wire. He’s not going to stop until he’s left the planet. And, honestly, even that’ s questionable.