Listening to Kanye West albums was once an enjoyable part of my job. Now it falls somewhere between “contact that freelancer who forgot to sign his W-2” and “complete this four-hour ‘wellness module’ to qualify for a reduction in next year’s health insurance deductible.”
Still, I was dutifully committed to attentive immersion in Jesus Is King because, for all the MAGA schmutz unscrub-offably caked on West in 2019, he was once and may again someday be an astounding recording artist rather than just a compulsively analyzable pop persona. (Personally, I don’t even know what a “genius” is, so have fun with that debate on your own time.) And anyway, Jesus Is King is sure as hell better than Ye, praise somebody.
But what was merely frustrating about Kanye when his music was great—the way his tracks lure you ever deeper into gauging his intentions—is infuriating when he’s off his game. For all the colorful sonic detail strewn along this half-hour release, West rhymes throughout with that belligerence he often mistakes for intensity. And the question of whether his turn toward the divine is part of an elaborate tax dodge or an earnest expression of faith (or, of course, both) would be more pressing if Jesus Is King featured anything as transcendent as “Ultralight Beam” or as driven by anguished spiritual need as “Jesus Walks.” Instead, it’s a topic seemingly best left to people who don’t really care about Kanye West or music or much else besides arguing on the internet.
But a funny thing happened as I started writing my review: I realized I didn’t have to.
I mean this on a very basic level. My boss would not call me into his office and pound his desk, J. Jonah Jameson-style, demanding Kanye content. And I would get paid the same exact amount on Friday whether I dug deep into Jesus Is King or not.
So what the hell, let’s just talk about how great Al Green is.
That’s not a total non sequitur. You can’t really talk about Jesus Is King without also surveying the history of great African American musicians who turned from secular music to the church, including Rev. Green, who entered the ministry at his commercial height and still preaches weekly at his Memphis church. And so, after an afternoon of solid Kanye, as a palate-cleanser that I convinced myself was “additional research,” I put on Higher Plane, one of the many gospel albums Green cut in the ’80s.
Maybe you’ve never listened to Higher Plane because it’s about Jesus and you’re... well, not about Jesus. That’s a mistake. Not because it’s the best Al Green religious record—I haven’t listened closely enough to its peers to say, and I selected Higher Plane only because I happen to own it on vinyl. But Higher Plane is a great religious record for atheists to groove to because Al Green sings about salvation no differently than he sings about sex. Whether praising the Lord or easing you into bed, he simply wafts through a track, elevated solely by his own buoyant self-sufficiency.
I could say that Higher Plane is great for a series of negative reasons. No one mentions Chik-Fil-A, its creator is not peddling some grody Jesus merch, and it never received bad-faith support from Twitter demagogues who think Christ was nailed to the cross to own the libs. Those comparisons would admittedly be unfair to Kanye, as any comparisons with Al Green would be to just about any other mortal.
But I’d rather just tell you to listen to “By My Side,” which, yes, is about walking with Jesus, but also swings so blessedly yet elegantly hard it’s like gospel Spinners. Regardless of lyrics, Al Green sings like a man to whom orgasm and salvation are just perpetually happening, and who would be just as delighted if they didn’t. Carnal and spiritual ecstasy are intermingled—poets and songwriters have strained to establish that truism. Al Green simply manifests it.
There are three songs here you already know. Green funks up “People Get Ready” so it sounds less like a spiritual than the Impressions original while paradoxically singing the civil rights anthem as though he’s literally inviting you aboard a train that goes to heaven. Higher Plane closes with an uptempo yet somehow laidback “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with a banjo and a slide guitar, that’s absolutely non-essential and still a blast. And Al’s “Amazing Grace,” to put in plainly, fucks.
When I listen to Aretha Franklin or Chance the Rapper, I sometimes envy the strength they derive from a higher power I have no ability to believe in, and my agnosticism is challenged by tangible fruits of their faith. When I listen to Jesus Is King I simply want to eliminate tax exemptions for religious organizations, and the only prayer I can make is that Kanye will someday produce a Clipse reunion record. But when I listen to Higher Plane I just want to feel like Al Green. And no sexual or spiritual experience can bring you or me or Kanye any closer to that feeling. Only listening to Al Green can.
So think of all the instances in your life where you were voluntarily doing some dumb thing that neither brought you any pleasure nor benefited anyone else. You could have been listening to Al Green instead.