The dust has settled and the controversy has all but passed, so what can the samples on Jesus Is King tell us about Kanye’s religious reinvention?
Kanye West has, for better or worse, tweaked with the formula.
The ever-present producer, emcee, businessman and iconoclast has pushed many envelopes during his two decades on the scene, but perhaps the least gratifying––recent political proclamations aside––is his take on the album rollout. What was once cut-and-dry is now a dice roll, and previously assured release dates are regarded with suspicion and doubt instead of anticipation and excitement. He’s hardly the first to complicate the once-easy process, but West’s convoluted approach, mired in his uniquely captivating strain of celebrity, revels in its own notoriety. It’s not hard to imagine Ye putting it down to a familiar bar: “he’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.”
Jesus Is King, then, is a surprise in many ways. It did take a few tentative dates, but the record was ultimately released, which is more than we can say for Good Ass Job, Turbo Grafx 16, Love Everyone, So Help Me God, Swish, Yandhi, Wolves and Cruel Winter, all would-be hits trapped in our generous imaginations. Perhaps the silver lining is that West’s reticence has brought forth a bevy of inspired and incisive music criticism, from the theological to the comedic, the inquisitive to the incendiary, each probing his singular space in popular culture.
At this point, it’s words about Kanye, not words from Kanye, that say the most about his eccentric existence. If Ye’s bars are lacking––and as somebody who enjoyed the record more than most, they certainly are––then perhaps we should turn our gaze to his original medium; the one which turned him from an entrepreneurial producer to a world-renowned tastemaker. I’m talking, of course, about samples, the recontextualized sounds upon which West built an empire.
How, then, does the palette of Jesus Is King compliment the religious angle of the record? Are the samples within also reflections of West’s newfound faith, or simply aesthetically pleasing sounds moulded in His image? Let’s dive into the flips and interpolations that underpin the most unlikely #1 Christian record of the decade.
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If Ye’s artistic embrace of Christianity struck some as contrived, his musical invocations are anything but. A longtime crate digger, West interpolated the Sunday Service Choir’s dominant “hallelujah” refrain from The New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir’s “Revelation 19:1.” The Flint, Michigan-based outfit released six records between ‘78 and ‘89, predominantly through the influential Savoy Records. The verse in question, taken from the final book of the Bible, describes a pivotal moment in the end of days:
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God…”
The uplifting chorus of voices is actually mired in some of the chapter’s most striking and disturbing imagery, falling immediately after The Fall of Babylon and preceding the arrival of the rider on the White Horse, described variously as Christ, the Antichrist and, most commonly, Pestilence.
One of the best instrumentals on the whole record, “Follow God” is assembled from a fragment of Whole Truth’s gospel track, “Can You Lose By Following God.” That track was included on the b-side of “God Is Going To Raise A Nation,” released as a 7” single in 1969. The lyric in question – “Father I stretch my hands to you” – is reminiscent of the famed The Life of Pablo cut, which sampled a track of the same name from Pastor T.L. Barrett. As noted by Rawiya Kameir in their stirring Pitchfork review of Jesus Is King, “Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee” was originally an early 1700s Methodist hymn, and in the years since, it’s become a gospel standard.
This remains the only release from the mysterious Whole Truth, and whilst that might suggest Ye was in his digging bag once more, it’s far more likely – in fact, almost certain – that he pulled it off Numero Group’s 2013 compilation, Good God! Apocryphal Hymns. West has long been a fan of the impressive archival label, who trawl through musical history and spotlight the maligned and distribute the unavailable, sampling their catalogue on songs such as “Ghost Town,” “4th Dimension,” “FACTS” and “Bound 2,” as well as Teyana Taylor’s “Issues / Hold On” and Pusha T’s “Infrared.”
Though it’s an intricate, foreboding guitar that opens “Closed on Sunday,” the sample itself is courtesy of Argentine Vocal Group, a popular folk outfit that existed in two different incarnations. The track sampled here, “Martín Fierro,” was recorded during a 1970 tour of Mexico, immediately before the original lineup dissolved. The group reconvened in 1973, recording a new album, but the ensuing Argentine Revolution led to widespread suppression: a collaborator and songwriter was killed by anti-communist paramilitary forces, the records were destroyed, and the artists were blacklisted. It was only in 2007 that surviving copies gave way to an official release.
The track itself makes reference to Argentinian folklore, channeling the spirit of Martín Fierro, the gaucho protagonist from José Hernández’s epic poem of the same name. Written in the 1870s, the work is amongst the most prominent of the gaucho subgenre, focusing on the exploits of the roaming horsemen. These figures played a role in liberating Argentina from Spain, and as such, they remain an important part of Argentinian national identity.
The guitar tone on West’s track – crisper, more prominent – suggests either a re-recording or an overdub alongside the sample itself.
Arguably the most hip-hop of all the tracks herein, “On God” strays from the path of gospel once more, sampling a vocal from YB’s 2011 track, “Lambo.” There’s uncertainty as to the nature of the sample here: you can hear the pitched-down “okay” at 0:30, mired in the chaotic and dense instrumental, but it’s not necessarily sampled from this particular source. The very same element, as well as the track’s central refrain, was sampled for GOOD Music’s West-helmed “Mercy” in 2012, and though they certainly share the same initial source, this particular invocation may well be a soundbite from “Mercy” itself.
Minor though it may be, the inclusion of Pierre Bourne’s producer tag at the close is one of my favourite moments on the album. The swelling synths, the kinetic energy of the crowd effects, the powerful crescendo to the fleeting track: it all comes together alongside one of modern hip-hop’s most immediately recognizable names. It’s taken from the fourth episode of The Jamie Foxx Show, but I figure you already know that. Kanye’s worked with Foxx a handful of times (“Slow Jamz,” “Gold Digger”), so this acts as one of their more unorthodox link ups.
[No identified samples]
The modern producer’s penchant for the avant-garde is largely a matter of legality, seeing as the more esoteric are easier and cheaper to clear, but there’s also a point of pride in unearthing something both musically impressive and largely forgotten. Bruce Haack with Ed Harvey’s “Snow Job” is one such find. Included on 1981’s Bite, itself a rare record, “Snow Job” is an experimental electronic cut that was well ahead of its time, much like most of Haack’s work.
Bruce Haack was an electronic trailblazer, so advanced and innovative that he influenced Kraftwerk – themselves amongst the first true synth stars – and invented bizarre new instruments. He took a young vocalist, Ed Harvey, under his wing in 1980, and the pair released Bite when Harvey was just 14 years old. Whilst West may well have been aware of Haack himself, it seems likely that he was put on to “Snow Job” by the 2010 Stones Throw compilation, Farad: The Electric Voice.
“God Is” sees Ye returning to his explicitly gospel mission, sampling heavily from Rev. James Cleveland and The Southern California Community Choir’s song of the same name. Cleveland is one of the most prominent mid-century gospel figures, and his various talents as a singer, composer, arranger and choir leader helped him stay impressively prolific. Discogs puts as many as 145 albums to his name, though most feature him in a ‘presenting’ role, which often entailed some featured solos, arrangement duties and songwriting credits. During his peak, he was releasing multiple records a year, a feat facilitated by his close relationship with Savoy Records.
It seems possible that Cleveland is amongst West’s favourite gospel artists: though he’s not actually on the track sampled on “Selah,” Cleveland worked alongside The New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir, sharing top billing on their Savoy-released 1978 debut, Everything Will Be Alright.
[No identified samples]
[No identified samples]
West’s relationship with progressive rock has been one of his most indispensable. The embrace of prog-rock sounds during the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy era – foreshadowed by the inclusion of Steely Dan and CAN on Graduation – helped underpin his visions of maximalist excess and capitalist disillusion, setting the stage for the volatile and self-referential decade that followed. Here, on “Jesus Is Lord,” he dives back into the annals of progressive rock, taking a cue from French-Canadian musician Claude Léveillée.
Though primarily a chanson artist, Léveillée tried a handful of forays into other genres, most notably progressive rock and children’s music. Black Sun, released in 1978, fell in the midst of his booming career, a curious instrumental prog record amongst a swathe of more conventional albums. Kanye flips the more muted horn phrase on “Un Homme Dans La Nuit” – that’s “A Man In The Night” – to underscore his final holy contention.
The Road to Redemption: Kanye’s Religious Rapport
Though his first explicitly Christian effort, Jesus Is King is hardly the first time that West has flipped a gospel track: as we discovered in our Wyoming deep dive, he sampled The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Children Get Ready” on 2018 Ye track, “No Mistakes,” and pulled deep from Numero Group’s archival catalogue for “Ghost Town,” which took its opening vocal from little-known Ohio gospel artist Shirley Ann Lee’s “Someday.” That same song was sampled at the close of Kids See Ghosts track “4th Dimension,” albeit a non-musical, non-religious fragment of in-studio dialogue.
Even before he launched his own career as an emcee, West was leaning into faith-based music. “Lucifer,” one of his two credits from Jay’s The Black Album, makes use of reggae artist Max Romeo’s “Chase The Devil,” a standout single from his 1976 religious record, War Ina Babylon. Less than a year later, he included a rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” a hymn that’s been called the “quintessential gospel song,” as an interlude on The College Dropout. Even his dark horse pick for his favourite emcee – that’s Ma$e, as he’s said on multiple occasions – is mired in Christianity, having left the game twice to answer the call. Still, he knows better than to leave when he’s hot: “that’s how Ma$e screwed up,” he rapped on “Devil In A New Dress.”
These are but a fraction of West’s religious invocations across the years, so it’s fair to say that Yeezy has had a longstanding, if not intriguing, relationship with his faith. He’s entertained the idea of salvation in his most trying times, calling upon the Lord in the midst of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; decrying a modern thanklessness for the Lord’s work on “Roses,” a prayer for his church secretary aunt; observing his blessings on “Low Lights,” a “testimony about [his] life”; and comparing his marriage to Mary and Joseph on “Wolves,” equal parts Christian and sacrilegious. Even the outright apotheosis of Yeezus leans into familiar religious ideals, such as those posed by the Five-Percent Nation. Sure, West’s mires all these ideas in blind egotism, but those elements of his persona have thoroughly dominated his last decade.
It’s because of this that Jesus Is King, whilst almost laser-focused on images of faith and biblical invocations, doesn’t break much new ground for West’s sonic palette. There are just three outright gospel samples on the record: the interpolation of “Revelation 19:1” on “Selah,” the sample of “Can You Lose By Following God” on “Follow God,” and the flip of “God Is” on West’s track of the same name. Though admittedly a large percentage of the identified samples on Jesus Is King, of which there are currently eight, it’s a tally roughly comparable to the two-of-seven gospel samples on Ye, or the one-of-six on KSG.
Clique, Clique, Clique
Jesus Is King also finds Ye leaning heavily on collaboration, something that’s come to define the post-808s phase of his career. The album lists nineteen separate credited producers, including all co-producer and additional producer credits, a trend mirrored in the equally-dense writing credits. There were also nineteen separate engineers working on a variety of different tracks, contributing mixing, recording and mastering. Given the record’s brevity – a mere twenty-seven minutes – it ranks as one of his most intensely collaborative LPs. Kids See Ghosts managed to put seventeen producers to work over just twenty-four minutes, whilst Ye lists fifteen over the same runtime. That’s a rate of 0.71 producers-per-minute on KSG, and 0.63ppm on Ye, just in case you were wondering!
So, what do the samples on Jesus is King say about West’s newfound religiosity?
West’s piety isn’t something that could ever be quantified – not through samples, or genres, or anything else – and whilst he pulls from a handful of different musical traditions, he unmistakably puts them to work celebrating his reinvigorated faith. The prog-rock horns on “Jesus Is Lord” aren’t any less religious because of their artistic origin: if anything, West’s recontextualization of secular art says more about his newfound commitment to Christianity than any gospel flip could.
West has long been many things – an icon, a provocateur, an exceedingly poor public speaker – but before all this, he was a crate digger, building a reputation with little more than the art of others and a striking vision. It’s perhaps the sole unbroken thread with his former self: the ‘old Kanye / new Kanye’ distinction is all but enshrined, but they find common ground in their ability to turn one thing into another.
Though his immediate talents have given way to a more curatorial approach, West remains a central figure in popular culture, a place spurred not by his ever-controversial lifestyle, but by his musical talents. At the end of the day, he has to substantiate his relevance with art, and each time he’s put to the test, he offers something satisfactory. Divisive? Naturally. Nonetheless, it’s always enough. As his pen game weakens further, his ear for a sample and eye for talent keep him indispensable. It’s his mouth that’s having trouble, that’s all.
Even whilst he’s stacking bars on bars about scripture, namechecking bible verses and alluding to Sunday School lessons, West is still the same discerning beatsmith of yesteryear. His public provocations work to hide this fact in a fog of ill-informed rants and political duncery, but don’t be misled: when it comes to the decks, Yeezy’s still got it.