The Distilled Gospel of Kanye West
Josh Langhoff

Modern gospel music is many things, but “austere” isn’t one of them. Especially in the mass choir scene, gospel albums tend to feel overstuffed, soaring from one climax to the next. The singers’ voices toggle between joyful praise and hopeful reassurance like they’re riding some celestial seesaw. Gospel bands tend to have spellbinding rhythm sections, with keyboard players testing how much beauty they can cram into the songs’ chord changes. To name check two 2019 choir releases, Donald Lawrence’s Goshen was an elaborate concept album full of spoken interludes and guest singers, while the songs on William McDowell’s live album The Cry routinely meandered past seven minutes. Both delivered moments of sheer exhilaration, and both got a little exhausting.

You could say the same about Kanye West’s entire career. Since he became the world’s most acclaimed rapper-producer in 2004, he’s flirted with austerity—his 808s and Heartbreak was a widely imitated isolation chamber of an album—but his music generally favors wildly disparate instrumental textures, gigantic emotions, and a ton of guest stars. He stuffs his songs with ideas and jokes but little quality control. A typical listener experience is being blown away by the fusillade of drums in 2010’s “All of the Lights,” only to groan at the lame stream-of-consciousness rapping in the song’s first verse. Exhilarating and exhausting, and tipping more toward the latter every year—that’s Kanye.


So it’s a surprise to listen to Jesus Is Born, the first gospel album from West’s Sunday Service Choir, and hear how stripped down the music is. Each song gets right to the point, and some you might even call austere. The choir sings two songs a capella, swiping Shirley Caesar’s arrangement of “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” and covering Richard Smallwood’s standard “Total Praise.” (Despite its title, the album contains exactly zero songs about Jesus being born; it was apparently named for its Christmas Day release date.) Many of the other songs have only an organ for accompaniment. Some arrangements add brighter tones with horns and busy, trebly drum patterns that recall “All of the Lights,” but the choir remains the music’s singular focal point.

Despite that simplicity and the fact that we never hear the rapper’s voice, Jesus Is Born sounds like Kanye West’s handiwork. In some cases, the affinity is blatant: the choir sings three songs from West’s 2016 album The Life of Pablo, changing their sometimes-risqué lyrics so as not to offend. But West’s fingerprints are everywhere, even on the songs he didn’t write. Part of this is the repertoire—the choir covers Midwestern gospel songs and 1990s R&B hits. Both styles would have appeared on Chicago radio station WGCI when West was growing up in suburban Oak Lawn, and there’s something quintessentially “Chicago,” and therefore quintessentially “Kanye,” about hearing these repertoires butt heads. Certain musical effects also sound familiar. The choir inserts syncopated shouts of “Hey!” into A. Jeffrey LaValley’s standard “Revelation 19:1,” giving it unexpected club energy. When they sing Timothy Wright’s 1983 song “Count Your Blessings,” the choir takes a dramatic ascending vocal line, originally improvised by one of Wright’s choristers, and repeats it several times—physically “looping” the line like West the producer uses vocal samples to create hooks. He may have farmed the musical arrangements out to others, but as producer and visionary, West asserts his authorship by making sure the choir’s every musical choice stays consistent with what we know of his previous work.

West got the choir together the first week of 2019. Or rather, he delegated the task, recruiting gospel keyboardist Phil Cornish and Jason White, a former megachurch worship leader in Los Angeles, to convene a choir and band. White described his early impressions to Rolling Stone:

I’m thinking that we’re gonna do this [for] two or three weeks. First week of January, 2019, Kanye’s gonna do this a week or two, he’ll get sick of it and move on. Week after week, Monday or Tuesday, Ray [Romulus, a producer] would call: “This week we’re gonna sing blah blah blah.” Mr. West would have different directions for us every week. After the fifth week, we’re adding horns, adding drummers, and I’m like, what is this turning into? Then Mrs. [Kim Kardashian] West calls it Sunday Service, and it took on a whole ’nother spin. What I’m thinking is gonna be a week or two, now I’ve been in the company of Kanye West for the last ten months. I’ve spent every Sunday riding with him. (Leight 10/31/19)

Besides singing recent gospel standards like “Total Praise,” the choir started giving secular songs new lyrics about Jesus. These Christian parodies, largely written by singer-songwriter Nikki Grier, have repurposed songs as innocuous as Soul II Soul’s 1989 dance hit “Back to Life” or as ribald as Ginuwine’s R&B ode to sex addiction, “So Anxious,” reimagined by Grier with the title “Souls Anchored.” Grier’s new lyrics aren’t brilliant hymnody, but neither are they embarrassing. If you’d never heard Ginuwine’s original, you’d never realize “Souls Anchored” was a parody, and that’s not faint praise. Gospel songs often rely on boilerplate lyrics (“When we think back where we started/ We were brokenhearted”) to showcase their music. “Souls Anchored” delivers its message through the power and clarity of its choral vocals, and through the determined stalking rhythms of the band, themselves adapting an ominous electronic beat by R&B producer Timbaland. The song conveys a slow but steady trudge from despair to hope, anxiety to peace, pulled along by the anchor of Jesus. Its theology is musical. The lyric’s job is to stay out of the theology’s way.

Christian songwriters and dorky Sunday School teachers have been nervously giving secular songs more acceptable lyrics for decades. (No, it’s not how Martin Luther wrote hymns, but that’s a different story.) But many musicians, especially in the R&B world, have shown little anxiety about mixing up sacred and worldly messages. Just look at Kanye West’s entire career. On his first album, The College Dropout, he included two outspoken Christian songs, “Never Let Me Down” and the hit “Jesus Walks,” that juxtaposed profanity-laced boasting with inspirational messages. True to form, West acted like this was more provocative than it actually was. “If I talk about God, my record won’t get played,” he rapped—an odd claim for a year when WGCI was playing God-bothering songs like Tye Tribbett’s “No Way,” R. Kelly’s “U Saved Me,” and, eventually, “Jesus Walks” in its regular rotation, right next to J-Kwon’s “Tipsy.”

Such mixed messages have drawn criticism from fellow Christians. When Kirk Franklin, the most visible choir director of the past thirty years, broke through to a general audience with the Christian song “Stomp” in 1997, anxious letters started appearing in VIBE magazine. “Kirk needs to stop playing church to the beat of Satan’s drums,” read one, while another claimed, “Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp, prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop or R&B.” Franklin has since become the most prominent face of gospel music, appearing on mainstream radio and award shows without compromising his message. (His 2019 album Long Live Love beat Goshen for the Best Gospel Album Grammy.) And what is that message? In a nutshell: preach the Gospel to the lost; imitate, as best you can, the holy behavior of Jesus; and use music to express the unimaginably abundant love and grace of God. All those overstuffed gospel albums with their guest stars, keyboard arpeggios, and emotional climaxes convey that God’s love cannot be contained. The same goes for hearing gospel songs next to sex-and-drinking jams on the radio. Separatist impulses exist within the gospel world, but, perhaps because they’re separatist, they’re less often heard. Gospel’s more public factions would integrate with, or, better yet, transform mainstream culture.

That seems to be what West is going for with his Sunday Services, albeit in his typically heedless try-anything manner. The services have grown more elaborate over time. A-list celebrities regularly attend, and West, who’s worked in fashion design, outfits the hundred-member choir in different monochrome get-ups every week. When the choir sang an adaptation of Sia’s “Elastic Heart,” the pop star showed up at service to sing the altered lyrics. In April 2019, the choir brought its show to the annual Coachella festival. Calling these services “worship” raises questions—for one thing, people usually need tickets to attend—but listening to their music can lead to genuine worship, like attending a Passion Conference or hearing a church service on the radio or internet.

The first album to emerge from West’s recommitment to Christ was Jesus Is King, an occasionally inventive but lyrically deficient rap collection released last October. Defending the album, writer Jordan Green compared West to the prodigal son of Luke’s gospel, and his detractors to the parable’s skeptical, self-righteous older brother. Green wrote:

In the last few months, Kanye appeared alongside Joel Osteen, reached out to Jerry Falwell, Jr., sold expensive sweatpants with a picture of Jesus on the knee, and performed an opera about Mary from a floating barge on the last day of Art Basel while coated entirely in silver paint. Plenty of Christians I know are rolling their eyes. But did you expect Kanye West was going to fold up into a precise theological cube? Since when are the actions of Christians ever easy to predict?

Christianity’s “older brother syndrome” has a parallel among music fans. In 1974, the Country Music Association voted Olivia Newton-John its Female Vocalist of the Year, leading to protests and the formation of a splinter association. The next year, when Charlie Rich presented CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award, he set fire to the paper bearing John Denver’s name. (Rich later claimed this was a poorly conceived, drunken joke.) Newton-John and Denver polarized the country audience, some of whom considered them carpetbaggers who hadn’t paid their dues. West, whose two Jesus albums have topped Billboard’s gospel chart for weeks, has drawn similar side-eye. To their credit, though, actual gospel singers like Donald Lawrence have supported him. Lawrence hopes that, in a gospel field increasingly dominated by small groups and soft rock arrangements, West will renew interest in large choirs (Leight 10/25/19).

The relatively demure Jesus Is Born could do the trick, if only because it’ll make people (well, me) go back and search out its antecedents. Listen to the Sunday Service Choir next to the choirs they cover, and they seem tentative, like they’re recording demos. Groups like Timothy Wright’s Concert Choir and A. Jeffrey LaValley’s New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir recorded live and loose, but with the Sunday Service Choir, even the whoops and hollers sound rehearsed. Phil Cornish’s band arrangements are subtler and less exciting than those of Detroit’s beloved Clark Sisters, who drew energy from electronic beats that today situate them clearly in the 1980s. But Jesus Is Born has its own virtues. The vocal arrangements, by Chicago preacher’s kid–turned–L.A. backup singer Steve Epting, build thrilling climaxes out of crystal-clear counterpoint. With nineteen songs, the album is exhausting but frequently exhilarating, as when a sunny four-on-the-floor house beat shows up on the medley “Follow Me–Faith.” In short, it’s a Kanye West gospel album: devotional, technically accomplished, and following West’s obsessions wherever they lead.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.


Works Cited

Green, Jordan. “Signs of Revival: The Bigger Picture Behind Kanye West’s Conversion.” Stark & Main. January 3, 2020. https://starkandmain.org/home/2019/12/14/signs-of-revival

Leight, Elias. “Can Kanye West Save Gospel Choirs?” Rolling Stone. October 25, 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/can-kanye-west-save-gospel-choirs-893633/

Leight, Elias. “How Kanye West’s Sunday Services Began.” Rolling Stone. October 31, 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-jason-white-choir-905199/

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