Hip-Hop

Gospel & Cinematography Reign In Kanye West's IMAX Film 'Jesus Is King': Inside the L.A. Premiere

Kanye West brought his spiritual campaign to Los Angeles’ The Forum on Wednesday (Oct. 23) to preview his ninth studio album Jesus is King and premiere the accompanying IMAX film two days before their slated release.   

The arena was converted into an indoor field with tall grass as sounds of nature echoed through the speakers. The small line of merchandise that was being offered at the venue included deep blue sweatshirts, T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts and caps, matching the album’s blue vinyl record, Jeopardy-esque artwork with yellow typeface that read “New Songs AR1331A and 33RPM LP," perhaps a nod to the album’s availability on CD and vinyl along with streaming services.   

Directed by influential fashion photographer Nick Knight, the roughly 30-minute film showcased stunning cinematography of visionary artist James Turrell’s eye-catching installation, the Roden Crater. It also spotlighted the beautiful voices and melanin faces of what appeared to be the members of West’s choir, as seen and heard in his Sunday Service productions.   

With attendees’ Phones tucked into Yondr bags, photographic memories snapped away at the massive visuals featuring stunning, circular shots of Turrell’s Skyspace, an art piece built on top of a dormant volcano located in the Painted Desert of Northern Arizona. Close-ups of the gospel singers, individually and as an ensemble, seemed to illuminate against a backdrop of blue skies peeking through a circular opening above their heads. Captivating images of the cylinder corridor from Turrell’s art project -- for which West reportedly donated $10 million -- along with clips of a baby, white flowers, a mountain range with tumbling clouds and a deer running through grass heightened the heavenly nature of West’s born-again Christian soundtrack.

Among the devotional setlist -- which impressively carried no curses -- was “Selah,” “Perfect Praise” and “When I Think of His Goodness.” West dipped into his earlier catalog and revised 808s & Heartbreak deep cuts  “Say You Will” and “Street Lights” into solemn rap hymns. While “Say You Will” played in the IMAX movie trailer, the gospel rendition of “Street Lights” was presented during a scene where West sang the hook while dressed in the same brown attire as the chorus and swept the space with a broom. He was then joined by a supporting vocalist and two musicians seated at brown pianos. 

In the flesh, West joined the horde of attendees on the floor of The Forum and blasted snippets of the album, pointing out that he was using a portable player that controlled the volume of certain track details like the vocals and baseline. There were no pamphlets or spoken introductions to identify which tracks were being played, but teasers sprinkled around the Internet from West’s Sunday Service congregations, Coachella performance and previous listening sessions across the country help connect the dots. Ty Dolla $ign floats on the still Nicki Minaj-less version of “New Body” while Clipse and Kenny G make formidable allies on “Use The Gospel,” where Pusha T cleverly rhymes about turning “Wraith talk into faith talk.”

While the project wasn’t played in its entirety, West’s attempt to spread the gospel through rap was as solid as a sermon delivered at mass. If “God is King and we’re the soldiers” (as one song expresses), ‘Ye is the self-appointed lieutenant who still maintains the same level of self-awareness as the buzzy rapper who released “Jesus Walks.” In 2004, West acknowledged that the “Devil’s tryin’ to break me down.” In 2019, West seemingly rebukes temptation and evil while acknowledging to the Devil, that he’s “Been workin’ for you my whole life.” On this same song, he calls out the Christians for likely being “the first ones to judge me” thus making him feel like “nobody loves me.” 

But after a tumultuous two years for the frenetic artist known to make headlines for his missed album deadlines as well as his political and personal affiliations, this Kanye West seems to rock an invisible “Make Jesus Great Again” hat. While Jesus is King may be a shock to the system for Yeezy devotees who championed the slick-mouthed, arrogant and profane wordsmith with club-ready beats, this album feels on-brand for a man who’s admitted his shaky relationship with God on wax many times since the start of his career. And if Yeezus wants to crown himself a vessel of nonsecular hip-hop with a message that penetrates deeper than the cussing and mumbling that crowd today’s mainstream rotation, then Lord knows he has the God-given right.