2019 American Music Awards

Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Kanye's 'Jesus Is King' Chart Reign

Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Ralph Lauren
Kanye West attends Jim Moore Book Event at Ralph Lauren Chicago on Oct. 28, 2019 in Chicago.

After months of speculation, delays and false starts, Kanye West's long-hyped gospel album Jesus Is King finally arrived on streaming services a week and a half ago. And if it seemed like the increasingly bad press Kanye has received over the past few years would finally be reflected in his commercial returns, the numbers tell a different story. 

Though Jesus Is King received largely mixed reviews, listeners still flocked to it, with the album racking up 264,000 first-week equivalent album units -- a larger number than either Ye or Kid Cudi collab Kids See Ghosts posted last year, and easily enough for No. 1 on this week's Billboard 200. Some of those improved numbers for Kanye may be attributable to consumption quantities being higher for the set's 11 tracks, rather than the seven each on those two 2018 efforts -- but the album also totaled 109,000 in traditional sales, well higher than Ye's 85,000 in its first week. 

How has Kanye maintained his commercial success through his controversy? And does the album begin to justify the hype? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below. 

1. As Kanye's press and general approval rating seems to be getting worse and worse, his commercial performance seems largely unaffected. What is Kanye actually doing right here, which perhaps isn't being discussed as much as what he's doing wrong?

Trevor Anderson: It’s not what Kanye West is doing right, it’s what he did right. The guy has so many strong albums in his early catalog that he’s earned a sense of goodwill with his core fans who support for the music, not the surrounding shenanigans. And despite the surrounding noise of the past years -- Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, etc. -- he’s never released a total dud, though some argue Jesus Is King might be the first. Even then, though, most critics latched on to at least a track or two -- an apt metaphor that we as a culture never fully abandon 'Ye, we cling on to those standout cuts as proof that the Kanye we grew to know and love still exists.

Bianca Gracie: While I’m no longer a dedicated stan like I once was (that immediately ended after Kanye’s initial meeting with Trump in 2016), I would be a fool to deny his continuous pull when it comes to his massive fan base. Just based on what I see on social media alone, they’ve remained dedicated throughout every mishap. It’s honestly impressive. From purchasing Yeezys to snagging tickets to an IMAX film screening, Kanye still knows how to tap into his fans’ tastes. And for that, they’ve become forever loyal.

Joe Lynch: What Kayne's doing right is a great question – after all, Jesus Is King actually enjoyed a better sales debut than his last album Ye, and in 2019, resurrecting sales is a miracle. Not to take away from his artistry, but what he's doing best these days is keeping himself in the headlines -- and while a lot of that has to do with his controversial MAGA love, I think most of the credit goes to wife Kim Kardashian West. It's hard to imagine a world where Kanye is married to a non-celebrity, making these kinds of odd albums and still seeing numbers this big. I think the Kardashian konnection keeps up interest and curiosity in his every move.

Andrew Unterberger: Well, the man certainly knows how to make his albums events. That's often true in the more literal sense -- listening parties in Wyoming, Sunday services in New York, IMAX screenings wherever they have such things -- but it's also true in the larger sense of a Kanye album dominating the cultural conversation more like a news story than a new music release. When you heard that Jesus Is King had finally dropped on a Friday afternoon, you stopped what you were doing and listened -- if for no other reason than because you didn't want to be the one person on Friday night who hadn't yet. No other artist's albums are as intertwined with our regular national conversation to inspire such a dutiful response. 

Christine Werthman: I realize the Trumpian implications of what I'm about to say, but Kanye is doubling down on his base. His stans flocked to those listening parties (rallies?), and the chaotic lead-up to the release showed that Kanye will always be Kanye and do things the Kanye way. Whether you found that charming or irritating, you probably still tuned in because the man has an incredible musical track record, and there's always the possibility that he'll give us something great, which is why you listen.

By leaning into the unpredictability, I think Kanye keeps the bar low and leaves room for listeners to be pleasantly surprised by what they hear. I don't know if it's intentional, but it's an effective way of managing expectations. 

2. After a week-plus of having the album in our lives, do you feel like the album justifies the dramatic lead-up and several delays? Is there a Kanye album that could have in 2019? 

Trevor Anderson: I appreciate the full commitment -- the collaboration with gospel stars and choirs, a variation of classic and contemporary sounds, and, to the delight of censors, not even one curse word. Yet, King feels unfinished (beware the sub-30-minute run time for 11 tracks) and the genesis of a project rather than a fully realized creation. For a man whose persona informs so much of his musical persona, Kanye’s personality feels muted throughout. Perhaps the impending sequel of sorts, Jesus Is Born -- coming to a streaming service near you on Christmas -- will offer a better viewpoint to assess the entire scope.

Bianca Gracie: Definitely not. Now, I’m not here to judge one’s path to discovering their faith. Yet Kanye still seems to be even further disconnected from reality and pop culture’s criticism of his remarks about slavery (amongst many things), and that translates into the music. You can’t preach the gospel on a record yet be hypocritical in real life. Musically speaking, the album falls flat for me -- I wasn’t moved nor excited while listening. But I do appreciate that it’s under 30 minutes long.

Joe Lynch: Does a 27-minute gospel album justify an IMAX film? Lord no. But the events and dramatic delays are integral to this album's success. The audience for gospel hip-hop is niche, but the audience for a controversial pop star's unpredictable new album is much larger. Even if you think West has gone south, you're still putting on the headphones and giving JIK a listen.

Andrew Unterberger: At this point -- and this may only be true for music writers, though I imagine a lot of fans likely feel this way as well -- it's much more of a relief than a joy when Kanye West actually releases his new album. Maybe an album with 11 songs as good as "Flashing Lights" and "Mercy" would be enough to make the year of lead-up to this album feel earned, but maybe not, and it was obviously going to be a moot point anyway. Jesus Is King isn't bad, but it certainly isn't the second coming, and anything less than that still makes following Kanye a chore in 2019. 

Christine Werthman: I wouldn't call it dramatic because that sounds too intentional. I would say it was a slapdash rollout, and the album matches that.

3. Obviously Jesus Is King isn't an album made with hit singles in mind, but is there any one song that you think will emerge as a standout track among fans -- one that might still be remembered after the album gets backburnered? 

Trevor Anderson: It should be “Follow God,” which, unsurprisingly, rests on the often-imitated-never-duplicated Kanye West sample flip. The beat is clean, the flow is punchy, and the only real shame is that, just as the song settles into its momentum, it ends. Honorable mention goes to “Everything We Need,” though it relies more on Ty Dolla $ign, who pops up on his 284th guest spot this year. Shame on me for casting doubt, but his twirling falsetto matches the trap-gospel production much easier than I predicted.

Bianca Gracie: I actually thought the standout would be “Water” since it was the song most previewed during Sunday Service, but my mind changed once I heard “Follow God.” That’s the only track on Jesus Is King that I ran back multiple times. I know it’s kind of cliché now, but it reminds me of the “Old Kanye” when he was really masterful with his production and lyrical flow. “Follow God” is actually now at No. 7 on the Hot 100, so I’m clearly not the only one who rocks with it.

Joe Lynch: I think "Follow God" is fantastic and shows what the so-called 'old Kanye' did best: Dust off an obscure soul classic (Whole Truth's "Can You Lose By Following God") for an insistent groove and deliver a brisk, reflective rap over it. Plus, wrapping it up with a goofy lil scream is the rare light-hearted moment the album needs: it's random enough to be funny and silly enough not to be off-putting on repeated listens.

Andrew Unterberger: "Use This Gospel" is definitely the most striking track to me. Yes, it's largely due to the headline-grabbing presence of a reunited Clipse and a revived Kenny G -- welcome to the four-decade club, Kenny! -- but much moreso it's for that eerily plucked single guitar note, Kanye's stacked off-key warbling, and (outro aside) an otherwise barren production. It's haunting the way a lot of the best choral music is, and the set's most genuinely inspired-sounding moment. 

Christine Werthman: My money is on "Follow God." In under two minutes, it gives us an old gospel sample, solid TMI raps from Kanye about a fight with his dad, and a nice thrumming beat you can bop around to.  

4. Is there another predominantly secular major artist in pop today you'd be particularly interested in hearing a Gospel or Christian-themed album from? What can they learn to do, or not to do, from Kanye's experience here?

Trevor Anderson: On #TeamGospel -- it’d have to be Beyonce. She’s dabbled in plenty of gospel already, even from her Destiny’s Child days, so the foundation exists. Plus, if crossover appeal is part of the game, who better to serve up the full range of gospel in a mix of big ballads, handclap-ready uptempo numbers, spoken interludes and package it in a cohesive, immersive digestible form? And imagine the accompanying visuals, whew.

On #TeamChristian -- I’m drafting Kelly Clarkson. In recent years, her growing array of covers she’s proven that she can sing literally anything (side note: if that TV show runs long enough, she will exhaust the entire American songbook). A Christian album would give her a chance to spotlight her voice on arrangements we haven’t yet seen. And hey, she made a Christmas album this decade, so she’s halfway there, right?

Bianca Gracie: Sam Smith was the first artist who came to mind. They’ve already shown they can lay out their vulnerability on wallowing, choir-assisted tracks like “Stay With Me,” “Lay Me Down” and “Pray.” Plus, they have the immense vocal talent to pull it off. It would also be interesting to hear their perspective on religion as they came out as non-binary and genderqueer this year, and also don’t practice organized religion. I think the most important factor when going down this route is remaining genuine and making sure your messages of faith come from the heart, which is lacking from Jesus Is King for me.

Joe Lynch: Kelly Clarkson, mainly because good gospel is a vocalist's game, and she can sing the hell (pardon the expression) out of anything. I think the lesson here is that there's a secular audience for gospel, but you can't just slip it out quietly – you make as much noise around it as possible, catering to fans with listening events and courting media attention with delays and controversies.

Andrew Unterberger: Not fully gospel, perhaps, but I wouldn't be shocked if 15 or so years from now, we got a largely Christian-themed Vampire Weekend album. Frontman Ezra Koenig's studies and questions about faith and religion bore heavily on 2013's Modern Vampires of the City, and inspired one of their all-time best songs in "Ya Hey," and those inquiries only tend to get more pronounced in an artist's middle age.

If there was going to be a major 21st century rock artist to follow Bob Dylan's late-'70s / early '80s path into Jewish-bred Christian infatuation, I could see it being them. And while they might not quite follow the model of Kanye's traveling gospel experience -- though Dylan also led some interesting roadshows in his day -- I'm sure they could get some tips from him about choosing interesting guests for their choir. 

Christine Werthman: Lookin' at you, Bieber. And if (when) you do it, keep your own flavor in there, as Kanye did. Jesus Is King is a good example of an artist bringing in gospel or Christian elements without making it sound like straight-up church music. I'm already looking forward to the Lauren Daigle feature. 

5. The second half of the '10s will likely go down in history as the period where one of the most important artists of his generation lost the trail a little bit. Which album from this five-year period do you think stands the best chance of enduring as an essential work in Kanye's catalog? 

Trevor Anderson: If the choices are The Life of Pablo, Ye, or Jesus Is King – not the middle one. Pablo is the closest of the three to Ye’s heyday, which already will give it some retroactive nostalgic weight with core fans and critics. Jesus Is King – the jury’s still out. Will it be more of a brave (if not entirely successful) departure and growth for Kanye, or does it go down as the “Remember when Kanye did that gospel album lol” punchline? Don’t expect any newfound love for Ye, which goes down more for its role in the entire G.O.O.D five-week rollout of five albums that, despite their combined forces, still couldn’t even dent Drake’s Scorpion.

Bianca Gracie: Okay, I’m cheating by a year or two here, but I have to choose 2013’s Yeezus. It didn’t get the love it deserved upon its release (and honestly still doesn’t -- shout-out to the relentless Yeezus hive!), but the album remains one of Kanye’s wildest and most experimental to date. The music was very jarring yet alluring at the same time, combining a whole kitchen sink’s worth of genres, from industrial to dancehall. It was noisy, unapologetic, rude and political -- and also one of the last times Kanye could get away with crossing those lines.

Joe Lynch: In 2018, I would have said Kids See Ghosts, but in truth, it's not an album I've found myself returning to. Life of Pablo, for all its faults, remains a vital part of the Kanye West narrative. Fifty years from now, if a Kanye fan decided to ignore Jesus Is King and Ye, they're not missing much – those LPs are not the main story, but part of the West side story, if you will. Gems like "Fade," "Ultralight Beam" (which basically is a gospel song) and "I Love Kanye," however, are essential entries in his catalog. 

Andrew Unterberger: I'll go off the board here and say Pusha T's blistering Daytona, which Kanye produced or co-produced the entirety of as part of his Wyoming-recorded five-album set of G.O.O.D Music releases last year. For those of us who find Kanye's current rhetoric too odious to enjoy an entire LP's worth of his ravings, it's still a gift to get hear him man the decks for collaborators worthy of his still-considerable gifts as a producer. He and Push can work the two-man game like a modern day Eric B. and Rakim, and Daytona remains easily the most compulsively listenable West-related project of the last five years. (Though shoutout to Teyana Taylor's stellar K.T.S.E. from those same Wyoming sessions, a worthy silver medalist here.) 

Christine WerthmanLife of Pablo. This is really the better gospel album.

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