As 2 billion Christians the world over commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ on Wednesday, they might have missed a minor miracle – Kanye West met a deadline. Having spent the last few years botching album rollouts, cancelling projects and indulging in post-release alterations, West delivered on the planned Christmas Day release of Jesus Is Born, his second strongly Christian record of recent months and first to be credited to his Sunday Service Choir project. Jesus Is Born fully realises the ambitious Sunday Service shows the collective has been performing in churches and other venues for months now. Whatever fans make of West’s transformation into a paragon of religious devotion, they can’t accuse him of failing to put in the time.
While Jesus Is King saw West absorb a heavy Christian influence into his singular hip-hop style, its follow-up trades solely in traditional gospel. Fans uninterested in his religious rebirth will find little to love here (most of the Sunday Service Choir’s vocals are a variant on this bar from More Than Anything: “I love you, Jesus / I worship and adore you / Just want to tell you / Lord, I love you more than anything.”) but the album certainly fulfils its prayerful remit. Though West’s fingerprints are harder to detect than ever before, Jesus Is Born is more full-bodied than its predecessor, which often felt like a collection of unfinished sketches. Sometimes it can sound less like a studio album than audio snatched from a publicly funded evangelical TV station, but the power of the choir is captured in these recordings and the live feel of the compositions place the listener in Kanye’s own house of prayer.
Most interesting to West fans will be the new versions of older songs. Ultralight Beam is whittled down to the choir section that helped power the original. The new version of Father Stretch My Hands (simply titled Father Stretch) develops the rap song’s gospel overtures, while Follow Me – Faith reinterprets Fade. Most songs follow a similar pattern – the choir, led by a solo male voice, is backed up by a small number of live instruments – but still there are obvious highlights. Rain is one of the album’s quieter moments, led by a languid guitar line that would catch the ear of Frank Ocean. That’s How the Good Lord Works leans on a jazzy piano riff, and Souls Anchored is one of a few numbers to feature vocal leads reminiscent of 90s chart R&B.
Gospel isn’t for everyone but the excellent recent compilations World Spirituality Classics 2 and No Other Love revealed the power of Christian music when it’s driven by sober truths: that life can be a struggle, the will of man is frequently weak, sin is inescapable. The message of Jesus Is Born – that God is perfect and Christianity is the answer – will play well to the converted but its not going to move agnostics.
For all the album’s artistic successes, it’s hard to imagine non-believers listening and catching the holy spirit. Delivering the same message in the same style for 84 minutes, it sometimes feels like mass does to a six-year-old. Yet the Sunday Service Choir have helped West deliver a pretty well-executed genre album. Just don’t compare it to the rest of his mighty oeuvre. Should Kanye’s interest in gospel music prove temporary, this is likely to be remembered as an oddity rather than a baptism.