When you sit down to watch Kanye West’s Jesus is King movie (directed by Nick Knight), you probably won’t be able to guess what you’re about to see. In fact, you may not even understand it once it’s over. Showing for just one week at IMAX screens across the nation, the film companion to West’s latest album is a slow, static, experimental encapsulation of Kanye West’s journey over the past year. It’s short, it’s cryptic, it’s…seemingly about nothing.
But really it’s about everything.
Jesus is King is not anything like Runaway, the film that debuted alongside West’s most heralded album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Runaway had two main characters and a discernible narrative with a beginning, middle and end—Jesus is King is largely a collection of single shots enclosed in a fisheye lens. There is seemingly no story to follow.
That is, unless, you understand West’s interests and obsessions over the past 15 years. Really, Jesus is King—both the album and the film—is the culmination West’s artistic, philosophical and spiritual ventures since 2004 when he released his first album, The College Dropout. And when we take a long, broad look at West’s up-and-down journey these past two decades, we can gain a better understanding of what exactly is going on in the Jesus is King movie.
Full disclosure: I’ve already seen the movie. I attended West’s Jesus is King listening party in Chicago back in late September. And as somebody who hosts a Kanye West podcast and knows pretty much everything about him, I was able to piece together the story I believe the film is trying to communicate.
Kanye West’s Albums Are Stories
You can call Kanye West a musician or a rapper, but more than anything he’s an artist. He used to visit art museums with his dad as a kid and obsess over masters like Pablo Picasso. He’s also had a very healthy fixation on movies over the years, noting filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorwsky as his biggest influences. That’s why often we don’t just get an album–we get crazy artwork and accompanying film projects.
You can even hear West talking about how he believes producing and writing a song is like making a movie:
It shouldn’t be too crazy, then, to believe that just about every single West album has a detectable storyline with three different acts.
Sometimes West makes it obvious. For instance, on Feb. 14, 2016—the day his album The Life of Pablo dropped—West said in string of since-deleted tweets on Twitter: “Paul … The most powerful messenger of the first century… Now we stand here 20 centuries later… Because he was a traveler… He was a learned man not of the original sect so he was able to take the message to the rest of the world… He was saved from persecution due to his Roman citizenship… I have the right to speak my voice…”
Everybody wondering who “Pablo” was in the album’s title suddenly had an answer: Paul the Apostle from the Bible. Originally named Saul, this man renounced God and persecuted Christians thousands of years ago. He was living a sinful life—until God blinded him. Then Saul walked the Road of Damascus for days without food or water. When he reached his destination, God restored his sight. This was Saul’s ascension from non-believer to Paul the Apostle. The narrative on The Life of Pablo finds West taking a similar journey by modernizing “Paul” to “Pablo.”
When we understand that West views his albums as stories, then we can view the confluence of artistic projects surrounding his albums in a different light. West uses the visual elements to reveal more about the sonic, musical elements of his work. Thus, we can align the story on the Jesus is King album with the film.
Here’s the thing though: today is Thursday, Oct. 24—one day before the album or the movie. We don’t know what that story is yet.
But because of the spotlight that’s been cast on West’s life for the past 15 years, we can take a pretty good guess about what the album is exploring.
Kanye West’s Spiritual Journey
While West has been very open about his faith and connection with God over the course of his career, we can gain a little more insight when we view that commentary through his art.
For instance, West’s debut album The College Dropout is a three-act story that details West’s ascension into fame. The first act features West aspiring to be a hip hop superstar. While the first three songs—“We Don’t Care,” “All Falls Down” and “Spaceship”—find West and the black community in an oppressed state, the next two songs—“Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”—introduce God as a guide for how to carry yourself. With this motivation, West goes off and begins his career. However, at first he only makes superficial music. It isn’t until the album’s third act that he reconnects with his former self that found inspiration through God and makes music that comparably gives people hope.
The first three albums of West’s career—which includes Late Registration and Graduation—detail this up-and-down relationship with celebrity life. While fame provides him with the tools to reach more people with his music, stardom also inflates his ego and often makes him inconsolable. For instance, the song “Drunk and Hot Girls” seems pompous and misogynistic on the surface, but the life West leads is a hollow one and the men in the song are ultimately punished for their deplorable behavior. And in the song “Roses,” West finds that his fame and money can’t help save his grandmother from her illness, and that people don’t want to help him but instead want to feed on his celebrity.
Basically, through all the confusion and turmoil of those albums, we see West detached from what he learned from God on The College Dropout. That continues on 808s & Heartbreak, an album that details West’s depressed state after his mother’s death. It’s quite literally the polar opposite of The College Dropout. Instead of connecting with God and living by his word, West is lost, pessimistic, sinful, alone.
Since 808s, each successive album has featured West slowly recapturing his former spiritual self from The College Dropout. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, we saw West reeling from being outcast by the public after the Taylor Swift incident; on Yeezus, West revolted against his decriers by quite literally naming himself after Jesus Christ; on The Life of Pablo, West recognized he must change and goes on the arduous journey experienced by Paul the Apostle; on ye, West quite literally sung and rapped about becoming a “kid” again, effectively getting back to his “Old Kanye” state.
And finally, we have West’s latest album, KIDS SEE GHOSTS. On that collaborative project with Kid Cudi, West was “reborn.” In fact, there’s a song called “Reborn,” in which West and Cudi discussed the strenuous, backbreaking journey of remaining true to both yourself and God. Throughout the song, both artists noted how they will always be tempted by their demons, their enemies, their past—but that they always have to “keep moving forward” no matter what.
Cudi sung on his verse: “I had my issues, ain’t that much I could do/But, peace is something that starts with me, with me/At times, wonder my purpose/Easy then to feel worthless/But, peace is something that starts with me/Had so much on my mind, I didn’t know where to go/I’ve come a long way from them hauntin’ me/Had me feelin’ oh so low/Ain’t no stoppin’ you no way/All things, the night before/Ain’t no stoppin’ you no way/No stress yes, I’m so blessed and/I’m so, I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward/Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward.”
While West and Cudi were in fragmented states for years, on “Reborn” they recognized that becoming whole again is a slow, laborious process. They always have to keep working on themselves and remembering their commitment to God. And that’s why West ended the album with “Cudi Montage, where he repeated “Lord, shine your light on me, save me, please” over and over. In 2018, he was ready to give himself over to God.
That journey to reconnect with God and ask him to shine his light on West? That took 15 years of artistic output. For the first time since The College Dropout, it seems as though West’s latest musical project is truly embracing God and his teachings. From what I heard at the listening party, just about every single song—from the lyrics to the production—is entirely focused on God and Jesus.
And since West classically uses visual productions to showcase the narratives on his albums, we can assume what we see in the Jesus is King movie is detailing this religious reconnection, this spiritual rebirth.
The Motifs of Rebirth
That idea of being “reborn” is fully captured in the Jesus is King film in many different ways. Here are three key motifs that capture that restoration.
James Turrell’s Roden Crater
The first example is that epic opening shot of the film. The camera slowly pans upwards from an enclosed space to the open sky. As the camera roves into the clouds, the screen reveals a wide shot of James Turrell’s ambitious, mysterious project. From that moment forward, Jesus is King becomes our most detailed look at Turrell’s Roden Crater.
Turrell, an American artist who experiments with light and space in his work, has been working on this project since he acquired a cinder cone volcano located outside Flagstaff, Ariz., back in 1979. He has since spent the last four decades building chasms and tunnels to transform the crater into a communal observatory.
“You could say I’m a mound builder,” Turrell told the Los Angeles Times. “I make things that take you up into the sky. But it’s not about the landforms. I’m working to bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into the spaces that we inhabit.”
While Turrell aimed to complete the project by the early 1990s, the date continued to be pushed further and further back. Before the Jesus is King film, the widest viewing of the Roden Crater occurred when 80 people visited the site as part of a fundraiser back in 2015. Once completed, Turrell’s project will host 21 viewing spaces and six tunnels that lead to restaurants, a visitor’s center, cabins and a light spa.
Now an opening for the public has been pushed back all the way to 2024—which means Jesus is King might be our closest look to the project until it’s actually ready.
West has been a huge supporter of the project, and even once donated $10 million to Turrell. This allowed West to go get an inside look at a project few people have seen.
West has since formed a close working relationship and friendship with Turrell, to the point where the crater is featured prominently in the Jesus is King film. It seems West isn’t just interested in the Roden Crater as an artistic project—he very much views the space as a chance to heal and achieve spiritual fulfillment.
At the Jesus is King listening party in Chicago, West further detailed these ideas, claiming that communities would use these spaces to connect, to congregate, to praise God. West wishes to surround himself with likeminded people looking to connect and grow spiritually, linking Turrell’s craters with the rebirth narrative across West’s discography.
The Fisheye Lens
At the Coachella music festival earlier this year, everybody wondered why the entire livestream of West’s performance was shown through a fisheye lens. Well, the opening shot and poster of Jesus is King appear to provide the answer. Mimicking that opening at the top of the Roden Crater, the Jesus is King film uses that aesthetic to carry the spirituality West wishes to channel through Turrell’s project.
As Wikipedia states, a fisheye lens is “an ultra wide-angle lens that produces strong visual distortion intended to create a wide panoramic or hemispherical image. Fisheye lenses achieve extremely wide angles of view.” Basically, almost the entirety of Jesus is King is shown through a circular frame in the middle of the screen.
This seems to directly relate to West’s idea of surrounding yourself with the proper spiritual environment. The fisheye lens becomes an artistic display of focusing on what’s important to you, what allows you to reconnect with God, what initiates your rebirth.
So what are the key images West and director Nick Knight choose to focus on?
First there’s West’s Sunday Service choir, which has been touring with West for the past year. This group of gospel singers has not only been singing classic hymns to West’s musical arrangements, but they have also been remixing our favorite Kanye West songs, from “Jesus Walks” to “Ghost Town” to “POWER.” Much like he did on The College Dropout, West is living by God’s word through the choir, connecting his art with his faith.
Then we have all the shots of nature. From deer dancing in a field to bugs pollinating flowers, West and Knight employ several shots of nature and animals in their instinctive elements.
West released five musical projects in 2018, three of which he executive produced. He worked on all of those projects partly from his Los Angeles home, but largely from a new recording space in Wyoming. West clearly became obsessed with removing himself from the noise and clutter of the very public, celebrity life in L.A. and getting in touch with nature in big, open environments. West even bought a $14 million ranch in Wyoming this past September.
The cover of West’s last solo album, ye, became representative of this escape.
Throughout 2018, West talked and tweeted about nature quite a few times. During a string of tweets in December 2018, Chris Lambert (the co-host of my Kanye West podcast) contextualized one of those tweets:
As you can see, West was off finding solace in nature just before he went off to explore Turrell’s crater. Thus, it seems then that the use of the fisheye lens is West’s way of displaying that connection.
Finally, we have one of the final shots of the movie: the simple image of a woman holding her baby. Perhaps the most blunt use of imagery, this use of the fisheye lense closes out the idea of being reborn just before the closing show-stealing scene of the movie.
As stated, the Sunday Service choir is featured heavily throughout the film. Not only do we see them perform in the crater—connecting West’s spirituality with his music—but the live music itself serves as the film’s score.
That is until the very end, when West steps out from behind the shadows and give us a performance himself. As the final scene of the film—which comes right after the shot of the baby with their mother—this is a fitting end. It represents the true rebirth, the final step he must take to get back in touch with God.
As West himself admitted at the Chicago listening party, for years he was lost, was scared, was too self-contained to realize he wasn’t living a healthy life detached from the word of God. He regretted calling himself Yeezus, and wanted to make up for his sins.
That’s why he wanted to once again connect his music with the word of God. West can’t just envision the healing process—he needs to live and breathe that connection as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a cultural leader, as an artist. Just like he did on The College Dropout, his music can’t just hint at his spirituality, but must instead fully embody his plight to do better and inspire others to do more with their lives.
Thus, we get a stripped back, piano-heavy rendition of a classic Kanye West song: “Street Lights.”
Stripped of all the noise, the production, the Auto-Tune, West instead gives us a naked performance of one of his most melancholic songs. In 2008 when 808s & Heartbreak dropped, West had nobody to guide him. But in 2019, he has his family, he has his friends, he has his fans—he has God.
So now when West asks questions like “Do I still got time to grow?”, it seems as though he’s using that final performance in Jesus is King to artistically answer that question: yes he does. He’s a kid again—he’s reborn. He’s surrounding himself with the right people, he’s making music for the right reasons, and he’s devoted to carrying the word of God. And as a result, Jesus is King becomes an epic closing number to a 15-year journey.
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