Surfaces and the search for transcendence in Kanye West’s Jesus Is King


Jesus Is King is a flat and ugly sounding record. Listening to it is to be confronted by rough, clearly differentiated sounds that coexist but never mesh. Every bassline comes separated from the drum, every key chimed directly out of the keyboard, every voice sits outside of the mix. In other words the mixing is done in opposition to both unity, and to space. Ironically, or perhaps because of this, it is West’s most ‘live’ sounding record, as every sound cuts the threshold between music and silence. He has done minimalism before, but where Jesus Is King matters is in his continued treatment of the recorded voice. Often it sounds like an add-on, delivered quickly and after the fact, but this only renders the music a surface that is similarly open to slippage, mistakes. It is bracing then, but it opens ways of listening that challenge conventional notions of acoustic space, and new challenges to the grain of the performer’s voice.

I. Surfaces

West’s music has forever staged the contradictions of the recorded voice, recontextualising soul voices (understood to carry the ‘authentic’ (black) body of the singer) within hip hop (born of electronic manipulation). The presentation of the ‘authentic’ soulful voice conceals the myriad studio processes that make it illusionistically appear ‘live’, pre-technological. Hip hop, descended from dub, breaks this illusion by foregrounding the material surface of the sampled recording: amplifying crackle, cutting and stretching the vocal itself into something both strange and familiar. In practice the material sample is both an invasion by and portal into the pains and ecstasies of the past, its authenticity derived not from an illusionistic live-ness, but the breach of that illusion; a past summoned by the machine. Its originators framed the sampler in terms of bush magic, and the sampled voice through the supernatural. Writers and artists in Afrodiasporic sound cultures underscore the significance of ghosts and repurposed technologies: the recorded voice can never go back, to its home, to the body, but it can shape-shift — stretch, clip, echo, bark — its every appearance announces a home that cannot be returned to, but also a new one that has been reached. In Jesus Is King the richness of West’s evocations or seances is shifted from material pasts to an attempted ‘here and now’ that eschews even avant-garde dub space, rendering itself a recording surface.

There are two songs, cast eras apart, that signal West’s interest in ‘present’ surfaces. 30 Hours revisits Last Call, which ostensibly typifies early Kanye. A lush, sample-rich soundworld creates the foundations for his raps, he resamples his own work as an already deterritorialised auditory past, but as he embarks on an autobiographical rant, this adlibbed voice cuts itself in stark contrast itself to the preceding rapping voice. The artist’s voice has always been the site of discomfort and negotiation: only when Kanye starts rambling ‘live’ do we realise that the rapping Kanye was an assemblage of past takes, cut and layered into one another to create a coherent musical verse. The machine bridges the desires of charisma and breath control the performer cannot on his own rise to. (West’s vulnerability in this era has as much to do with his reflective lyrics as his inability to embody the ‘authentic’ voice). Producer Kanye talks over his own hybridised musical voice — the Last Call we hear, even his ‘live’ rap is only ever a recording playing in the background of Kanye’s Last Call. Extending this in 30 Hours the rapper stops, but then the rapping stops with him. The musical equivalent of dead air, he then fumbles through raps and begins annotating the song in real-time before taking a phone call. The focus is shifted to the environment of the ‘live’ recording. Arthur Russell’s already ghostly voice, dubbed into texture, doesn’t signal tension on the part of the beat, but of the working performer. The beat, once the site of a destabilised past, rides out as the performer leaves the space.

Would the music in Jesus Is King continue if West were to collapse? Should he have left off his vocal? As many have pointed out, the dryness of Jesus Is King becomes outright confined as a sound-space with West mumbling and pleading over the top, his unmixed voice jarring against what could otherwise be navigable, musical. This is also supposed to be devotional music through which the listener can either ascend to something higher or burrow into some internal state. It is immediately strange then that Sunday Service Choir appear as a coherent unit, singing in a room to be recorded, where our video records and live accounts suggest an embodied ecstasy brought about through the power of music. On Jesus Is King we understand their power but always one step removed — the chorus assisted by the barebones hammering of piano, subtly distributed on either side to frame the performance, the abrupt stretches into a higher register making live the studio manipulation of his signature chipmunk soul aesthetic — they appear not in abstract, but terrestrial space. It’s anti-immersion. They appear live.

II. Paintwork

The machine always underpins the human, and vice versa.* The studio tradition for ‘organic’ music owes its debt to songs such as Gene Austin’s My Blue Heaven, which through the use of machine reverb effects open up a three-dimensional acousmatic space, the voice placeable in the canvas of the mix and so distinguishable from the piano. Jesus Is King on the other hand deliberately appears dry, its pieces overlapping and clashing but always pushed to the surface of the recording. The electronic music tradition born from dub foregrounds the machine as organic, and gives the producer license to chop and arrange the voice within this unstable past/present bodied/disembodied sound-space. Jesus Is King does not follow this either: it refuses to blur any of its textures, and retains a distance from the voice such that we are always witnessing but never entering anything through it. This is significant because West is an expert at manipulating and arranging voices to produce near-religious acousmatic experiences: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s expanded wall of sound, Yeezus‘ alienated wails, Pablo‘s gestalt ecstasy, none of which are ever limited to the physical capacities of the performer, or the listener’s ear. West usually gives us ears everywhere. In Jesus Is King however this is always limited, physical, observational, relegating us to the sideline. The musical world can only ever be seen through the interface of the artist who is never placeable within this devotional space.

In fact, he seems to sit directly outside of it, his voice in one sense continuing West’s ongoing resistance of racialised notions of embodied ‘soul’ perpetuated by rock critics, but also rejecting the hyper-mediated experiments pushed by figures like West to reclaim the plasticity of the ‘authentic’ voice in Afrodiasporic music traditions. This shift to a dry, surface-heavy aesthetic encompassing ye and now Jesus Is King is best seen in terms of The Fall’s masterpiece Paintwork, which, as the name suggests, provides a clear statement of intent for surface-based music production. The instrumental runs to an unhurried motorik drum, a conversational guitar introducing an idea before falling in sync with its ineluctable rhythm. It sounds like it could keep rolling forever. Suddenly there’s a hiccup: the thing-ness of the recording becomes apparent as Smith inadvertently tapes over sections of the song, capturing subdued mumbling and the sounds of the hotel room the recording is being played in. The frame bursts into view, the image of roads, hills, and skies becomes the tape housing the image, and the adlib becomes the main text. Just as Smith casts himself as the idiot spoiling all the paintwork, Kanye’s focus shifts from the recorded sound space to the fingerprints that spoil its illusion. The hurried and tacked on vocal both stands between us and the space of the recording, and threatens to destroy it. These tape experiments guide a reading of The Fall’s ‘live’ recorded songs, which like Jesus Is King flatten space into interlocking planes pressed up against the surface of the piece. We notice the paintwork — it is up to us to read the space according to contrasting tones and textures, or to just submit to its angular cacophony.

III. Blue

Yeezus didn’t have a cover, but Jesus Is King does. It is blue. Smith’s cubistic lyrics and anti-perspectival album covers enforce his attempts at a decentred sound space, but Jesus Is King is only a non-illusionistic blue that vibrates directly against the viewer’s eyes. Both distinctly Modern in approach, Jesus Is King‘s confrontation is spiritual rather than strictly formal. Ultramarine has been used in religious paintings for centuries to put the represented figure on the threshold of the profane and divine. It is a colour so vivid that it elevates the painted material. Of course the pigment is as earthly as can be, derived from crushed lapis lazuli, but within the aesthetic frame of painterly expression it becomes entirely unnatural. This sense that physical materials can be used within an environment where they can only be comprehended as metaphysical, thus giving way to transcendent devotional practices, is inherent in the materiality of the musical tradition West, among others, carries. Discarded technologies (‘little magic boxes’) repurposed within community sound systems for what Gilroy calls ‘alternative public spheres’: shaking speakers, the transcendent break, the sample, the ritual underpinned by the 808. Following Yves Klein, any other blue could stand for anything else, hence the blue that is only ever the blue paint object. For some Klein’s blue totality represents a reduction to nothing, a reflection of the void post-War where it was revealed that physical matter can disappear in the blink of the eye, but for others it simply stripped out the unnecessary detail of those older devotional paintings, revealing that which matters: blue itself. The paintwork disappears into the visual distortions it issues.

West’s anti-aesthetic designs for Jesus Is King at once grate on the eye and establish an iconic reverberation that confirms and extends beyond the printed material. The yellow and gold don’t punctuate but bleed into the Kleinian ultramarine; at first glance an out of the box typeface, it has neither the arcane grace of an old-style serif or the magazine era’s sophistication, it looks rather like the over-eager utilitarianism of a community church pamphlet or trinket. The type’s absorption into and emphasis of the Kleinian blue is traced by the artist to James Turrell, whose Roden Crater stages Jesus Is King‘s accompanying video. The history of illusionism, of re-presenting the sky in a painting object, is rejected as the aesthetic frame becomes insufficient, and the material frame is drawn to the fore: Klein’s, Turrell’s, and West’s favourite artwork is the sky itself. An early album cover for Jesus Is King was a figurative religious scene, but now the iconic representation of the divine is rejected for the paintwork, for resonant blue itself. The Life of Pablo‘s interest in a torn and frayed production emerges here: the more awkwardly present, the more potentially transformative. The difference there was West believed the listener’s ear could blend its fragments into a whole, a belief that is not carried to Jesus Is King. How can its blue pigment or shitty keyboards hold the infinite depth of the sky? And how can the compressed drum take the soul to elevation? Anyone will tell you that the sampler and 808 have long been used for precisely this function. Like the blue that is only itself and yet vibrates beyond, the materiality of the music grounds and delivers transcendence, contextualising it here and now. It doesn’t hold the sky, because the sky is not here. It’s out there.

IV. Hesitation

Follow God replicates the surface distortion of the past, hinting at West’s crackology, and through its sampling gives life to Selah‘s ‘even when we dead we don’t die’. But as West’s voice keeps flowing it appears to be already deteriorating. The sample’s crackle meshes with the voice, the medium inseparable from its summoning, but West’s is digitally clipping, as though there is no master tape, just the stream that flows into distortion, into one day irretrievable data. On God has the artist hit play like Smith, trying to rise to the role of composer, treading the line between emcee guide and destroyer of the recorded world. Late vocal echoes in Water suddenly suggest a depth beyond the surface of the listening plane, but are staked against West’s brash digital cuts to create a clash of surfaces. God Is reveals a melodic Kanye familiar to listeners of ye, in one of the rare cases that the take he’s used sounds like it just might be his personal favourite, the rhythm felt intuitively, the cold burning his throat. Where Ghost Town has him submit to the shambling track, maintaining a voice that sounds reflective, at peace, but ready, here his pleading again sits at that surface, perhaps doubting the transformation or maybe unwilling to give in to it. Regardless the pain in his voice is doubled by the thin digital grain that both carries and obscures it, the sound of having already failed to leave the body, of refusing to enter the absolution of the resummoned material past. His time, since Pablo, has been the real-time of the digital network, the download that deletes itself after its every appearance in the stream. He’s too terrestrial to become physical, too distributed to become whole, too live to see ghosts.

Pablo holds every piece of its canvas separate, asking the listener to perform the alchemical task of filling the gaps and tying it all together. Less a cross-sectional how to make a beat (although this appeal is certainly there), it turns the listener into co-author as West enthusiastically runs off to the next movement, the next link. Kids See Ghosts reinstates the producer’s role as magician, the audience as witness, but Jesus Is King proposes a new challenge: the surface-heavy non-perspectival space of Kids See Ghosts but without its portals, without its ghosts; the shambles of Pablo but without its negative space. It presents itself as whole — there’s not enough depth to ascertain what threads need connecting, what spaces need to be imaginatively filled. Without negative space there’s no positive space, without silence no sound. The presets of Jesus Is Lord oppose his purported goal, this is not to convert anyone, this hasn’t even converted him.

This should be big, it should frame the sky and walk away, but instead it reveals doubts on the part of the artist who wants to show everything. Rejecting his immersive abstractions of the past, he is now committed to capturing the alchemical moment that the terrestrial is transformed by the listener. Like Smith he casts himself as both the conductor, the destroyer, and a member of his own audience. As such Jesus Is King is left circling the perimeter of a space that it can never entirely enter. Where West recently seemed to find peace in the possibility of endlessly looping and recontextualising the voices of the past, the dead, here everything is cast in an occurring present that we understand to be brittle.

V. Limits

What the present voice highlights is that the less mediation between us and the singer, the more obvious the sonic rift, and the more we are pushed away. There is work to be done here reworking our approach to the recorded voice. Before it was autotune, but since soul was rewritten in 808s & Heartbreak aesthetic disgrace finds itself here in the ‘live’. It is uncanny not because it feels pre-recorded, but because it has all the uncertainty of someone who is really there. West’s lo-fi turn through Pablo to ye and now Jesus Is King coincides with this interest in twenty first century concerns such as real-time production, the dissolution of the private, and the pursuit of connection in a really occurring ‘now’. He opts for the sound of the demo or leak, an acknowledgement that there is no finished product in late capitalism, that the logic of real-time values process over product, that the visible life, the networked life, has become the eternal work-in-progress. The focus becomes the real-time work environment of the voice: the shitty take means there were better takes we’ll never hear, a distracted verse that there was something else going on in the room at the time. A ‘post-Yeezus liturgical aesthetics’ has not meant pursuing West’s live-dead, mixed-unmixed threshold further, but isolating the yet-to-be aestheticised performances that make a published recording sound unfinished; the paintwork not set and now spoiled. The sudden performances that irrupt through Yeezus before the ghosts catch up, in short, punctum.

This is jarring, but not without precedent. Jesus Is King wants to live; it fights to keep its status as the yellow type, bleeding across the radiant blue that is not the sky or the heavens, but the distortion that rings out of our eyes when we see it. It wants to shake us but it doesn’t want to dupe us. The overeager slogan, the insufficient guide, the doubt can be too much to bear. It is clear that as with ye, putting himself outside the event of the artwork now reveals a loss of control that both confines the work and leaves it without resolution. Where ye leverages this for a fragmented intimacy locatable within the noise, Jesus Is King shields itself, and remains peculiarly guarded. This is a first. His words, elsewhere unconscious or vehicles for sound itself form a barrier where they purport to be literal. On one hand this is where reading the grain of the recording matters most, to have us wonder why these authoritative words are coming up through a voice that sounds anything but, and why such a voice needs these particular words at all. On the other it puts him on the outside of the event with us, waiting for it all to mean something. It’s bold, but by design it’s also not enough.

*In even his most lush and immersive projects, West has been sensitive to the expressive mode of Afrodiasporic sound traditions: disco, hip hop, house, techno, grime. The hybridity of the voice here is most clearly dramatised in 808s & Heartbreak, a future shock that accelerates things by drawing attention to the post-processing or pastness of the ‘live’ event. By dramatising its journey through recording, mixing, and editing processes and amplifying the resulting human-machine hybrid, the voice is aligned with the digital drum, also compressed into jagged bits. Within the thematic context of the record, each percussive sound (its surface distorted and impenetrable), becomes known as a ‘heartbreak’, the digitally altered voice its wail (as the instrumental rhythm was the body to be invaded by ‘the sound of ghosts, the sudden dead’ in the disembodied vocal dub (Chude-Sokei). The idea of not being able to stand up much less express grief without technological mediation is enforced by the record’s cybernetic imagery, an emphasis that holds even when the gimmick drops.

Where the past was once sampled, made ghostly, West here gives the ‘live’ the same treatment, anguish as an always already mediated occurrence, the mechanics of sound recording as an expressive tool. Hearing it flick between asserting itself on the beat before dissolving into the cold night of Street Lights will always be moving, but its boldest and most devastating series of moments is in the vocal solo that ends Runaway, West’s posthuman era’s most emphatically human summation. The medium is not sonically augmented words expressing grief as in 808s, but a wordless demonstration of grieving sound itself. It also happens to be one of the few times in his music that a cry for help receives an answer, that being pain is everywhere and pain will leave on its own terms. It is no wonder My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his best loved album.

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