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As he promised that he would in October, Kanye West released his second gospel album, Jesus Is Born (INC), on Christmas Day.
Maybe he noticed the second half of Psalm 15:4 and realized that he really should stop missing deadlines of his own making.
Anyway, the implications of its title and release date notwithstanding, Jesus Is Born isn’t a Christmas album except in the broad Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season sense. In some ways, it isn’t a Kanye West album either, credited instead to the Jason White–directed Sunday Service Choir (or “Sunday Service,” as the ensemble is identified on the cover). West’s direct involvement is limited to his having served as the project’s executive producer (i.e., its money man) and to his having contributed two compositions that originally appeared on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo: “Ultralight Beam” and “Fade” (the latter of which undergoes gospelization on the Jesus Is Born song “Follow Me/Faith”).
And although West is listed as one of Jesus Is Born’s four producers, that fractional designation could indicate anything from significant sound shaping to almost no sound shaping at all. He doesn’t sing or rap either (at least nowhere near a hot mic). Instead, the spotlight stays focused on the dozens of “A-list” voices that White assembled at West’s request early last year and who have since gone on to become the most widely listened-to gospel choir in the world.
Those voices provided the most rousing moments on Jesus Is King, and they pick up right where they left off. After opening Jesus Is Born with an explosive rendition of Timothy Wright’s “Count Your Blessings” that turns an improvised, upwardly spiraling vocal from the original’s last 30 seconds into a climactic centerpiece, they downshift into a faithful rendition of Brenda Joyce Moore’s cascading “Perfect Praise” (retitled “Excellent”).
Such stylistic flexibility characterizes all of Jesus Is Born’s 84 minutes—a length, incidentally, that exceeds that of Jesus Is King the album and Jesus Is King the film put together. From that statistic alone, it seems reasonable to conclude that the sound of many minimally accompanied voices lifted in praise to his Lord and Savior, as opposed to the sound of one man rapping, is currently West’s favorite way of spreading his newfound faith—or at least of hearing that faith spread.
Listening to Jesus Is Born, it’s easy to understand why.
Trace black-gospel music back far enough, and you’ll arrive at what are still known as “Negro spirituals”: songs sung by slaves as emotionally direct expressions of a genuine Christian faith or as coded metaphors for achieving earthly emancipation (or as some misery-alleviating combination of the two).
Albany Records’ compilation Sankofa: A Spiritual Reflection gathers performances of 20 spirituals from the albums Deep River (1995), Songs of America (2008), and Come Down Angels and Trouble the Water (2014) by the operatic bass-baritone, Oral Moses. (Yes, Oral Moses. Seriously, given the nature of what he does, and does well, could he have been more aptly named?)
Like his predecessor Paul Robeson, whose stately recitals with Lawrence Brown did a lot to elevate spirituals into the classical realm, Moses is accompanied only by a pianist (Rosalyn Floyd on 13 selections, George Bailey on five, Ann Sears on two) and, on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a flautist. And although Moses’ repertoire is not exclusively traditional (“This Little Light of Mine” only dates back to the 1920s), the traditional predominates.
Hence the title Sankofa, a Ghanaian term that means “Go back and get it.” It’s an admonition that Moses has taken seriously. And, whether he knows it or not, so has Kanye West.