The release of Kanye West’s gospel album “Jesus is King” last year was one of the biggest events in music and pop culture worldwide. The release of any new music from Kanye garners a lot of attention anyway being one of the biggest and most influential contemporary musicians today. What made the release of this album such a phenomenon is that it was in some sense the culmination of his very public transformation from Yeezus to a servant of King Jesus.
The Christian world has warmly received this once improbable addition to Christian music. In a way, he is fulfilling his mission of being here “to convert atheists to believers” by making millions of people around the world, including non-Christians say, “Jesus is King.” Many have reviewed the album and commented on what their favourite songs are. My favourite song is the final track “Jesus is Lord.” It is probably the least talked about track and I have heard no one call it their favourite. I will explain why I love it and why it is the most important song on the album.
I have previously said the loadbearing centre of Christian music should be the lyrics. I have also said that modern Christian music should imitate scripture. These are essential things that have been sorely lacking in popular Christian music today which explains why it is so theologically weak. This is why I was so pleased when I heard “Jesus is Lord”. It concisely conveys a foundational belief in the New Testament, that Jesus is Lord, in a thoroughly biblical manner. It quotes Philippians 2:10-11, arguably the most important Christological statement in the New Testament, which in turn references Isaiah 45:23. It is part of a larger passage, Philippians 2:6-11, which many scholars think is actually an early Christian hymn that predates the writing of the New Testament. So not only does it reference scripture, it is an ode to an ancient hymn that was sung by some of the first Christians.
It is a pleasant surprise that such a theologically robust and biblically grounded lyrics would come from a recent convert on his first “gospel” album no less, which he aptly named “Jesus is King”. (This is a point I will return to later.) Now I am not saying that he is some sort of theological genius but as New Testament scholar Matthew Bates says in an interview about his latest book on the gospel, Kanye is onto something.
I wrote an entire article on how Christian music has to be good music. So even though the lyrical content is central, the music has to complement the lyrics. Not only are the lyrics of “Jesus is Lord” strong, the music perfectly fits the message. I am not a trained musician or music critic so bear with my bumbling attempts to describe why the instrumentation complements the words perfectly.
For “Jesus is Lord”, Kanye samples Claude Léveillée’s instrumental song “Un Homme Dans La Nuit” which is also the final track of his 1978 album “Black Sun.” As far as I can tell, it is a fairly simple piece of music played at a fairly slow tempo. This allows the listener to focus on the lyrics and it is arranged in such a way that it draws attention to the words. The music swells with the lyrics, reaching a crescendo at “Jesus is Lord.” This creates a sense of anticipation that climaxes with the declaration of Jesus’ lordship, the central message of the song. The music largely consists of horns, the types of instruments that are often associated with royal pageantry. They are precisely used in that fashion as it evokes the imagery of a royal scene, further enhancing the lyrics, which in their original context were about God’s universal reign (Isaiah 45:23) which he is now establishing by exalting Jesus Christ as Lord (Philippians 2:10-11.)
At only 49 seconds long, “Jesus is Lord” is the shortest track on the album. Due to its brevity and simplicity, it’s understandable why it doesn’t stand out compared to the other songs which are more flamboyant. Now the song quickly ends after the final “Jesus is Lord.” This rather abrupt ending to a brief piece of music gives it a lot of replay value since you are left wanting more. I think it is purposefully designed that way so the core message that “Jesus is Lord” is repeated over and over again as a slogan. It is way of saying that in the end, all that matters is Jesus is Lord.
Of course, musical taste is largely subjective but I find it especially surprising just how underrated “Jesus is Lord” is among Christians. It sums up what the entire project is about. The album is called “Jesus is King” so it is fitting that the final song should be a pure and unapologetic declaration of Jesus’ lordship. Moreover, it truly fulfils the purpose of a gospel album. It is one of those curiosities of old genre labels that “gospel music” does not really talk about the gospel much. His lordship is the pinnacle of the gospel so “Jesus is Lord” is what a gospel project called “Jesus is King” ought to mean. The lack of attention “Jesus is Lord” has received demonstrates just how poorly most Christians understand its theological significance.
The gospel is the fundamental message of the Christian faith. It is the good news about Jesus that you have to believe and faithfully follow in order to be saved (Romans 1:16.) It is the royal message from God about his kingdom (Mark 1:14-15.) According to the New Testament, the climax of the story of the gospel is God exalting Jesus to his right hand as Lord over his kingdom (Acts 2:22-36, Philippians 2:6-11.) As Lord, he has the power from God to judge those who reject his rule and to save those who are loyal to him. This is what it means for Jesus to be Lord. It means everything. This is why “Jesus is Lord” or the full phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “Lord Jesus Christ” appears all over the New Testament. Not only is it popular, it is absolutely crucial to New Testament theology as well, so scholars think it is one of the earliest Christians slogans or creeds.
Unfortunately, “Lord” is often underappreciated today as just one of the more prominent titles of Jesus. It is wrongly thought to be a title connoting personal relationship, since the gospel is commonly presented as “inviting Jesus to be your Lord and personal Saviour.” You cannot “make Jesus your Lord.” He is not “my Lord”; he is “our Lord.” His lordship is a universal fact, whether you know it or not, which the preaching of the gospel calls us to recognize and submit to (Romans 1:1-5.) This is why it says, “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess.” Either you willingly acknowledge it in the present or you will be forced to when he returns as judge.
Musically speaking, “Jesus is Lord” might not be your favourite song off “Jesus is King” but in terms of theology, there is no weightier song on the project. “Jesus is Lord” is what “Jesus is King” is all about, fulfilling its purpose as a true gospel album. Through the song, we are declaring the ancient creed, the cornerstone of our faith that Jesus is Lord. By it, we are swearing our allegiance to the one true king. All hail King Jesus!