How Kanye West Is Turning 'Sunday Service' Faith Into Big Business

On Tuesday, Kanye West announced that his ninth album, Jesus Is King, will be released on September 27. The album announcement comes after several false starts for a followup to 2018’s Ye album. An album entitled Yandhi was planned for last September — and then November — but Kanye postponed it in November 2018 after tweeting that it wasn’t “ready yet.”

Perhaps he sensed that is the masses weren’t “ready” to receive his new album in droves as they have in the past. Kanye has always been calculatingly unhinged, but he self-sabotaged himself in a manner that few artists ever have during a spectacle-filled spring and summer of 2018 which included wearing a MAGA hat, declaring his “love” for despotic President Donald Trump, and an infamous “slavery was a choice” assertion on TMZ.

He and his wife Kim Kardashian-West’s clan are adept at headline hunting, but they’re also smart enough to know when to take their foot off the figurative pedal. After the June bonanza of G.O.O.D. music releases — and a trip to Uganda with self-proclaimed “global influencer” YesJulz, Kanye secluded from the public eye and social media. In January, he created an act called Sunday Service with longtime collaborator Tony Williams and several talented instrumentalists and vocalists. He’s spent every Sunday of 2019 performing popup Sunday Services. They’ve played all over the country, with the likes of Brad Pitt, DMX, and a recently-home A$AP Rocky attending the private events.

The clips from the services showcase a joyous atmosphere as Kanye, his daughter North, and attendees dance to gospel-tinged renditions of his own hits such as “Power,” “Bound 2,” and “Jesus Walks,” as well as standards like Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” and Ginuwine’s “So Anxious.” But there are many who aren’t swayed by the proceedings. There’s a swathe of people on social media joking — or not — about the Sunday Service being the prelude to a cult. Most Sunday services encourage attendees to spread the word; Kanye’s reportedly requires a nondisclosure agreement (though attendees can share videos on Instagram). From the outside looking in, the Sunday Services could easily be perceived as both a strategic entreaty to Black people and a lucrative endgame for an egocentric artist whose family is already reportedly running a church that charges attendees $1,000-a-month.

Kim Kardashian recently told The View that “Kanye started (the services), I think, just to heal himself.” The 42-year-old has long been a survivor of bipolar disorder. He has been more upfront about his mental health struggles in the last several years, being candid in interviews as well as on his last two albums, The Life Of Pablo and Ye. He even called bipolar disorder “his superpower” last year. It’s worth noting that “an increased focus on religion or religious activities” is a widely recognized symptom of mania induced by bipolar disorder, though it’s impossible to know Kanye’s mental state.

His public proclamations of faith aren’t new. In 2004, he defined himself as a “spiritual” follower of Jesus, though not a Christian. In 2013 he released the self-aggrandizing Yeezus album (which audaciously featured God on “I Am A God”), and he called 2016’s sonic fever dream The Life Of Pablo “a Gospel album with a whole lot of cursing.” And, of course, there’s 2004’s “Jesus Walks,” a defiant affirmation of Christ. Sasha Frere-Jones presciently said at the time for The New Yorker that, “in a different year, ‘Jesus Walks’ might register as an eccentric’s conflation of faith, commerce, and war.”

That unholy trinity of faith, commerce, and war are exactly what Kanye’s Sunday Service represents in 2019. Kim Kardashian-West recently clarified that the Sunday Service is a vessel of Christianity. Is it his genuine attempt to share his faith as a missionary for God? Does his July application to trademark Sunday Service (and $225 “Holy Spirit” hoodies at Coachella) mark the movement as mere commerce? Is every Sunday Service a war of an unapologetic egomaniac reckoning with forgiveness and humility amid a fall from grace? Maybe all three things are true at once for Kanye.

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