If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in theaters, then you don’t need me to explain the majesty of the film’s opening scene. The film begins with the now-infamous sequence of a pack of hominids wandering an African desert millions of years ago. After one of them uses a bone to kill a fellow hominid, this early version of man throws the bone up into the air. Then the movie flashes forward millions of year as the bone becomes a spaceship.
What follows is what’s important for this article. Director Stanley Kubrick goes from the vast empty desert to the endless realm of outer space. Kubrick pans up from a moon to a planet to the Sun towering overhead. The music swells as the big bright shining star overwhelms the screen. I hate to sound hyperbolic, but the theatrical experience of these scene is a transcendent experience; one that could very well move you to tears.
Then two nights ago, on Sept. 27, 2019, Kanye premiered the film that accompanies his newest album, Jesus is King. Clearly drawing inspiration from Kubrick himself, West unleashed a project that felt eerily similar to experiencing 2001: A Space Odyssey in theaters. Visually, sonically, cinematically, the Jesus is King film was the next step of Kanye West’s artistic evolution, of his personal development.
Many film scholars consider the opening scene of 2001 to depict the “dawn of man,” one of the many steps of humankind’s development. Year by year, century by century, millennium by millennium, mankind has continually evolved, always pushing itself to break through yet another barrier into the next stage of advancement. During this first stage, man discovered how to create fire, how to build communities—and how to kill. The bone became a weapon, a tool for further development.
The massive jump in time is meant to highlight how far man has progressed…yet how the prospect of progression remains equally daunting. Man in 2019 is far more advanced than the apes from millions of years ago—yet, our accomplishments millions of years from now will dwarf our discoveries from today. Each stage of development is a brief stop in time, a step towards the next stage of our collective evolution.
Inherently, the promise of that evolution carries with it some metaphysical and religious elements. Is our progression meaningful? Where does it lead? Are we in complete control? Or is some supernatural force guiding us?
Kubrick acknowledged these philosophical questions in an interview with Rolling Stone, in which he said:
“On the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God . . . The film revolves around this metaphysical conception, and the realistic hardware and the documentary feelings about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.”
The search for God. That ever-present dilemma that has plagued man since the dawn of time still exists today—and it especially continues with Kanye West. And some select audiences got to witness his continued search in the form of the Jesus is King Experience.
But deciphering what’s being expressed on both the Jesus is King album and film requires us to go back in time a bit.
The Fall of Kanye West
On Nov. 10, 2007, Donda West died as the result of surgical complications. Her death shook her son, Kanye West, to the core. That once vibrant and impossibly self-confident young man suddenly became morose, melancholic and defeated—and you could hear it in his music.
West dropped 808s & Heartbreak in in late 2008, in which he openly discussed how lost and alone he felt as one of the biggest celebrities in the world. The promise and fortune once represented…didn’t mean much anymore without the guidance his mom provided. “Coldest Winter,” the final proper song that closes out the album, made that abundantly clear:
“If spring can take the snow away/Can it melt away all of our mistakes?/Memories made in the coldest winter/Goodbye my friend I won’t ever love again/Never again.”
Almost a full 11 years later, on Sept. 28, 2019, West returned to his hometown of Chicago. Posting up at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, West played his new album Jesus is King for a few thousand lucky fans—including myself. West cycled through each track, announcing each song’s title and which artists were featured on the songs. The atmosphere was buoyant, the reaction joyful, the energy electric.
But then just before West premiered the Jesus is King film that accompanies the album, he slowed everything down. He asked everyone to be quiet as he discussed why he made the album, and how he needed to find God to become whole again. And he prefaced the entire speech by discussing his mother’s death.
West was very open about something people have said about him for years: he was lost. When Donda died, Kanye West stopped being the Kanye West many people knew and loved. He stopped being resilient College Dropout Kanye and became sullen 808s Kanye; his aunties on “Roses” and cousins in “Family Business” were replaced by women, his posse, his enablers; he went from praising God and Jesus…to becoming Yeezus.
As West stood before his hometown crowd pouring out his heart and soul, I felt the speech was less of an apology and more of an invitation—an invitation to understand Jesus is King and why he needed to create it.
The Rise of Kanye West
Full disclosure: I host a Kanye West podcast called Watching the Throne. And our main mission on that show is to make sense of the complicated narratives on West’s albums. Just like any book or film, West’s albums feature characters maneuvering through three-act structures. And the way these characters grow and change through these narratives are often a reflection of Kanye himself.
For instance, as the character “Yeezus” on the album Yeezus back in 2013, West indulged in all of the excesses celebrity offers to the nth degree—and he wasn’t going to apologize for it. But at the same time, West recognized how broken that lifestyle left him throughout the album. He may have been a larger-than-life celebrity…but he also had nobody in his life, no fulfilling relationships.
It turns out that declaring himself to be “Yeezus” had consequences. Back in 2013, West artistically explored exactly what he told that Chicago crowd on Sept. 28, 2019: he had lost his connection with God and Jesus.
In my opinion, the Jesus is King film is a cinematic representation of his realignment with God. The album will undoubtedly provide further insight, but the homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey seems undeniable. Not only does the Jesus is King film practically mimic the energy of Kubrick’s classic movie, but the religious and metaphysical predicaments Kanye was expressing during his speech to the Chicago crowd strikingly recall Kubrick’s interview with Rolling Stone.
Many believe in a resolute vision of God. He’s this or that, and in order to get into Heaven you must do this or that. God isn’t a science that can be studied and understood—he is simply a divine reality, an entity that defies our very existence. If you’re religious, if you’re a Christian, then you live in service to that God.
But Kubrick goes beyond Christianity and takes his film into outer space. He told Playboy during an interview that he didn’t believe in “any of Earth’s monotheistic religions,” but was nonetheless intrigued by the idea of a “God.” The search for God is important and can guide us down a progressive path where we grow and evolve in a meaningful way. But if there really are hundreds of billions of galaxies out there…how do we then define mankind’s minuscule existence? Don’t we need to look beyond ourselves and the environments we exist within in order to find true meaning and fulfillment?
I think that question is the true center of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jesus is King. It’s less about determining an uncompromising, universal answer to those metaphysical questions and more about finding your place within this vast, endless existence. After losing himself and his connection with God all those years, it’s clear that West is on a path to rediscover himself and his faith.
And you can see that playing out in his discography. On Yeezus, West declared himself to be a god; on The Life of Pablo, West used the story of Paul the Apostle to depict his own internal struggle to push past his demons; on ye he healed his connection with his former self and became a kid again; and on KIDS SEE GHOSTS, he closed out the album asking God to shine a light on him, to save him.
Now here we are with Jesus is King, where West is no longer Yeezus but instead a disciple of God. He has abolished the ego that once controlled his movements and has instead chosen to look within. He will no longer allow the promise of stardom and rules of society to dictate his being—he will become a master of his own space.
It’s no surprise then that Jesus is King opens with aerial images that mimic Kubrick’s 2001. West ‘s film starts with a shot that slowly pans upwards towards the heavens, revealing a circular crater he built to house a gospel choir. Over the past year, West has employed a gospel choir to sing his musical compositions at his Sunday Services. They often sing traditional hymns, but many times they also remix West’s own songs. By doing this, West has artistically and symbolically reinterpreted his own discography to be more in line with God.
That journey will be reflected on Jesus is King the album. The film aligns Kanye’s Sunday Service craters with Kubrick’s cinematic capture of outer space and the religious questions that come with those images. Thus, the accompanying album will carry that energy. The soundscape is heavenly and open; the bars are rich with religious images and references; the vision is clear, the future is promising. He’s committing to moving forward.
It’s not that West is putting his past behind him—it’s just that he’s ready for the next step in his evolution.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.