By Jason Lee, TD ’22. Jason is majoring in Global Affairs.
I want to start by saying that my good friend predicted that Kanye West would put out a gospel album long before we heard anything about “Jesus is King”. I was blindsided. We were, after all, talking about a person who sloughed off his “slave name” for his “god name” just a handful of years ago. So to hear first the friends in my ministry, my home pastor, then my parents talk about Kanye West’s new album was, simply put, rather jarring.
I’m not here to talk about quality. The general verdict seems to be that “Jesus is King” is a refreshing “Christian” album but a mediocre Kanye album that speaks more to the scope of contemporary gospel music than to anything else. The point is that whatever artistry Kanye commands, he’s had a tumultuous relationship with his faith. Among his most acclaimed works is “Jesus Walks”, in which he espouses a deep devotion to Christ amidst life’s many maladies:
God show me the way because the Devil’s tryna break me down
(Jesus walk with me)
The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now”
Yeezus’s “I am a God” is (despite the title) more ambiguous, featuring the rapper simultaneously claiming both his own divinity and his surrender to the Lord in a way that still leaves me with a vaguely heretical aftertaste. In between and outside these two songs, sexism abounds, as does a marked irreverence for the civil rights movement — both on and off track — and a, let’s say, superfluous amount of self-love.
It’s difficult to suppress a giggle whenever anyone brings up “Jesus is King” because it listens like an unequivocal declaration of repentance and rebirth from a man who, lyrics aside, seems to have lived much of his life as his own idol. It seems absurd. Perhaps it is only an ingenious marketing ploy, a sharp musical inflection to enliven his work as Kanye has done in the past. If so, it’s been a roaring success. We have Christians talking about Kanye West at the mild expense of Tim Keller, whose book, also Jesus is King, has been exiled to somewhere beyond the 15th page of search results. As much as we now play him, West has played us.
But then, we have seen genuine dramatic conversions before. So say it is genuine: if Kanye truly has reformed, is it any more dramatic of a return than our own conversions? It’s dangerous to treat divorce from God as a matter of degrees. We too, once lived lives separate from the Lord. For me at least, it isn’t fair to say I was not, or do not at times continue to be, as hypocritical, erratic, or mercurial in my commitment to the Lord, or as allured by the temptations of my own environment as any artist adrift in wealth and fame. This would be nothing more than a masked type of pride.
Still assuming this is indeed a true turn to Christ, while we have much to praise, there is also much to pray for. Kanye is still saying things like “I’m the greatest human artist alive” in the same breath he thanks the Lord for humbling him. Kanye still very much loves Kanye. Even setting matters of pride aside, his recent comments describing American slavery as “a choice” ensure the road to public redemption, and any serious attempt at advocacy, remain arduously long.
But this isn’t really just about Kanye. Rather than just talk about one artist, I feel this could be an opportunity to reevaluate what we mean when we say “Christian” music. While “Jesus is King” is unique in its authorial context, I wonder to what extent it differs from what other secular rap/R&B/hip-hop artists (or at least, artists not thought of as primarily Christian) have been doing for a while. Or rather, do we lose anything when we distinguish between music that is gospel/gospel-adjacent (that is, 2019 Kanye), and music that engages gospel, say, Kendrick Lamar?
Surely the work of Kendrick Lamar who, despite the agitation of the rest of the album, opens good kid, m.A.A.d city with a prayer—
“Lord God, I come to you a sinner
And I humbly repent for my sins
I believe that Jesus is Lord
I believe that you raised him from the dead
I will ask that Jesus will come to my life
And be my Lord and Savior
I receive Jesus to take control of my life
And that I may live for him from this day forth
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood
In Jesus’ name, Amen”
–can embolden us in our own agitated commitments, just as well as any gospel of hope? From DAMN., the track “FEAR.” weighs upon one’s throat like any lamentation of Job’s. Perhaps To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Alright” delivers a blunt statement of hope —
“Nazareth, I’m fucked up
Homie, you fucked up
But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”
–that resonates better than other hymns with certain defeated spiritual states. If nothing else, surely the rest of the album with its turbulent, furious search for higher meaning as it relates to identity, trauma, resilience, race, death, hope, sex, mortality, and the fallen world —
“He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free
You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss—I am God”
–surely this mirrors and engages our own desperate pursuit of the Lord?
So to answer my own question, “Do we lose anything?”, I’d say: not necessarily. However, it helps us to keep in mind that traditional “Christian” music doesn’t hold a monopoly over either the desires of faith or bearing witness to God’s glory. Until now I’ve focused on rap, but I’m sure an argument can be made for “Country Roads” as a celebration of creation. Secular music that sings to our souls can, in some sense, be just as Christian as any “Christian” song, and nourish our faith accordingly.
This isn’t to say all such distinctions are meaningless. I’m hardly advocating for Sunday Lamar in the cathedral, or Kanye during communion. Acknowledging that Kendrick’s purposes extend beyond solely the expression of his faith, while by no means detracting from his work, illustrates the need for some sort of delineation. Our methods of worship and praise should be reserved to those wholly devoted to such a purpose.
I am speaking rather to our own listening habits. Whether or not you buy, in both senses of the word, Kanye West, “Jesus is King” has already served its purpose by getting us to review, faithfully, our musical intake. If you don’t buy anything I’ve said thus far, that’s okay — take this then as a reminder to seek the Lord even in the most unlikely of places, even our playlists. I leave you with this benediction-adjacent passage from BROCKHAMPTON’s latest album, Ginger, song “NO HALO”:
“Used to fight all my night terrors, now I smoke through the dreams
Depression put me into places where I’m stuck in the seams
They sealed my mouth and said the only way to breathe is to scream
Pop the stitches from society and fall to my knees
The machines weavin’ our fate are gettin’ harder to please
But I believe to an extreme
(That we all can find a way)
To anybody listenin’ that’s in between
(That we all can find a way)”