Can you imagine going through life being constantly scrutinized and subjected for every mistake you have ever made? Kanye West is the prime example of such an instance, and has put all of his faults and weaknesses in the forefront of his new project, ‘Jesus Is King.’ He accepts any wrongdoing and acknowledges that one can change and follow a new way of life, if they follow the ways of Jesus the Messiah. Through this transition, he highlights the importance of non-judgement and the acceptance of all people. With JIK, he essentially provides a remarkably worshipful collection of hip-hop psalms that captures who Kanye has become: a man solely focused on Jesus. Mr. West’s life exemplifies the cross pressures of living in a secular age, where he has been constantly antagonized for what he has said and done in the spotlight. Thus, with the weighing down of fame, wealth, and significance, it is possible that he is merely an exhausted soul authentically desperate to find a savior beyond himself, that person being the lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Mr. West has been one of the most polarizing figures of our contemporary culture. After constant artistic reinvention and personal growth, he has found faith in the Christian community and ways of the Gospel. Moreover, he explores the ideas of salvation and emphasizes the importance of accepting Christ as light; through the intertwinement of scripture and personal anecdotes, he justifies these beliefs and makes a compelling case for his newfound way of life.
Most recently, I was lucky enough to secure tickets for Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” experience at The Forum in Los Angeles. This came after the release of his highly anticipated album, which is strictly gospel music with references to passages from the Bible as well as other religious undertones. There is a terrific line on the second track, “Selah,” which states the following, “they say the week start on Monday, but the strong start on Sunday.” With that said, I believe that captures the tone of the event perfectly; to be quite clear, it was one of the most powerful and transcendental experiences of my life. What occurred over the next two hours was captivating sounds, emotions, and dancing. Mr. West and his right hand director swayed and choreographed strategic movements that flowed flawlessly with the music. As far as the music goes, it was a collection of horns, percussion, and organs that could not have sounded any better. The constant themes in each song were eternal life, gratitude, and the proclamation as Jesus as King and Savior. Everyone from Mr. West to the choir sang were giving praise at the top of their lungs, with intensity and full force that almost seemed cinematic at times. It was emphatic, proud, and the very best aspects of unapologetic African-American gospel music. It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and even with myself not being a devout Christian, I still felt very holy and righteous in that moment in time; it could’ve been the spirit being transmitted to us all.
In regards to how Mr. West perceived the Kingdom should be expressed, I would have to say that this particular experience blew me away. For example, there are many lines from Mr. West’s new songs that allude to passages from the Bible. For one, again in “Selah,” he says, “Won’t be in bondage to any man, John 8:33. We [are] the descendants of Abraham, Ye should be made free. John 8:36, to whom the son set free is free indeed.” It is here that Jesus tells his audience that if they hold to his teaching and are truly his disciples, then they will know the truth and “the truth will set you free.” On another track titled “Closed on Sunday,” there is a clever line that goes, “watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate,” referencing Matthew 3:7. The Bible often associates snakes with evil people. In fact, Christians and Jews believe the serpent in the Book of Genesis is a manifestation of Satan. Furthermore, John the Baptist calls the teachers of his day “vipers.” These are just a handful of examples among many songs that were performed during this event. In retrospect, I love that the contemporary world can coexist with ancient teachings; it was made apparent to me that Church can be lively and meaningful at the same time. To conclude, this Sunday Service that Mr. West put on depicted exactly what I would like for Church to be: something that is not only knowledgeable and spreads a good message, but is also accessible for people of all walks of life, just as Jesus would have wanted. This is the utmost Christ-like approach to the spreading of the Gospel, by showing no judgement but rather sharing love and good intention with all.
Through the years, West has strayed from trends and broken pavement on what contemporary music can sound like. For instance, his art reflects the limitless versatility of the human voice yoked with technology. His unstable persona has highlighted something similar—maybe scarier—about the human soul. But if West’s shtick has been about freedom, it’s also been about taming (Kornhaber, 2019). This most recent transformation as a born-again Christian is a reflection of the taming and tranquility that West has undergone. However, it is not as dramatic a change as it may seem; West has been naturally progressing towards this point for quite some time now, in the form of a long narrative. With 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus, he vented about his selfishness and lust as he geared up for marriage. The dirty gospel of 2016’s The Life of Pablo and bipolar-pride riffs of 2018’s Ye then saw him straining to reconcile family with his inner hedonist. “I been living without limits,” he said on Pablo’s “FML,” but as the title of that song indicated, his old life was now, in a phrase, forgetful. Three years later, after lunging into a bout of simplistic delusions, he’s more fully embraced Christianity’s rules, including by swearing off swearing. For the most part, West has understood Christianity as an engine of innovation for the human voice. In the black church, the sorrow and hope of slave spirituals were institutionalized and embossed into works through which soloists could reach seemingly unthinkable heights with the firm anchoring of a community (Kornhaber, 2019). Ultimately, Jesus Is King depicts one man’s faith journey, as well as his continuing Messiah complex—even as he professes new humility.
With change also comes reaction such as backlash, as is the case with Mr. West’s newfound faith. On Jesus Is King, Kanye West depicts himself as a lonely martyr barred from the Christian kingdom (Chow, 2019). “They’ll be the first one to judge me / Make it feel like nobody love me,” he says of Christians in “Hands On.” In another track, “Selah,” he compares himself to a Biblical patriarch: “Before the flood, people judge / They did the same thing to Noah.” West has certainly received a fair amount of backlash for his hard turn toward spiritual music. On Twitter, blog posts and published articles, black Christians have frequently accused West of hypocrisy and commodification — especially given his support of Donald Trump and his eyebrow-raising comment that slavery “sounds like a choice.” On the other hand, West has also received a groundswell of support — particularly from gospel artists themselves. Many of these musicians believe that no matter what they think about West’s politics, it’s more important that a prominent artist with an enormous reach is relying on gospel traditions to talk fervently about God (Chow, 2019). “The traditional Christian church has always frowned upon anything that is new and innovative,” Richard Smallwood, the renowned gospel singer and songwriter, tells TIME. “He’s singing about Jesus Christ and God—and that, to me, is the bottom line.” So while West paints “the Christians” as a monolith, in actuality his spiritual recommitment has opened up fissures in the black Christian community, with listeners on both sides believing that Jesus Is King has the potential to be a turning point for gospel music — for better or worse.
While the album’s sound and subject material stray from traditional gospel, his prominent predecessors say West’s modernizations are not only musically intriguing but essential toward the genre’s evolution. But Jesus Is King has been received coolly online, with many critics both inside and outside of the Christian community dismissing West’s pledges of faith as surface-level and disingenuous. Alicia Crosby, a minister, educator and activist, says that several key gospel elements—including musical underpinnings and sorrowful narratives—are wholly missing from the work. “You can have ‘Hallelujahs’ on a track, but it doesn’t make it gospel,” she says. “It’s weak theology, it’s not substantive, it’s not glorifying. This will confuse white audiences about what the gospel is and isn’t.” Countless controversial and disgraced black celebrities, from Michael Jackson to O.J. Simpson, have returned to the black church at strategic times in order to reclaim support from the community. Many disagree with some of West’s politics and comments. But they are willing to overlook those differences, given how West is using his enormous reach to preach Christianity to a younger and unfamiliar audience (Chow, 2019). Despite whether black Christians embrace or reject West, he wins either way. At the end of the day, artists have to ascribe to what will make sure their product is consumed, even if it’s by people who are ridiculing it. One could say the album’s provocations and contradictions are all that he needs to get people to listen.
To some, it’s a marketing grab from one of this century’s most overrated bigots. For others, it’s a humbling surrender from a husband and father who has finally found his peace with Jesus. For long-time Kanye West fans, however, ‘Jesus Is King’ has always been knocking on the door. And now here we are, recipients of a gospel album from an artist whose spiritual journey has played itself out in public for over 15 years. What really stands out is how much activated faith there is throughout the album. Through reflections on Scripture, such as “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, not divide” (On God); songs of thankfulness (‘Everything We Need’); samples that repeat prayers of petition (“Father, I stretch / Stretch my hands to you” on ‘Follow God’) and outright praise and worship led by Kanye’s Sunday Service Choir (‘Every Hour’), ‘Jesus Is King’ is curated into a vibrant yet still contemplative outpouring of newfound faith in which the power and grace of God take centre stage. Despite still referring to himself as ”The greatest artist restin’ or alive” (‘On God’) and fearing judgment from Christians who won’t accept his newfound faith (“What have you been hearing from the Christians? / They’ll be the first ones to judge me” on ‘Hands On’), ‘Jesus Is King’ focuses much more on Jesus than it does on Kanye, and, for anyone who identifies with the younger brother from Luke 15, the tone of the songs will be starkly familiar.
From start to finish, this isn’t just a Kanye album that attempts to do gospel music. “Jesus Is King” carries with it the loosened joyful noise of a prodigal returned home: and the family should celebrate (Driscoll, 2019). In Christian circles, people have been talking about the album and, as one can expect, opinions have been drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives. What is rather consistent are the bars from the album’s second track, ‘Selah’; “Won’t be in bondage to any man, John 8:33 / We the descendants of Abraham / Ye should be made free / John 8:36 Whom the son sets free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me!” Time may prove me wrong, but I’m praying expectantly that this apparent seed of faith would bear fruit to salvation in the life of Kanye West, and even though it seems rather odd to pray for him, if you consider yourself a redeemed “wretch like me,” you might as well too. After all, as the closing lyrics of Jesus Is King read, drawing from Philippians 2:10-11; “Every knee shall bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus is Lord” (‘Jesus Is Lord’).
- Chow, A. R. (2019, November 6). Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’ Divides the Christian Community. Retrieved from https://time.com/5716576/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-gospel-reaction/.
- Driscoll, F. (2019, October 30). ‘It’s On God!’ An Analysis of Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’ – The Gospel Coalition: Australia. Retrieved from https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/god-analysis-kanye-wests-jesus-king/.
- Kornhaber, S. (2019, October 29). Kanye West Strains His Voice on ‘Jesus Is King’. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/kanye-wests-jesus-king-stunning-spiritual-empty-album-review/600919/.