London is more religious than the rest of the country. This research project seeks to map and analyse this phenomenon. (2020)
Nathan Mladin reviews Kanye West’s album Jesus is King. 03/12/2019
I still remember that round of Forehead Detective in 2015. Written in large letters on a post–it note stuck to my forehead was the name Kanye West. In a room full of cool kids, I was the bore who had never heard of the guy.
I’ve since got down with the kids, as they say, but I won’t judge you if you haven’t heard that in the last year or so, the millionaire rapper, producer and fashion designer has undergone a dramatic religious awakening. His latest album, Jesus is King marks a decisive turn to faith for the flamboyant celebrity. Here is why you shouldn’t roll your eyes and move on.
Faith has never been entirely absent from Kanye West’s music and life. From the wistful “I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid”, in ‘Jesus Walks’ (2004), to the defiant ‘I am a God’ in Yeezus (2013), and through to the moving prayer that is ‘Ultralight Beam’ in The Life of Pablo (2016), West has consistently wrestled with God and the life of faith in his music. But it is in the last year that Kanye has gone full tilt towards God and the Christian faith.
First there was the Sunday Service. These were, initially, hush–hush pop–up concerts cum worship events cum ‘church for celebrities’ featuring West, cherry picked guests, and a full gospel choir. The footage posted on social media revealed it as uncannily reminiscent of spirited revival meetings. According to his wife, Sunday Service was for West an exercise in ‘healing’ after a number of tumultuous years and bad experiences, including a huge debt overhang and a mental breakdown. It went mainstream when West headlined Coachella, one of the world’s most famous music festivals, on Easter Sunday. Today, the Sunday Service is a permanent fixture in West’s performances, including his recent appearance at Joel Osteen’s mega–church in Lakewood, California, and an impromptu concert at Harris County Jail, a high–security prison in Texas.
The rapper’s latest album, Jesus is King,was released in October. It marks a natural progression of the Sunday Service experiment and is a milestone in his spiritual journey. At just under 30 minutes, Jesus is King is Kanye’s most explicitly Christian album to date, “a remarkably worshipful collection of hip–hop psalms”, as one writer put it. It delivers a blend of deep grooves, rich harmonies – particularly when the amazing gospel choir swells up – and catchy tunes. ‘Closed on Sunday’, with its carol–like haunting counterpoint, is a personal favourite, closely followed by ‘God Is’. Compared to other albums of his, Jesus is King is stripped back. The lyrics are earnest. Statements of faith abound. The register shifts often between confessional (“Wrestlin’ with God, I don’t really want to wrestle”), exhortative, and declaratory (“This ain’t ‘bout a dead religion. Jesus brought a revolution. All the captives are forgiven.”) You’ll also find lyrics that anticipate scepticism and judgement, particularly from Christians: “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first one to judge me. Make it feel like nobody love me…” But these are followed by an honest admission and a request for prayer: “I deserve all the criticism you got… To sing of change, you think I’m joking. To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking. Yes, I understand your reluctance. But I have a request… Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me. Please, pray for me”. There is a joyful simplicity and disarming earnestness about the whole album.
That said, there are plenty of troubling things about Kanye West. There is the solemn self–importance – he sees himself and his family as a modern–day House of Medici, providentially raised and rewarded for God to ‘show off’ in the world. There are the strong and jarring ‘health and wealth’ elements that come through in his music (“Jesus give us wealth”) and public appearances, most recently through his association with prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen. Finally, there is the deployment of Christian motifs for commercial purposes – a $250 ‘Holy Spirit’ crewneck, anyone? In light of all this, I completely understand why many write him off without blinking. Ultimately, however, I think this is a mistake.
West’s expressions of faith are perplexing at times, deeply troubling on others. Wariness is warranted and discernment needed. But as Katherine Ajibade has shown in an earlier Theos piece, West’s rediscovery of Christianity, and the person of Jesus specifically, fits into a broader pattern of celebrities who have been on a similar journey, now engaging openly with the heart of the Christian faith. Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, Selena Gomez, Stormzy, and now Kanye are just some of the high–profile artists today in the West who are arguably opening up a space and creating permissions for millennials, and possibly others as well, to engage with Christianity afresh. This is an important development and an alternative to both a rigid “ol’ time religion” and the pick–and–choose, Eastern–flavoured spirituality which is much more fashionable today. I for one welcome this. The landscape, or soundscape I should say, is messy. Echoes of grace mix discordantly with the jangle of bling. But what cannot be denied is that the allegedly secular West remains haunted, as Charles Taylor famously put it. The “immanent frame”’ reverberates with rumours of grace and there are plenty such rumours in Jesus is King.
Image credit: Shaheen Karolia
Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of several Theos publications, including ‘Religious London: Faith in a Global City’ (with Paul Bickley), ‘Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter’ (with Barbara Ridpath), and a chapter on Václav Havel in ‘The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God’ (Biteback, 2017).
Posted 3 December 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.