Fifteen years ago, I, Andrew Gaug, a fan of music who struggled to connect my Christian faith with its faith-based genre, came across a song that bridged that gap.
It was by a relatively unknown Chicago rapper named Kanye West talking about the struggles of faith, temptation, how Jesus is for everyone — including strippers, murderers and the poor. It was called “Jesus Walks.”
Coupled with the single’s equally evocative follow up, “All Falls Down,” I was a West fan for years. Then he went off the rails multiple times. His career became a veritable “Choose Your Own Reason for Cancellation” (Saying “Slavery was a choice,” rampant misogyny, the awards interruptions). And his music suffered. Even now, as I contemplate by Best Albums of the Decade list, I hesitate to put his opus, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” on top, because his behavior has bled so much into his music.
Fast forward to 2019. Earlier this year, West made a hard turn into gospel, mere months after gaining one of his biggest hits, “I Love It” with Lil Pump (Sample lyric: “I’m a sick (expletive)/I like a quick (expletive). I like my (expletive) (suggestive word). I’ll buy you a sick truck”). He began performing invite-only gospel shows with a choir named The Samples called “Sunday Service.”
While it was easy to write it off as another Kanye stunt, an out for him after the slavery comments, his exploration of faith has stuck around long enough to create a No. 1 album, “Jesus Is King,” a 27-minute-long ode to Jesus and rediscovering Christianity.
The album channels some Chicago-style gospel with West’s mixture of rapping and auto-tuned singing. The faith portion of it is very surface level, quoting scripture and singing generalities about Jesus saving Kanye. There’s also weird lines about the IRS and Kanye justifying his studio rates so his family, one that’s worth more than $1 billion, won’t starve, that are completely out of place.
Far be it for me to question someone’s faith. That’s too intricate and personal to judge from the outside. But listening to “Jesus Is King,” I don’t get the pain, conviction and intimacy that I felt with “Jesus Walks,” where an intro like “We at war with terrorism, racism/But most of all we at war with ourselves” cuts to the core of the message and a line like “I wanna talk to God/but I’m afraid/’cause we ain’t spoke in so long” that wallops you with its desperation. Instead, it has the dryness of someone quoting you Bible verses out of context.
West has always had a history with gospel, from his debut “The College Dropout” to the song “Ultralight Beam,” which had him feature a choir and gospel superstar Kirk Franklin on “Saturday Night Live” a few years ago. But like many hip-hop stars, he’s tempered his messages about faith with more secular, profane tunes. Take Snoop Dogg, who released a gospel album this year and then — well, we all saw that University of Kansas performance.
West’s has taken more of a hard-line stance in expressing his faith, with “Jesus Is King” being his first album to be free of profanity and references to sex. He’s also vowed to strip all of his past songs of any swear words when he performs them live.
So far, it’s worked out for his career, reaching No. 1 on the Top 200 albums. It immediately ignited tons of discussion online.
Whether this move is to cover his problematic tracks or is truly a product of his convictions remains to be seen. If it’s the latter, it would be the biggest shift in tone for a modern music superstar and the biggest thing to happen to faith-based music since the Christian music boom of the ’90s.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live