Our hope for renewal in Kanye’s Jesus is King
It’s been four months since Kanye West released Jesus is King.
Where are we now?
When Jesus is King was released, there was speculation that it could be the beginning of a transformative moment for popular music. It seemed an Augustinian image: West transforming an album titled Yandhi—Yeezy as Ghandi, a profound expression of self-adulation—into something as externally focused as Jesus is King, an album where West states “I bow down to the King upon the throne / My life is His, I’m no longer my own.” Has it achieved what so many commentators hoped it might? Four months later, I’m not sure we can say.
There are moments of King that lift you towards hope. He reminds us to “worship Christ with the best of your portion,” and to “follow Jesus, [to] listen and obey.” Kanye presents a posture of shocking humility and his lyrics paint a picture of a broken man who has found the yoke that will make him whole.
His outside commentaries are consistent with this view. He proclaims in the album that for every man and every woman “there is freedom from addiction” in Christ. When asked in an interview what his greatest challenges were in his stardom, Kanye immediately responded that it was his sex and pornography addiction. This is a shocking confession from a man so awash in a culture that sells sex as its most widely-peddled internet commodity; shocking not that the addiction existed, but that he was willing to speak so candidly about it.
“This ain’t ‘bout a dead religion,” Kanye sings. It’s about a living faith. In “God Is,” Kanye drops the thesis of this album. Through an incessant and heartfelt sung prayer, his heart leaps out and shouts: “I know God is alive.” God is alive! He lives in us and in His Church, and his Word and Sacrament are life. Kanye lifts up this truth.
There are moments of King that make you question if your hope is well-placed. The Prosperity Gospel Christianity which pervades the lives of the religious cultural elite may have come to roost in the sonic rafters of West’s album. I’ll make this point clear now: I would never stand to doubt someone’s religious convictions. I believe Kanye when he says “I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup.” My concern is that this belief has been tainted by an unwelcome perversion of Christ’s Good News that radically transforms key aspects of the Christian life.
I’m thinking of moments like “Water,” where in the middle of a litany of supplication asking Jesus to “heal… forgive… [and] reveal,” Ant Clemons takes a moment to add the prayer, “Jesus, give us wealth.” This is all-the-more jarring when you actually listen to it; the prayers are heartfelt on the record, and quasi-liturgical in their formulation, when all of the sudden there is material desire. It’s telling that this prayer comes so surreptitiously; this is not a Prosperity Gospel album, but it might be an album subtly influenced by that theology.
The reason I’m concerned about the Gospel of Wealth reaches back to a moment from a James Corden Carpool Karaoke. Well, Carpool Karaoke isn’t quite it; it was Airplane Karaoke on West’s private jet. In the midst of beautiful reflections on his Christian faith, Kanye remarks to Corden that God is using him to show off. That alone wouldn’t raise too many red flags, but then West specifies that he is showing off by allowing Kanye to get 68 million dollars back on his tax returns. He attributes this directly to his newfound faith. This echoes a line from On God; “The IRS want they fifty plus our tithe / Man, that’s over half the pie / I felt dry, that’s on God.” I want to believe that that line is more about Kanye’s politics as opposed to his faith, but the Corden episode makes me hesitate. Kanye’s reflections on his faith are beautiful and, I believe, authentic. Nonetheless, Christian culture must be vigilant in what it consumes, especially when the poison might not float on the surface.
“What’ve you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first ones to judge me.” Kanye, you have been doubted and accused, and that hurts. On the part of many Christians, there is hesitancy and cynicism in seeing parts of our world transformed for Christ in a radical way; there are a lot of us out there that are wary when presented with radical conversion because it just doesn’t happen that often. And you know it too, Ye. “Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah / But I have a request, you see / Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me / Please, pray for me.” So, I’ll take you up on your request, Kanye. I’ll be praying for you, and I’ll ask that you might pray for me. Because when it comes down to it, the way we renew our culture is through prayer to our loving God. Give us Your grace, Lord! Let it crash over us like water.
Zach Pearson is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies, with a double major in vocal performance. He was first asked to write this article in October, and is incredibly lucky his ever-patient co-editor puts up with him. Chastise him at firstname.lastname@example.org.