Kanye West’s artistic journey has been a fascinating ride. He’s arguably the most significant artist of the last 20 years — a cultural icon who has firmly established himself at the forefront of Western social discourse.
What do we make of Kanye’s journey? Is this latest turn a marketing scheme? Or is Kanye an exhausted, complicated, intimately self-aware soul authentically desperate to find a savior beyond himself and the world of celebrity he’s existed in over the last 20 years?
Kanye burst onto the scene in 2004 with his universally acclaimed debut album, The College Dropout, a work that diverged from the gangster ethos of early-aughts hip hop to touch on issues of materialism, religion, self-consciousness and family . Yet Kanye’s rise to stardom was soon intertwined with controversy and criticism, whether because of strange public outbursts or bizarre social stances. Recently, for example, he sparked appropriate uproar by saying the slavery of African Americans for 400 years “sounds like a choice,” while his odd alignment with Donald Trump caused many to question his motives, if not his very sanity.
In many ways, Kanye’s life exemplifies what Charles Taylor describes as the “cross pressures” of living in a secular age, where we are “buffered” from the transcendence of celebrity and popularity and yet perpetually haunted by it.
Kanye’s life has been marked by some of the hardest-to-penetrate “buffers” our age has to offer: fame, wealth, significance. All his studio albums have gone platinum. He’s created a high-end fashion line. He’s married into American entertainment royalty. And Kanye has never been shy of boasting about his worldly success. His 2013 album Yeezus even featured a track titled “I Am a God.”
To many, Kanye is as close to a human “deity” as we’ve had in Western culture since the turn of the millenia — a man largely noted for his vision, genius and artistry, and yet one who has always seemed uniquely aware of his obvious humanness.
In spite of his self-proclaimed “god” status, Kanye has always struggled to find peace. His 2016 Yeezus follow up, The Life of Pablo, opens with “Ultralight Beam,” where he states: But I’m looking for more / Somewhere to feel safe, and end my holy war.
Whether we’re famous or not, we are often entrenched within our “buffers” of hubris, fame, and fortune. The pangs of “more” always haunt us. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of Kanye, “There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond Kanye, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.”
Kanye’s erratic life and career speaks of this inability to withstand the weight — not only of celebrity, but of self-reliance and self-justification in any form. Whatever else we might say of Kanye’s music and public persona, we can at least see an honesty and vulnerability at play within him: he knows he’s not perfect, he knows he’s not God, and he knows he’s not okay — and he’s doesn’t hide these realizations behind a Public Relations facade. That deserves immeasurable respect— how many of us would sell our souls at the slightest hint of fame? It appears Kanye refuses to do so, no matter how close he got in the past.
A few moments in Kanye’s life seem to have particularly jolted him, poking holes in the walls of his intrinsic transcendence. In 2007, at the height of his stardom, Kanye’s mother, Donda West, died from plastic-surgery complications. This tragedy sent Kanye into a place of darkness, reflected in the agonized autotune laments of his 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak. On “Coldest Winter,” Kanye sings: Goodbye my friend / I won’t ever love again, ever again. For Kanye and anyone who’s touched it closely, death is the ultimate disturber of mere worldly peace. Fame, money, sex and power — it’s all meaningless, dust in the wind.
In 2013, another moment of enlightenment hit Kanye when his first daughter, North, was born. Among other things, this life-changing event seemed to trigger a sort of moral awakening in Kanye. Often criticized for his music’s misogynistic depiction of women, Kanye has recently moved away from objectifying women through his lyrics. In “Violent Crimes,” the last track of 2018’s Ye, Kanye prays: Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma / Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer.
And that brings us to Jesus Is King, a remarkably worshipful collection of hip-hop psalms that captures who Kanye has become: a man solely focused on Jesus — a “Christian everything,” as he told Jimmy Kimmel.
Regardless of your view on faith, religion or celebrity, the album is Kanye at his sonic best — he samples nostalgic, soulful records with layers of choirs and harmonies, a distinct change from the darker mood of his recent albums.
Lyrically, Kanye reminds us of the best aspects of contemporary Christian artists from the ’90s without their cheesy, out-of-touch, culturally illiterate flaws. Opening track “Every Hour” begins with a Kanye-less choir repeating over and over: Sing, till the power of the Lord comes down. Other tracks, like “Water,” carry this repetitive structure; like many who have gone through similar heartfelt spiritual seasons, he can’t stop worshipping. On “Selah,” he references Scripture to describe his newfound freedom in Christ: Ye should be made free, John 8:36 / To whom the Son set free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me.
The album’s simple, enthusiastic lyrics manifest a refreshingly straightforward, childlike faith that wants to be shared with the world. It’s the exact opposite you’d expect from a complicated, intellectual “Goliath” like Kanye. But then again, maybe he was a complicated, intellectual “David” all along.
Anticipating critiques from skeptics, especially judgmental ones from within the Christian church, Kanye raps on “Hands On”: Said I’m finna do a Gospel album / ‘What have you been hearing from the Christians?’ / They’ll be the first ones to judge me, make it feel like nobody love me.
Indeed, many Christians are quick to be skeptical about claims of extraordinary conversion. Culture, the world, and celebrity are exclusively evil, some of us say, so those intimately involved within these spheres are evil too. Yet the Scriptures — and Christian history — are rife with stories of those who lived lives outside the confines of Christian morals and ethics (the demon-possessed, the Pharisees, the apostle Paul, and many more) and yet who were completely and utterly transformed into energetic champions of the faith.
Rather than seeing Kanye as a fraud, should we instead see him as the tax collector? And can we, as Christians, give Kanye what he asks for: Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me / Please, please pray for me.
So what can we learn from the curious case of Kanye? Even as we shouldn’t elevate the significance of his story or claim him as some sort of new evangelical celebrity, we can constructively reflect on what Kanye’s conversion says about how complicated, transformed souls come to faith in our secular age.
We might reflect on how the triggers of sorrow and family, trauma and existential dread play a role in shaking up one’s spiritual evolution. How can Christians and the church be there for people in these seasons, offering hope in Christ and a community of real, meaningful support? We might also reflect on how we preach the gift of the gospel — that releases burdens regardless of how famous you are or what you earn — to a world where people are weighed down and exhausted by various, often social media-driven and unimaginably intense pressures: to perform, to be accepted, to become gods of our own making, to define (and constantly redefine) ourselves in expressive and novel ways — the idea that what we wear, what we say, what we create and what we brand ourselves as aesthetically is who we truly are.
Kanye can’t bear that crushing weight. No human can. And now, it seems, he’s made it his mission to teach others that they don’t have to bear it, either.