Rapper Kanye West’s much-anticipated latest album Jesus Is King dropped yesterday to the howls of critics and, as is to be expected of a medium designed to give electronic voice to the reactionary, social media.
Kanye West has made no secret of his support for President Donald Trump, and his fans and critics alike were prepared to overlook this sin as it was suggested in thinly veiled commentary to be the effect of a mental illness. This, it was reasoned, could be the only explanation for Kanye’s support for the president since, as we all know, only mentally ill people disagree with the perfectly sensible agenda of Democrats.
But in recent weeks, West has confessed to committing another, and far worse, sin in the eyes of those who embrace the cultural Left.
Kanye West has confirmed reports of his conversion to Christianity.
In the Independent’s live blog on the rollout of this album, Roisin O’Connor and Clémence Michallon repeatedly excoriated West for urging people to save sex for marriage, and they wasted no time in giving the album 2 out of 5 stars. Writes O’Connor, “[The album] reminds you of the preachers on street corners shouting at passers-by that they’re going to hell — you feel uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed on their behalf.”
The logic? West’s 2016 song “Famous,” in which he calls Taylor Swift a “bitch” and predicts that he will have sex with her, that’s classic rap — both Time and Slant named it one of the best songs of the year — but urging people to save themselves for marriage? Now that’s offensive.
But that’s not all. To the shock and horror of (some) fans and critics, the lyrics and tenor of the Jesus Is King album suggest that Kanye is actually taking his conversion to Christianity seriously and, in the words of USA Today’s Patrick Ryan, “The music sounds as if West picked up a Bible yesterday, took everything at face value and decided to make an album about it.”
Writers, God no less than others, generally do want to be taken at face value, and that, it seems, is Kanye’s great offense here. To make use of Jesus lyrically for purposes of social commentary like Queen did, for an artistic flourish like Murray Head did, or for trivializing the man many regard as the Son of God with feel-good hippie music like the Doobie Brothers did, well, that’s art, and it’s perfectly commendable.
But that’s not what Kanye is doing here. West’s Jesus is to be taken seriously because his Jesus is, in the words of one of the album’s central songs, the “King of Kings.” That this just so happens to be a biblical phrase that he apparently takes “at face value” is, for reviewers such as these anyway, problematic. The Kanye who sang “I am a god” was a much more likable guy.
The religious — no, the Christian — conversion of famous musicians is hardly unique. On the contrary, West stands in the mainstream of a long tradition of similar conversions.
Heavy metal rocker Alice Cooper is open and humble about his faith: “My father was a pastor, my grandfather was an evangelist. I grew up in the church, went as far away as I could from it — almost died — and then came back to the church.”
Kerry Livgren of Kansas, the songwriter behind the thoughtful classics “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind,” says his music reflected his search for meaning that he finally found.
The iconic Johnny Cash, who, like Cooper and Livgren, hit rock bottom and decided he “needed to get right with God.”
Bono and his Irish bandmates in U2 met in a Bible study and are very open about their faith in Jesus Christ. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” Bono sings in Psalm 40, “He inclined and heard my cry.”
And Bob Dylan made a foray into that religion with the release of his 1979 album Slow Train Coming.
There are many more: the late Glen Campbell, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, Korn’s Brian “Head” Welch, Metallica’s Dave Mustaine, and so on. And all of them sought to bring their new faith into their music in some form or another.
So Kanye is a bit late to the musical conversion party if it is his intention — and there is no indication that it is — to be a pioneer in this artistic field in this particular way. I mean, Johann Sebastian Bach, while not noted for his abilities to rap, nonetheless made a similar spiritual change in his music more than two and a half centuries ago, and the world is better for it.
Whether or not the world is a better place for Jesus Is King remains to be seen, but Kanye West appears to be a better man. A man who is best known for lyrics such as
She find pictures in my email,
I sent this bitch a picture of my d**k,
I don’t know what it is with females
is now singing
Jesus brought a revolution,
All the captives are forgiven.
Time to break down all the prisons,
Every man, every woman,
There is freedom from addiction.
That alone seems celebratory.
Some Christians question the authenticity of Kanye West’s conversion. Then don’t buy the album. Time will tell if his is a flirtation with faith like that of Bob Dylan or a life-changing encounter like another great songwriter, John Newton. It isn’t for us to judge the souls of men. But if lyrics are any indicator, West’s theology is orthodox enough.
Regardless, of this much I am certain that Kanye West is right: Jesus is King.
Larry Alex Taunton is the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation and a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, First Things, the Atlantic, CNN, and The American Spectator. He is also the author ofThe Grace Effect and the Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.