'Jesus is King': Kanye West's Religious Journey Isn't For Anyone But Himself
Kanye West’s religious crusade has been seen as insincere by critics. But there is nothing “sudden” about West’s transition into God’s servant on his ninth solo album Jesus is King.
West started a few years early on that declaration. Friday (October 25) marks the release of Jesus is King, the controversial artist’s ninth solo album that was delayed for a month. Inspired by his divisive Sunday Service movement, the album finds West speaking unabashedly about his love for God. The star built anticipation for Jesus is King by hosting listening sessions in New York, Washington D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles. He also offered viewings for his accompanying IMAX film also named Jesus Is King.
West is facing scrutiny and skepticism for this latest iteration of himself — God’s servant. The rapper’s religious crusade has been seen as insincere by critics who view what he’s doing as a ploy to win back some of his Black fanbase following an incendiary 2018. Others have gone as far as bashing Sunday Service and comparing it to a cult. Depending on who you ask, the door is permanently closed and any attachment to West is permanently severed.
But there is nothing “sudden” about West’s transition. While this year is obviously the most vocal he’s been about being “saved” and having total adoration for God, there are countless examples throughout his discography — and off-wax — that give weight to the notion that his relationship with God and his Christian faith isn’t to win anyone over.
There was “Jesus Walks,” his almost 15-year-old career staple credited with reinvigorating the relationship between gospel and rap music that Kirk Franklin had successfully explored seven years prior; the Yeezus album and tour that featured a mock Jesus; The Life of Pablo‘s “Ultralight Beam,” which was a holy trinity of sorts with West, Franklin, and Chance the Rapper; and his requests that God “shine your light on me, save me please” on “Cudi Montage,” the last track on the Kid Cudi collab album Kids See Ghost. There’s no shortage of reverence for God in West’s music.
West follows in a line of rappers who’ve pulled a 180 in favor of religion and Gospel. Twenty years ago, Mase retired from rap ahead of the release of his double platinum-selling sophomore album Double Up and became an ordained minister.
“I mean, I was corrupting young people’s minds to get that money. I was telling guys things like, ‘If you don’t have sex with at least five women a day, you’re nobody,’ leading millions of people astray,” Mase said at the time. “Imagine how much more I can have doing the right thing and serving God.”
During his time as a minister, Mase moved to Atlanta and opened El Elyon International Church. Five years after his retirement, Mase announced his comeback, resulting in his third album, Welcome Back. His first album to not have a Parental Advisory warning — none of its 12 tracks feature profanity — Welcome Back featured a handful of lyrics referencing his faith.
Mase has talked about his transition from rapper to minister, only to return to rapping again.
“I didn’t give myself any room to grow, I went from one extreme to another extreme, I was just so gung ho about what I was learning, that’s all I wanted,” he said. “I went so hard in one direction that people had things to say and rightfully so.”
Malice of the Clipse followed a similar route when he announced he was changing his name to No Malice in 2012. The announcement features a video showing him entering a funeral parlor and staring down at another version of himself in a casket, along with various Bible quotes like “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” The video was the visual representation of No Malice abandoning the moniker that brought him fame and success, and foreshadowed the more religious leanings he’d have in post-Malice works like Hear Ye Him and Let the Dead Bury the Dead.
“I have to live with myself and live the kind of life that I believe that I’m called to live,” No Malice said in an interview with DJ Vlad. “I do believe that we can speak death upon ourselves the same way I believe we can speak life upon ourselves, and speak life unto other people.” (It’s worth noting that No Malice is credited on many of the songs on Jesus Is King.)
Sentiments shared by Mase and No Malice in regards to their respective journeys in faith are reflective in how West is currently navigating his career.
“Now that God has called me and I now have given my life to Jesus Christ and I work for God, now we have Christian innovation in our time,” West told Jimmy Kimmel. “I feel that God is using me, using the choir and using my family to show off…We’re in complete service to God.”
This is reflected in Jesus is King, West’s 11-track gospel album that finds him expressing his devotion in ways that range from playful (“Closed on Sunday” and its instantly memorable hook, “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A”) to passionate (“Use This Gospel” and its fiery, standout guest feature from No Malice). There are times where the album could fit in the contemporary Gospel lane. “Everything We Need,” which features the immediately recognizable vocals of Ty Dolla Sign, is reminiscent of songs like Mary Mary’s “God In Me” and Kurt Franklin’s “Melodies From Heaven.” But West’s experimental production and knack for musical curation show how much more Gospel music can be explored beyond just turning his classics (and other classic secular songs) into Gospel covers.
However, where West differs from his predecessors — and even contemporaries like Chance the Rapper — is how overt he is in basically becoming a rap televangelist.
“JESUS IS KING”
OCT 25th pic.twitter.com/Ug4ghlQYk7
— ye (@kanyewest) October 21, 2019
“Kanye is doing nothing different than what televangelists do on a weekly basis which sells the word, sells the message, sells the gospel,” Dr. Jay-Paul Hinds, a religious expert, told Vice.
West’s Sunday Service events are free (albeit his Coachella set, as well as the early incarnations of the event that primarily catered to celebrities) and his merch for the services and the Jesus is King album essentially function as tithes. And that West reportedly wants to start his own church further speaks to how West is following the televangelist blueprint while trying to shape it in his own distinct way too. And if this is what he believes is him creating for the church, who are we to judge his walk of faith?
West has always treaded a complicated line between being a rapper and man of faith, and for critics to not take that into account with what he’s doing now isn’t only disrespectful but lazy. Equipped with a Bipolar diagnosis and a massive flip in public support and approval, one could only guess what triggered the star’s motion to be more intentional about using his platform in service of the lord.
When West’s father first heard “Jesus Walks,” he claimed his dad told him, “Maybe you missed your calling.” In response, West said, “No, maybe this is my calling. I reach more people than any one pastor can.”
Travis Grier is a freelance writer based in Baltimore who has written for Def Pen and Karen Civil. He can be found on Twitter at @yoyotrav.