Every rapper is the best before they do anything and the acronym for “greatest of all time” is applied colloquially instead of reverentially. Questlove and Black Thought’s new anthology series Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America does more than give six classic hip-hop records their roses, it builds a shrine for each and changes the way you’ll ever hear those songs.
Press play on Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and you’ll hear the marching drums, the choir harmonies, and West’s impassioned battle cry in the name of the Lord take hold of your attention for a little over three minutes. Pressing play on the episode dedicated to the song — the series premiere, which aired on AMC on Sunday, October 13th — is an evocative experience of its own kind. For 40 plus minutes, the show’s collection of speakers dug deeper than the song’s multitrack DNA into the divine accidents, iconoclastic thinking, and love that made it. Those are the invisible roots that have connected millions through this song for more than 15 years, so it’s hard for this to not all feel surreal if you grew up just thinking it was a hot song.
This episode isn’t a documentary solely analyzing the lyrics and production arrangement as is common in today’s generation of explainer videos. The episode barely spends five minutes on what West and co-writer Rhymefest did in the studio to make the 2004 song come to life.
It did an eloquent job of showing faces with facts, instead of one or the other. The episode doesn’t simply pop up a text on the screen revealing the choir sample is from a 1997 recording of “Jesus Walk With Me.” We go into a church with the choir from the Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Chicago who are forever immortalized in hip-hop lore. It’s heart-wrenching to watch the choir’s piecemeal buildup of the “Jesus Walks With Me” hymn in the episode as those with recognizable parts share their story.
The 15-second breakdown midway through “Jesus Walks” where the choir singing creeps from the background to the forefront wailing “ I want Jesus to walk with meeeeee” is more than just an exhilarating change of pace for the song. For ARC choir member Caroyl Grayson it was the rapturous expulsion of the pain of getting over an addiction. The final beat isn’t just one of the best of West’s career. For Rhymefest, it was powerful enough to rip tears out of his eyes.
The emotional connection the episode establishes with the song leans heavily on the impressive collections of people that spoke to not only how “Jesus Walks” was made but how Kanye West the artist was created. The ethos of the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” permeates the narrative tone of the episode. Neither “Jesus Walks,” nor Kanye West himself, are depicted as the creations of a singular maker, train of thought or creative process. The episode spends more time going through the south side of Chicago speaking with Kanye’s pre-fame friends and collaborators — like J. Ivey, GLC, and director Coodie — than we do with anyone who came afterward. This episode builds up to “Jesus Walks” as this byproduct of serendipitous connections and a bustling creative scene in Chicago more than it does reflecting on its greatness.
Thanks to Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, there are more lives and faces attached to one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever than just its creator. Yet, there are moments when it feels like it’s lacking. There’s no JAY-Z, but there’s Dame Dash. There’s no present-day Kanye West on-screen, but there’s archival footage. These omissions don’t sully the enjoyment While his absence from the episode outside of a collection of disparate public interviews that span nearly 20 years does limit how deep the episode can genuinely delve into the making of the song.
The careful curation of West’s interview quotes over the years does allow us to see which parts of the polarizing and often mercurial thinking of West stayed the same over the years. The borderline sacrilege of placing profanity in a song about God is predicated on a belief system where hip-hop shows are like church gatherings because you put your hands up, get dressed up, sing songs and “you definitely pay some money,” as he explained in a clip from an old interview with Tim Westwood shown in the episode. The proclamation of slavery being a choice due to it lasting 400 years shares the same deluded logic of freestyling about how people think you can’t move the crowd unless you rap about putting a fist to your spouse. The episode doesn’t shove these parallels down our throats but instead allows us to take pieces from what they’re serving to consume how we desire.
After you’ve peeled back the emotional and cultural layers of this song, Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America gives hip-hop nerds a treasure trove of tidbits like only erudite students of the game like Black Thought and Questlove can. We get to hear Questlove speak on how Kanye laughingly agreed with the legendary drummer that West’s ascension marked the changing of the socially conscious guard from The Roots to him. We find out West had an accident and made “Jesus Walks” before the accident that inspired West’s breakout debut single “Through The Wire.” We find out that after all of these years Pharrell believes “Jesus Walks” is the core of who West still is today, regardless of what problematic areas his thinking strays.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire
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