Kanye West’s artistic journey has been a wild ride. He’s arguably one of the most significant pop artists of the last 20 years—and certainly one of the most unpredictable.
It’s hard to know which Kanye will show up at any given moment. In the past year, though, we’ve seen the most surprising turn yet: Kanye says he’s become a born-again Christian. His concerts are now gospel-infused “Sunday Services,” and his just-released album is titled Jesus Is King.
What do we make of Kanye’s journey? Is this latest turn a marketing scheme? Or is Kanye an exhausted soul authentically desperate to find a savior beyond himself?
From College Dropout to Yeezus
Kanye burst onto the scene in 2004 with his universally acclaimed debut album, College Dropout. Yet Kanye’s rise to stardom was soon intertwined with controversy and criticism, whether because of strange public outbursts or wildly offensive lyrics. Recently, for example, he sparked appropriate uproar by saying the slavery of African Americans for 400 years “sounds like a choice.”
As Mike Cosper has observed, Kanye’s life exemplifies what Charles Taylor describes as the “cross pressures” of living in a secular age, where we are “buffered” from transcendence and yet perpetually haunted by it.
Kanye’s life has been marked by some of the hardest-to-penetrate “buffers” our secular 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 to American entertainment royalty, Kim Kardashian. And Kanye hasn’t shied away from boasting in his worldly success. His 2013 album Yeezus even has a track called “I Am a God.”
In spite of his self-proclaimed “god” status, however, Kanye has struggled to find peace. His Yeezus follow up, The Life of Pablo (2016), opens with “Ultralight Beam,” where he states: But I’m looking for more / Somewhere to feel safe, and end my holy war.
Looking for More
However entrenched we are within our “buffers” of hubris, fame, and fortune, the pangs of “looking for more” always haunt us. As African American author and critic 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: he knows he’s not OK, and he doesn’t hide that behind a PR facade.
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.
A few moments in Kanye’s life seem to have particularly jolted him, poking holes in the walls of his “immanent frame.” In 2007, at the height of Kanye’s stardom, his beloved mother, Donda West, died from plastic-surgery complications. This tragedy sent Kanye into a dark state, reflected in the agonized autotune laments of his album 808s and Heartbreak (2008). 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.
In 2013, another moment of transcendence hit Kanye when his first daughter, North, was born (Kanye is now a father of four). Among other things, this life-changing event seemed to trigger a sort of moral awakening for Kanye. Often criticized for his music’s misogynistic depiction of women, Kanye has recently moved away from objectifying women in obscenely sexual lyrics. In the last track of Ye (2018), “Violent Crimes,” Kanye prays: Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma / Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer.
From Yeezus to Jesus
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.
Sonically, I believe the production is Kanye at his 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 CCM artists from the ’90s (and that’s not a dig). 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; it’s as if Kanye can’t stop worshiping. 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 like the enthusiasm of the lame beggar in Acts 3 who, upon being healed, was “walking and leaping and praising God” (v. 8).
Be Prayerful, Not Skeptical
Anticipating critiques from skeptics, especially in the 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. Yet the Scriptures—and Christian history—are rife with stories of those who lived God-hating lives (the demon-possessed, the Pharisees, the apostle Paul, and so on) and yet who were utterly transformed into exuberant broadcasters of gospel grace.
Rather than seeing Kanye as a fraud, can we choose to see him as the tax collector? And can we, as the church, give Kanye what he asks for: Don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me / Please, please pray for me.
Lessons for the Church
What can believers 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 fruitfully reflect on what Kanye’s conversion says about how “buffered” souls come to Christ in our secular age.
We might reflect on how the triggers of sorrow and family play a role in shaking up one’s buffered existence. How can the church be there for people in these seasons, offering hope in Christ and a community of support? We might also reflect on how we preach the burden-releasing gift of the gospel to a world where people are weighed down and exhausted by various cross-pressures: to perform, to be accepted, to become gods of our own making, to define (and constantly redefine) ourselves in expressive and novel ways.
Kanye can’t bear that crushing weight. No human can.
Or rather, only one human can—and he already bore the weight on our behalf, to the point of death. That’s why we declare in praise, alongside Kanye on the last track (“Jesus Is Lord”), that true freedom comes by laying down our crown, giving up our throne, and paying homage to the only rightful monarch: Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess: Jesus is Lord.