I listened to Kanye West’s new album Jesus Is King today. I guess you could say that I’ve casually admired Kanye from afar for the last few years. I’ve appreciated some of his previous hits — just as someone who’s had a soft spot for hip-hop since high school — but I’ve definitely never been steeped in Kanye culture. My friend Aaron, however, has been talking with me about this album for weeks. He’s been sharing with me about the growing mountain of evidence that Kanye has experienced genuine spiritual transformation in the last couple of years. So as someone who’s been a very big fan of Kanye and a very big fan of Jesus, Aaron was very excited about this album’s release. He’s been telling me that it’s all of Kanye’s musical genius with none of his crude language or narcissistic bravado.
I admit that I felt a bit skeptical. He has carved out a niche for himself by being brash, outspoken, self-centered, and a little bit crazy. When I first heard that Kanye was doing “Sunday Services” for people from the music industry and film industry, I thought it was an act of cultural misappropriation. Delays in the release of the album added to my trepidation. Still, I wanted to give the new album a try while out for a run this morning. It was perfect conditions to run: overcast skies, temperatures in the low-40s, fall foliage at its peak. I picked one of my favorite seven-mile routes, and I ran the new album as I ran my route.
I ended up listening to it three times in a row.
I love this album! Seriously! I never thought I’d be saying this about a Kanye West album, but it nourished me. It powered my run with its beats, but it also powered my soul with its lyrics. It was a pretty short album (coming in at just 27 minutes), still it didn’t feel like there was a wasted track.
“Selah” and “God Is” made me cry. They gave some of the clearest descriptions of the transformation in Christ that Kanye has experienced. They were worshipful. They were personal. They were multidimensional — speaking to themes of loneliness, addiction, marriage, parenthood, faith, hope, and love. They’re also just really well-constructed songs. “Selah” has a cinematic, almost-operatic quality to it. “God Is” plays like more of a Gospel song. But I’m not as much of an expert in evaluating music, as much as I’m a pastor. So, I think it’s worth stating that the messages of these songs — and the whole album — demonstrated a remarkable consistency with the Bible and with the historical practices of Christianity.
There are a few spots on the album where there are just the slightest sniffs of a prosperity gospel that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. “On God” talks about Kanye’s shoe deals and his need to charge high prices because of the way that the IRS and tithing to his church otherwise threaten to “starve” his family. “Water” includes a long list of prayers which are mostly consistent with Scripture, except for one line in which he asks, “Jesus, give us wealth.” That being noted, there are other places on the album where it’s very clear that Kanye considers suffering, opposition, and poverty a part of the life of faith. So I’m not going to get too hung up on these very minor points of concern.
Most meaningfully, I felt a personal connection to the way that Kanye talked about his relationship with Jesus. His walk with God seems real (as far as I can tell from a great distance). I think my favorite music and message on the album might be featured in “Use This Gospel.” Kanye’s description of faith bears strong similarities to the Apostle Paul, acknowledging his missteps in the past and recognizing that he still has a long road ahead of him. My second-favorite song is probably “Closed on Sunday,” whose haunting melody seems to speak to issues of prioritizing faith and family in a way that’s more consistent with ancient Jews and 16th Century Puritans than the modern, Evangelical practices that are evoked with the title and references to Chick-Fil-A (which I think are actually a metaphor for his wife and family).
“Follow God” sounds like classic Kanye, and it provides some valuable background on his faith journey — including the ways that it’s still not easy being Christlike, even after choosing to follow Christ. “Hands On” was also really convicting, particularly given my aforementioned skepticism towards Kanye West coming into this album. One section of the song relates his conundrum in choosing this life of faith: “Told people God was my mission. // ‘What have you been hearing from the Christians?’ // They’d the first ones to judge me. // Make it feel like nobody love me.”
Later on in the song, he says, “If I tried to lead you to Jesus, we get called half-way believers.” But then, he wryly suggests that these naysayers “only halfway read Ephesians.” One of the effects of this song is that it definitely made me want to pray for Kanye. And I would encourage other Christians to do the same, too. After and as they continue listening to this amazing album.