By Will Montei
Sing every hour
Sing each and every millisecond
We need You
We need You
We need You
Oh, we need You
Sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down
– “Every Hour,” Kanye West
Told people God was my mission
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
– “Hands On,” Kanye West
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
– Romans 14:10-12
In October of 2019, Kanye released the unabashed gospel album, “Jesus is King.” Amid the discussion of where this ranks in his catalog is another, separate conversation: does Kanye, being…Kanye, really mean it?
History is rife with complicated works from complicated artists, but the urgency of the present moment always seems to complicate matters more. If the Van Gogh Ear incident of 1888 had happened today, Twitter would no doubt have had a field day with it (imagine the memes!), and our perception of his art would perhaps be more colored by the incident’s fresh audacity. Time, however, has smoothed out the wrinkles, and most of us can simply admire his Starry Night without so much worry about why in the world a severed ear ended up delivered to a maid in a town brothel. But imagine if Van Gogh did exist in our present reality, moving in and out of psychiatric hospitals as he did, tweeting all the while as most young artists of the 21st century are inclined to do—how would our dialogue surround and define him?
Like Van Gogh, Kanye West has put forward a substantial body of work that will influence the artistic world well into the future. Like Van Gogh, much of Kanye West’s trials with mental health are public knowledge. Unlike Van Gogh, Kanye is alive and well, dealing with the trappings of the modern age that charge his name with social and political tension. Put simply, he is divisive, and that leads many to view listening to his music akin to casting a vote.
With “Jesus Is King,” Kanye brought his reputation and his music—and all that both things entail—into the Christian sphere. Now on Sundays he puts on extravagant shows with his Sunday Service Choir, aided with some sermonizing by Joel Osteen—most famous for his connection to the so-called prosperity gospel, which makes him a divisive figure among Christians as well. The whole scenario would be completely unbelievable were it not actually happening. And as with most things, our Christian community has opinions. Predicting this, Kanye addressed it head on in his song “Hands On.” “Told people God was my mission,” he sings. “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first ones to judge me.” He was right, sadly.
Criticizing Kanye is not unique to Christians, however. Kanye is a lightning rod for slander, often for the very things he’s remarkably candid about—his bipolar disorder, for instance, which people laugh at such as it relates to his tweets, cancelled shows, or delayed albums. Or his mother’s death, which Jay Leno once used as fodder for criticism in an interview in 2009. Leno lectured Kanye by asking him on live television what his deceased mother would have thought about the infamous incident with Taylor Swift at the Grammies. In the same month as that interview, the President of the United States called Kanye a jackass.
And so on and so forth. Kanye receives very little good press as it relates to his humanity. Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, his music is continually lauded (his album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was among the most critically acclaimed albums of the past decade). So we end up with Kanye the man and Kanye the artist kept at a distance from each other, perhaps because they’re too difficult to merge into a single, understandable portrait. If we take a close look at his music, however, both are fully present at all times. The seemingly inexhaustible ingenuity of his songwriting and the foibles and triumphs of his spirit present themselves inseparably. One need only listen to his album “Yeezus” with all of its chaotic, dark beats and boldly heretical lyrics to see there is more to Kanye than an ill-advised tweet; there also seems to be a man struggling for meaning.
The same is true of “Jesus is King.” The musical intuition is still there, creating moments that only seem possible with Kanye at the helm, as we see in songs like “Use This Gospel,” which preposterously brings smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G and the rapper Clipse together and still works, somehow. The honesty remains there as well, as seen on “Follow God,” where Kanye raps about the frustration of being told by his dad that he’s not Christ-like. Yet the overall content is markedly different. As he said going into it, this is a gospel album. None of the usual cursing, sexual puns, or claims of being a demi-God. In their place we find scriptural references, praise, and prayer. In the same song where he laments the judgement he’s received from Christians, he also implores the listener to pray for him. Whatever criticisms there are to be levelled at Kanye, the music he’s given us is nothing if not earnest.
Wondering whether or not Kanye “means it” seems too dismissive of an artist whose body of work carries genuine artistic weight. A more interesting question might be: is the album a moving piece of work? As for Kanye himself, we as a Christian community might offer a dissenting voice of encouragement.
Will Montei received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing from Calvin University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Seattle Pacific University. In addition to working as a Content Curator and Proofreader for CIVA, he also substitute teaches around the greater Madison area. Aside from writing and teaching, he also enjoys music, holding forth with friends, and spending time outdoors.