Kanye West. The name alone draws a stir, whether of criticism, concern, or admiration. From his interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Awards to his support for the always-polarizing President Trump to his creative work in music and fashion, West knows how to capture the zeitgeist of our volatile culture. The release of his anticipated self-acclaimed “gospel album,” JESUS IS KING, only adds yet another wave of debate and controversy. This time, however, much of the debate is stirred within the Christian and Christian hip-hop communities.
Dubbed a genius by many (and himself), West’s Chicago/Midwest production style and lyricism has influenced the hip-hop industry at large. Albums like College Dropout and Graduation skyrocketed the artist’s fame. Singles like “All Falls Down” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” provided content that was transparent and vulnerable at a time when hip-hop projected stone-cold emotions. Even more, his hit single “Jesus Walks” from his debut album in 2004 introduced a perspective not widely popular at the time. On that song, West raps:
They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played.
Nearly 15 years later, JESUS IS KING is another addition to West’s discography that challenges believers and nonbelievers alike to assess our assumptions about Jesus, people, and religion.
FOR THE CHRISTIAN
Do Christians really need a Kanye West “gospel album”? It is essential for believers to assess the reasons we might desire to quickly praise such an offering.To make an influence on the culture-at-large, Christians don’t need a big-name artist like Kanye West to co-opt the Christian message of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and justice.
Some may believe a big-name artist proclaiming a truth—that Jesus is King—will validate our belief within our society. But we must resist the temptation to praise a Kanye West “gospel album” for the sole purpose of associating our faith with fame. American Christianity historically has dangerously conflated our religion with worldly power. Christians are sometimes so engrossed with—what ERLC President Russell Moore calls—a “siege mentality,” that we imbibe ourselves with the drunkenness of power. Our desire for acceptance in society makes quickly embracing all that West offers quite enticing. The other side of the coin is to challenge believers who despise a Kanye West “gospel album.” It’s possible to view West’s album and his “Sunday Services” as mere antics to draw upon the sacredness of Christianity to draw in fans—and the listeners he has ostracized in the past with his controversial behaviors and comments. His insistence that “slavery was a choice” left many baffled and ready to cancel the once highly regarded artist. Now his return to mainstream with a project filled with religious content (that if challenged, would be considered blasphemous) seems like an attempt to entice listeners who once canceled him into accepting him again.
In particular, Christianity remains a highly influential entity in the African American community. For that reason, some suggest that West is simply using JESUS IS KING as gimmick to garner lost support after his slavery comments. Many are right to cautiously question if Kanye’s Sunday Services and JESUS IS KING album might be a ploy to regain acceptance and his fan base. While that could be possible, we must hope not—and here’s why.
When Saul, the chief persecutor and murderer of Christians, was confronted by Jesus, his heart and behavior changed completely. Then God used Ananias to deliver a word to him soon after. But as you could imagine, Ananias was cautious and questioned God’s instructions based on reports he had heard about this man. It took God speaking directly to Ananias to move his feet toward someone who dehumanized Christians like himself in word and deed. As you know, Saul eventually became known as Paul, who went on to become one of the most influential Christians in history. Therefore, we know that God changes those who are least likely.
Though Kanye West was not a persecutor of Christians like Saul, he is someone many would tag as least likely to change. That’s why believers should hope JESUS IS KING is an outworking of what Jesus is doing internally in West’s heart. We ought to hope it is a bold declaration of the album’s title and that listeners’ hearts will be drawn to Jesus—not Kanye West. We are the ones who ought to “hope all things” and believe that “all things are possible” with God. If God could save us, He could save anyone—even Kanye West. If God could redeem our talents and skills for His glory, He can redeem Kanye West’s too. Nothing is too hard for God. So let us not be the hardline skeptics. Let us be the ones who welcome those who have a hunger and thirst for righteousness. In the end, those who call on the name of Jesus—like Kanye West—will either bear fruit or they won’t.
FOR THE NON-CHRISTIAN
The challenge for nonbelievers to embrace Kanye West’s latest offering is similar to the Christians’ challenge.
The difference however is a summoning to what is right and true about what Kanye West proclaims in JESUS IS KING. Kanye has always challenged listeners. Now he’s challenging core religious beliefs: What or who is king in your life? Who or what has hold of your time and deepest affections?
No matter what listeners think of West, or religion, hiss challenge has merit: Whatever is crowned as KING is the thing that rules the mind, woos heart, and leads the life in a certain direction. So before dismissing Kanye’s attempt to proclaim an eternal joy as supreme in his life, listeners are forced to consider what temporal treasures have hold of their own.
MORE THAN KANYE
Whether you are a Christian or non-Christian, West’s offering is art—it’s his expression of what he’s experiencing in this season. It’s possible that because of West’s notoriety, his JESUS IS KING is your first hip-hop “gospel album.” But it’s certainly not the first, nor is it the best. There are plenty of superb artists who’ve been creating Christian hip-hop for years now. For instance, hip-hop artist Thi’sl released an album (Sttag) on the same day as JESUS IS KING. It marks Thi’sl’s return to music after being shot while doing missionary work on the streets of St. Louis, similar to the late Nipsey Hussle’s work in Los Angeles.
On an artistic level, there are plenty of other albums that rival, and even exceed, JESUS IS KING in production and content. Artists like Derek Minor and Bizzle have albums that rival JESUS IS KING sonically. Others have picked up some attention from mainstream outlets, like Reach Records artists Lecrae, KB, and Andy Mineo. And if JESUS IS KING left you thirsty for more Christlike content, just search for artists like Flame, S.O., Tobe Nwigwe, Shai Linne, Datin, Swoope, or Trip Lee.
HOPE FOR US ALL
While we ought to hope for a truly repentant heart for Kanye West—one that is obsessed with the beauty and glory of God—we do not need a Kanye West “gospel album.” Gospel albums are good. They stir our affections for Jesus. Christ-centric music often helps marry our emotions to solid gospel truths. But to make an influence on the culture-at-large, Christians don’t need a big-name artist like Kanye West to co-opt the Christian message of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and justice. We are each commissioned with beautiful feet to not only proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ but to also serve and love nonbelievers in our communities.
At the same time, while we do not need a Kanye West “gospel album,” we are free to sing along with him in his declarations of Christ our King. I remember the words of Paul who addressed the teachers who preached “Christ out of envy and strife… rivalry, not sincerely” (Philippians 1:15–17). Whatever the motivations for those who preached Christ was not Paul’s concern: “What does it matter? Just that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed.” And in this we ought to rejoice as Paul did that Kanye West is praising Jesus with his life.
Our desperate grasps for cultural relevance and power will not win the culture. A Christian conservative president, a famous actor or artist who goes to church, a well-spoken pastor—none of these can do the work we’re each commanded to do. So for believers who were aware that Jesus is King before this album, we welcome Kanye West’s message with open arms. Whether we sing along with Mr. West or not, JESUS IS KING and that will remain a constant forever. How we live in light of this truth toward our neighbors will speak louder of this fact than any of Kanye West’s albums ever could.