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Can Only God Save Kanye West?

By Tyler Bunzey | @t_bunzey | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, November 1, 2019.


If I was skeptical of Kanye West’s Christian bonafides, I might echo the Jeremy Larson Pitchfork review of Great Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army and say that Jesus is King sounds like Kanye West read the Bible exactly once, fell asleep, and made a gospel album from what he remembered when he woke up before tried to save his own soul. After all, what could better describe verse two of “Water” than Larson’s phrase “algorithmic fever dream?” It sounds as if Kanye pressed record and just listed everything he had heard said about Jesus in sermons throughout his life. You can even hear that he is unsure of himself as the delivery in this verse is off-beat and sounds stilted, as if reading from a script rather than writing from the heart. This practice of algorithmic thought expression—hearing a bunch of things about a subject and recombining them in a way that seems like it makes sense—isn’t foreign to West’s canon as evidenced by his well-intentioned but misguided comments on slavery and the 13th Amendment. If I were concerned with his religious authenticity, I may critique him along these lines and claim that he needs more scriptural training and meditation before preaching the Gospel. 


If I was skeptical of Kanye West’s hip-hop authenticity, I might read Jesus is King as a marketing move in the spirit of Fox News. Perhaps Kanye has recognized that he doesn’t need his traditional hip-hop audience, and as long as he has an audience, he can remain profitable and celebrated. In the way that Fox News was able to corner the market of conservative viewership in news, maybe West is trying to corner the religious pop market. With this strategy, West wouldn’t need the critics, record execs, and the traditional hip-hop audience that has been critical of most of his releases in the 2010s. Instead he would just need a homogenous faithful base that will follow his work regardless of its quality, and the Evangelical market certainly could provide that for him.


I am very skeptical of Kanye West’s artistic production—including Jesus is King—but this skepticism extends far beyond this 2019 release. 


As a hip-hop scholar-in-training, West’s Christian authenticity isn’t something that is in question or of great interest in evaluating his work. Christians can and are debating about his religious authenticity, with some outright rejecting his claims of being born again and others (at least on my social media feeds) going as far as to claim that his conversion mirrors that of the Apostle Paul’s. I would hope that Kanye’s conversion might be able to spark some greater conversations in the Evangelical community about their engagement with hip-hop and race. Perhaps West’s excursion into Evangelicalism might prompt that religious community to ask themselves why DMX’s discography, Snoop’s Bible of Love, and Ma$e’s pastoral work have been historically ignored in Evangelical discourse about pop culture and religion, why Kendrick Lamar and to a lesser degree Chance the Rapper aren’t evaluated along the lines of their faith in the same way that West is, or why Lecrae’s 2017 release All Things Work Together was criticized or ignored as a “mainstream” gospel album in spite of it being at least a more lyrically artful release than West’s (I suspect that these selective engagements have something to do with the racial politics Evangelicalism’s political identity combined with the doctrine of holiness living that eclipses artistic complexity, but that’s a whole other essay). As a whole, Jesus is King merges seamlessly with both the history of Christian Contemporary Music’s tendency to be doctrine-centered rather than art-centered and the megachurch aesthetic of ritzy overproduction. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about as Christian of an album as it gets. 


I’m also not skeptical about West’s hip-hop authenticity. After all, this is the producer-turned rapper that gave us College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), four of hip-hop’s classic releases of the 2010s with an honorable mention to 808’s & Heartbreak (2008). Kanye has proven his hip-hop authenticity throughout his career, shaping the way that the genre sounds with his chipmunk soul and note-bending production. He also cares about the culture intimately, which is why he foregrounded Slick Rick samples in most of his 2018 production to uncover the importance of Slick Rick’s legacy to a generation unfamiliar with the legendary storyteller. 





The problem I have with West, however, is one that Jesus is King emphasizes: he demonstrates a lack of knowledge of self. To have knowledge of self is of course an oft-repeated command in hip-hop history, dating back to the teaching of the Five Percent Nation that the black community know itself and its history. Jesus is King demonstrates a knowledge of Christian doctrine—more Evangelicalism’s cultural identity like love of Chick-Fil-A, purity culture, and war against mainstream culture than deep theological insight—but it doesn’t demonstrate that West knows himself, his meaning to hip-hop culture, or his meaning to American culture. It doesn’t seem that it registers to West that the frustration of many at his racially regressive comments or support for Donald Trump comes from the fact that he symbolized black pride and rage against injustice in the mainstream, whether saying that George Bush hates black people post-Katrina or trying to give Beyonce the credit that she deserves by interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. According to his recent behavior and releases, it doesn’t seem that West really knows who he is or what he meant to his core audience, and thus the frustration that he registers from ex-fans is interpreted as hate or persecution, not as disappointment.


While some may lament the loss of old Kanye, I hold the controversial belief that he has always demonstrated the lack of a knowledge of self, even as far back as College Dropout. Kanye is a radical reactor, and the ethic of his art is driven by an expression of his feelings in the moment, a reaction to his surroundings. From post-Katrina comments to his multiple yearlong feud with Taylor Swift to his thinly-veiled comments about Amber Rose on “Hell of a Life” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) to slavery comments to his Trump-ism, it’s difficult to read West’s actions as anything but a reaction to what he perceives as the mainstream. After all, Bush was the mainstream in 2005 when West made those comments and white art was the mainstream when he criticized Taylor Swift. Now he interprets a critique of slavery discourse and Trump as countercultural actions against a liberal mainstream, and he has grasped onto them in the way that he grasped onto anti-racism in 2054 as a counter-cultural identity. 


As controversial as it may be to suggest that West hasn’t really changed that much, he actually admits it himself in an interview with Zane Lowe. He says, “No one is going to take my opinion away from me. I’ve been giving my opinion my whole career…no one can control my opinion.” Kanye may be intent on being counter-cultural in order to “free” his opinion from others, but that doesn’t mean that his insights are artful.


At the foundation of the controversy surrounding Kanye’s politics and his new album is a debate about the importance of self-expression in art. At the risk of sounding aesthetically conservative, I posit that self-expression has its limitations. For a work to be artful, it certainly needs to express a worldview that emerges from an individual, but that worldview needs to also resonate with the world around that individual. Beautiful art moves in two directions: it challenges us to think of our inner selves differently and simultaneously challenges us to rethink the world around us. There is a dual mode in artistic expression, a push outward and a pull inward, that West’s artistic ethic ignores at the behest of whatever he is thinking at the moment of creation.


West’s ethic is more dangerous than just creating bad art. It actually fuels the kind of misinformation and inward-focus disagreement that defines the American political scene in the 2010s. In the same interview with Lowe, West claims that the medication that he took for his bipolar disorder was designed to make him personally fat and less appealing, that he was given (from an unknown source) mental health issues to prevent him from being successful, and that the mainstream of popular culture—the same one that lauds his accomplishments—is against him. 


This conspiracy mindset is the result of West’s artistic ethic. When you are only focused on expressing yourself without consideration of the impact of that expression on others, critique of your self-expression likely feels like a conspiracy against you. It’s difficult not to compare Kanye’s ethic—say what I want to say and leave you to pick up the pieces—to that of his political idol, Donald Trump. After all Trump has a very similar ethic: say or tweet what he wants and let the real human consequences play out on their own. Self-expression has a different consequence in the context of power, and West is creating precedent for an ethic that could have disastrous consequences if his legions of faithful followers took it up in their own expressive lives.


So why can’t we just cancel Kanye? Throw him out? Mute him? Not consume his art? 


We can’t throw Kanye out because Kanye has a massive following, an audience of young and old alike, who crave his words, direction, and self-expression. This audience, at least as I’ve reached out to them to try to work through my dislike for Kanye’s art, finds deep emotional resonance in Kanye’s unapologetic self-expression. I’m not necessarily saying there’s a Kult of Kanye, but dismissing his audience only makes him bigger, faster, stronger. Put simply, his art speaks to people. 


I’ve wanted to ignore Kanye for a very long time, but since the audience is foundational to determining hip-hop’s aesthetics and qualities throughout its history, we have to acknowledge that his art resonates with people for a reason. We must engage with Kanye because of what his art symbolizes to his following—an unmitigated representation of self that is unapologetic and unabashed. West’s following is why I am so critical of his work and why I’m not willing to let it go. If we ignore him, we also ignore those who his art speaks to, thus confirming the conspiracy that he already feels is against him.


After all, he is also seeking redemption. One of the most honest and affectively resonant moments of the album is when Kanye cries out, “But I have a request, you see / don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me” (“Hands On”). Kanye is authentic in his desire to be loved and to make art that touches people, without question. What he needs is a lesson from the Five Percenters on knowing himself, his message, and thinking beyond the immediate moment to complement his Bible lessons. Kanye considers himself a critical thinker and the greatest artists to ever live. He’s got the thinking part down, but he has work to do on the critical nature of it. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t pause to think about the complexity of the world around him. At one point in the Lowe interview, he says that artists are like “eternal three-year-olds” and that quality should be protected “at all costs.” 


Kanye’s art may work like that, but great art does more. Kanye is like input directly flowing to output without registering the information itself. Some may identify this quality as authentic, but it doesn't make art better. It doesn’t make us better. 


Christian or not, Kanye’s rudder is still only himself. He can drape it in Christian discourse but his interview with Lowe shows that he remains the same, and to be the leader that he so desperately wishes to be, he must let his expression be determined by critical thinking. But who knows, maybe Kanye’s on the right track with his conversion and only God can save his legacy.




Tyler Bunzey is a  Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.  Follow him on Twitter: @tbunz3

Can Only God Save Kanye West?

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