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Kanye's Christian Pilgrimage: From 'Jesus Walks' To 'Jesus Is King'

Kanye West performs onstage during his "Jesus Is King" album and film experience at The Forum on October 23, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA)
Kanye West performs onstage during his "Jesus Is King" album and film experience at The Forum on October 23, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA)

The gospel according to Kanye. He’s turned to God for inspiration and a new image. We take a listen.


Craig Jenkins, music critic at Vulture. (@CraigSJ)

Joshua Lazard, minister at Duke University Chapel. Adviser to Duke University’s student gospel choir, “United in Praise.” (@theuppitynegro)

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Vulture: “The Gospel According to Kanye West” — “Al Green was a born pastor, an Arkansas church kid raised in a family so devout they threw him out at 16, when his father found a Jackie Wilson record the young singer smuggled into the home for inspiration. This war between secular and liturgical music, between soul and gospel, raged in Green throughout his early-’70s hot streak, where romantic fare like ‘Call Me’ and ‘Tired of Being Alone’ was balanced out by religious favorites and faithful originals like ‘God Is Standing By’ and ‘Jesus Is Waiting.’ The scales tipped in 1974, when Green’s sometime girlfriend, Mary Woodson, scorned by his refusal to get married, doused him in boiling grits in the bath, and shot herself. By 1976, Green had renounced secular music and become pastor of a Memphis Baptist church. The gospel records bricked on the charts (perhaps unfairly, considering the unbridled fire of performances captured in the 1984 documentary The Gospel According to Al Green), and Green returned to secular music in the ’90s and aughts, but he never left the church.

“Bob Dylan had a silver cross thrown his way by a fan at a San Diego gig late in his lengthy 1978 world tour, a comeback of sorts after the whimsical Rolling Thunder Revue excursion. Instinctively, he picked it up. Ill in Arizona the next day, he put the cross around his neck. Things got mystical from there. Dylan says an apparition appeared to him in the night. ‘There was a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus,’ he told the Washington Post in 1980. His next three albums — 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, and 1981’s Shot of Love — explored spiritual themes and Christian eschatology, to what critics considered to be diminishing returns. Dylan’s abrupt gospel detour broke his lengthy streak of gold- and platinum-selling studio albums and incurred the wrath of admirers like John Lennon, who, in the last months of his life, rebuffed Slow Train Coming’s ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ with the caustic answer song ‘Serve Yourself.’ Dylan wouldn’t see another platinum album until 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

“There comes a time, when musicians devote themselves to big questions, where the biggest question of them all comes calling, the question of what, if anything, orders the universe. Sometimes, mercurial ones whose work views the world and its processes from a bird’s-eye view see purpose and intent behind the rhythm and balance of human life. Some take to calling that intent ‘God.’ Inquisitive ones might go long, poring over readings as one might sponge up culture in a trip to another country, as Dylan did in an intensive three-month Bible-study course in the late ’70s, as Kanye West has this year, meeting with pastor Adam Tyson of Santa Clarita’s Placerita Bible Church on Tuesdays to flesh out questions of faith that have informed his art since ‘Jesus Walks.’ ‘I was being convicted that I was running away from God,’ Tyson recalled West saying, interviewed on the Pure Flix podcast this fall, ‘and I knew I needed to make things right, so I came to Christ.’ West’s new album and Imax short film Jesus Is King turn sharply away from the druggy, horny moods of The Life of Pablo and Ye, but can music’s biggest ego be tamed?”

Billboard: “Using This Gospel: The Black Community’s Skepticism of Kanye West’s New Direction” — “Kanye West starts conversations and debates. He’s provocative by trade — it gets the people going — especially over the last almost two years.

“The rapper emerged in early 2018 from an uncharacteristic period of quiet sporting a MAGA hat, doubling down on support of Trump, and proclaiming slavery “sounds like a choice.” In many Black conversations online, in print and in person, the tone regarding Kanye used to be a bemused but still warm and sometimes empathetic recap of his antics — a ‘bless his heart.’ Sentiment is now overwhelmingly ‘enough of him, already,’ or even a straight ‘f–k Kanye.’

“When Kanye was just disrupting telethons, crashing award stages, and ranting about fashion conglomerates, there was at least the sense that the rapper was fighting, in his own maybe misguided way, for a greater collective good. Now, after years of extending West grace — because of the tragic loss of his mom in 2007, because of his mental and emotional health, because of his talent, or just because the Black community’s instinct is to protect our men publicly — the collective Black ‘we’ are largely done trying to decipher his motives and intentions.”

Vibe: “Kanye West, ‘Jesus Is King,’ And The Unspoken Bipolarism In Between” — “Last week, Kanye West brought his California-based Sunday Service event series to his hometown of Chicago. In a clip that’s been making the rounds on social media, West is seen in the middle of the massive crowd, attempting to move toward the stage to watch his assembled choir perform both standard hymns and gospel interpolations of 2000s pop/R&B songs. When a security guard intervenes to lead the way, Kanye grabs him by the shoulders.

“‘Step back,’ Ye says confidently. ‘Watch this. This is my city.’ He then proceeds to walk through the crowd, parting the sea of people with minimal hand movements. As he passes through, fans call him by his alter-ego, Yeezus, while screaming in a manner reserved for the day you finally meet your hero.

“‘Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses,’ The Shade Room posted on Instagram along with the video. Naturally, I migrated to the comment section, where it didn’t take long to find one of the most-liked responses: ‘This isn’t about God or church and it’s sad to witness.’ “

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