He’s a jackass.” That’s what Barack Obama said of Kanye West in 2009, after West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards.
The comment was one of the high points in a long-running feud between the two pop stars, and for nearly a decade afterward, it described how many felt about Kanye. The rapper even adopted the “jackass” persona in his subsequent music, first for self-deprecation in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and later as a source of pride in the circus surrounding Yeezus (2013). With each subsequent album, he re-invented it—to fit an asinine mogul in The Life of Pablo (2016) and then a bi-polar Trumpist in ye and KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018). And every time, the disparity between Obama’s description of Taylor as a “perfectly nice person” and Kanye’s image as the supreme “jackass” took on new significance.
So where do the two stand in 2019? Taylor, of course, has embraced the latest rites of “perfectly nice” people. Since becoming overtly political in 2018, she regularly airs her demands for gender equality and LGBTQ rights, and calls for more people to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Why are you mad, when you could be GLAAD?” she chides in the recent “You Need to Calm Down.” “Obviously, I’m pro-choice” she declared in August, after expressing outrage at the pro-life legislation passing in many states. It’s a far cry from when she felt free to use “gay” as a slur in 2006.
But then, everyone is a far cry from where they were in 2006—and Kanye not least. Although Kanye first burst onto the scene with “Jesus Walks” and constantly drops references to God, Jesus Is King, released on Friday, is his first explicitly Christian album. It calls into question his role as the nation’s resident jackass. Gone are the days when he threatened to “choke a South Park writer with a fishstick” and claimed his 2009 outburst made Taylor “famous.” These days, he’s dropping full gospel tracks, making sure his children are baptized, and confessing his constant need for God’s mercy.
And since the album’s release, Kanye has given a series of candid interviews touching on subjects such as his struggles with porn addiction, the abortion industry’s systematic targeting of black people, and his overall disgust with “woke” culture.
“Everybody thinks they’re so woke but they’re following the rules of what woke is supposed to be,” he said Friday. “Hip-hop ain’t never been about following rules. It’s been about doing what you feel.”
And for whatever reason, what Kanye feels right now is Christianity.
Of course, many Christians are not comfortable with that. But most of their criticism so far reads like virtue signaling: Kanye isn’t pure enough because he hasn’t demonstrated a history of his religion—oh, and he wears a MAGA hat. Kanye actually anticipates and addresses that skepticism in “Hands On”: “Said I’m finna do a gospel album / What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me.” It’s fair to hesitate somewhat when a celebrity becomes a Christian, and it would be opportunistic and uncharitable to make Kanye a spokesman for Christianity. But to discount his faith simply because of its newness is cynical.
Moreover, it’s impossible to discount these beats. Jesus Is King kicks off with a full gospel choir, and doesn’t let up through the end of the last track. “Selah” features a Hallelujah-laden interlude that will blow out your speakers. The tracks “Follow God” and “On God” play like classic Kanye bangers, with old-school flows and soul samples. The back half of the album has its standouts, too, especially the reunion of Pusha T and No Malice’s supergroup Clipse on “Use This Gospel” (a true feat of rap ecumenism).
Like every Kanye album, Jesus Is King is a culmination of all his previous work. There’s no profanity, a throwback to 808s & Heartbreak (2008). It’s a short 27 minutes, similar to the brevity of ye. Songs like “Follow God” feature elements pulled from previous songs: Kanye ends it with a piercing scream similar to that of Yeezus’s “I Am A God.” In Yeezus, that scream is an inhuman cry of deification, but in “Follow God” it’s a very human cry of frustration from a man attempting to become more “Christ-like.”
And like the first three Kanye albums, it’s campy. The naysayers are already belittling Kanye’s more goofy asides, such as the infamous “Chick-fil-A” chorus of “Closed on Sunday” and Kenny G’s gauzy sax on “Use This Gospel.” But these are just dumb Kanye jokes—his Happy Gilmore references, Fritos-eating advice, and now his apparent preference for a chicken sandwich with lemonade—and are part of what keep him so fresh.
“Would you consider yourself to be a Christian music artist now?” Jimmy Kimmel asked Kanye over the weekend.
“I’m just a Christian everything,” Kanye replied.
I’m good with it. After all, perfectly nice people don’t become saints. God tends to prefer working with jackasses.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, DC.
Photo by Jason Persse via Creative Commons. Image cropped.