By: Kelsey Nowack, Administrative Manager for The Catholic University of America
“Use this Gospel for protection, it’s a hard road to heaven”
Is this lyric the work of Chris Tomlin? Matt Maher? Lauren Daigle? Shockingly, this is actually the first line of the chorus to twenty-one time Grammy award-winning artist Kanye West’s new song “Use the Gospel.” It is the tenth track on his new Gospel inspired album “Jesus is King,” released on October 25, 2019. And no, I promise you are not the only person wondering what type of alternate universe we have entered. Let me explain.
Producer and rapper Kanye West is best known for his critically acclaimed music, iconic “Yeezy” apparel brand, and news worthy lifestyle. He is often caught in the limelight for the wrong reasons, from mental health struggles to controversial statements on race, wealth, and politics. His eight previous records, although heavily successful, are fairly explicit and cover edgy topics from drugs to drinking to sex. However, Kanye’s life seemed to take a turn in early 2019, when he and his wife Kim Kardashian West began hosting “Sunday Services,” which are heavily music-based Christian worship services. Both have identified as Christians in the past, and some of Kanye’s older works contain small references to faith. However, this moment seemed to be different. In late September, it was reported that Kanye West would no longer release any secular music, only Gospel. Then, on October 25th, he released “Jesus is King.”
Kanye’s divergence from mainstream hip hop to Gospel has been met with mixed reactions from both secular and Christian media. In Christian circles, some say his past is unforgivable; others, that this is a beautiful example of conversion. This made me curious, so I decided to listen for myself. Here is a young Catholic’s review of Kanye West’s ninth album, “Jesus is King.”
Songs of Praise
I would categorize the tracks on this album into two groups, the first being “Praise.” These are songs that I found to be similar lyrically to your average Gospel song, often enriched with the voices of a Gospel choir. These tracks include:
- “Every Hour”
- “Everything We Need”
- “Use this Gospel”
- “Jesus is Lord”
Most of the songs follow the structure of a traditional hymn or Contemporary Christian song, with a fixed chorus that is fairly simple and repeated over and over. What sets them apart from some of the other songs on the album is that they have very universal (catholic) themes. Some of these songs, like the opening song, “Every Hour,” and the final song, “Jesus is Lord,” could genuinely be used in a worship setting. They communicate messages of praise and thanksgiving that would be fitting for such an atmosphere.
I really enjoyed these pieces. The beats are great from a musical perspective and the overall messages are extremely positive. The song “Water” in particular wins the Catholic award for me because of its imagery that is reminiscent of Baptism. Am I confused by what Kanye means by certain lines of these songs? Absolutely. But lyrics such as, “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, [that] Jesus is Lord,” are based directly on scripture. There may be some questionable lines, but at their core, I truly think that these songs are praising God.
The second grouping of tracks on this album are those relating to West’s personal testimony. These include:
- “Follow God”
- “On God”
- “God Is”
Stylistically, these tracks are more similar to classic Kanye rap, and also follow his trope of sharing about his personal journey. They do still integrate some Gospel characteristics, but share more similarities with the styles of hybrid hip hop and Gospel.
Although I do see some problems in these songs, their value is clear. I think one problem with these tracks is that they come off as a bit egotistical. It seems that in some of the tracks Kanye writes himself into the role of Christ, and it definitely feels less respectful. By far, I like “On God” the least, because it unintentionally feels as if Kanye is complaining about his circumstances. Even though he does give it all up to God, it does come off as belittling the real struggles of everyday people. However, even if Kanye’s ego seems a bit large in these tracks, he does repeatedly talk about how everything he has comes through the grace of God. I do see the value in sharing a conversion testimony, and think many of the themes he discusses in these tracks are universally relatable.
Overall Impression and “Hands On”
I waited to discuss “Hands On” because of its relevance to this review. At one point, Kanye says, “What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first one to judge me. Make it feel like nobody love me.” This track focuses on how the Christian community has been particularly judgemental of Kanye’s intentions, and highlights how the actions of some Christians do not align with what they preach. It is essential that, as Catholics, we acknowledge that conversion does not take place overnight. Kanye West is far from perfect, but so are we.
The fact of the matter is, Kanye West has a much larger platform for evangelization than even the best Christian artists. Chris Tomlin’s most popular song “Good, Good Father” has more than 80,000,000 streams on Spotify since 2016, and almost all of those streams are probably by people that are already Christians. In just 6 days, “Follow God” already has more than 23,000,000 streams. His biggest song has 608,000,000 streams, and the demographic of his audience is not necessarily Christian. Kanye has the opportunity to bring Christ to those that wouldn’t hear the message of salvation in a traditional way.
As a transitional album into the Gospel genre, I think “Jesus is King” serves its purpose well. Not all of the messages completely align with the Catholic perspective, but they absolutely communicate a genuine, raw faith journey that is sure to inspire. So should you use “Closed on Sunday” to teach Theology? Probably not. But is this album a great bridge from unbelief to belief? Absolutely. I have mad respect for Kanye West’s dedication to his faith and willingness to take a big risk with “Jesus is King,” and I am excited to hear the Gospel music that he releases next.
*You might notice I didn’t include the track, “Closed on Sunday,” because with lyrics like “You my Chick-Fil-A,” I really just can’t get on board. I get that it has a decent message about raising a faithful family, but I can’t hear the chorus without laughing.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs