Kanye West & ‘Jesus is King’: A Prodigal Come Home?
The music world waited with eager anticipation for September 27, 2019, and was rewarded with absolute silence. Mere weeks before, Kanye West and sources close to him, including his wife Kim Kardashian-West had announced the release of Jesus is King. It was to be a new album from the ever-controversial hip-hop star with close ties to his Sunday Service series of performances.
Fans expected to be presented with a conglomerate of gospel and hip-hop sounds, intricately woven together by the musical mastery of West. Instead, multiple reports of the album being delayed were published the very same week the album was supposed to be released, and as of this writing, the highly anticipated project is yet to drop.
Many Christians, seemingly the primary demographic for the album, remain, at the very least, skeptical, seeing the album as a mere cash grab. Others, choosing to look past West’s antics of late, see the project as a turning point in the artist’s career, hoping that he has turned to Christ after all his struggles. The body of Christ is not wrong to maintain skepticism in Kanye West’s sudden focus on Jesus, yet a complete disregard at the possibility of this shift would be cynical, hasty, and insulting.
Kanye West’s flirtation with Christianity has been a hallmark of Yeezy’s career. Consider the ever-popular, GRAMMY award-winning “Jesus Walks,” one of the most popular tracks released in 2004, or his 2016 collaboration with Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin on “Ultralight Beam.”
Each of these tracks uses explicitly Christian lyrics and themes, representing only a portion of the focus behind the projects they arrived alongside. On The College Dropout, West introduced himself as an artist to the world of hip-hop, placing himself in stark contrast to typical notions of what rappers were supposed to be. West was not glorifying materialism, drugs, and gang violence, but independence, family, and God Himself.
2016’s The Life of Pablo bears thematic similarities, but from the perspective of a battle-hardened veteran of the music industry. Addressing his failures in marriage, the death of his mother, and fan expectations, amongst many other weighty topics, the album is heavy-laden with meaningful lyricism and storytelling. While Yeezy’s faith is undoubtedly a major component of several of his projects, because West’s faith relationship has often taken a backseat in the course of his musical journey, there is always skepticism when the GOOD Music founder advertises matters of faith.
In December of last year, West posted a tweet indicating that Chance the Rapper had aided him in returning West to his “…roots and also [West’s] faith in Jesus Christ.” Had the tweet been Yeezy’s sole public acknowledgment of Christ, no one would have batted an eye, yet mere weeks later, Sunday Service emerged on social media. Month after month, footage from the various Sunday Service locations were leaked, with live renditions of West’s own hits and popular hymns such as Fred Hammond’s “This is the Day,” and Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.”
Sunday Service had become such a hallmark of West’s music over the last year that the artist brought one such set to the largest music festival of the year, Coachella. With all this hype driving the showcases forward, fans were left clamoring for a corresponding project alongside Sunday Service, and with Jesus is King, it seems that this request will be met.
In considering how to weigh one’s claims to Christ, Jesus gave a clear command. As written in Matthew 7:16-17, “You will recognize them by their fruits…So every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (ESV). Essentially, one’s works become evidence, although not the basis of their faith. This has often been the reasoning behind the dismissiveness many have approached Yeezy’s transition with, yet there are other biblical components to the questions of West’s faith that must be taken into consideration.
The Parable of the Lost Son describes a young man who had rejected his father’s plans for him to seek his own fame and fortune, yet returned to his father when realizing that such earthly concerns could not satisfy him. The father’s response to his son’s return is to embrace him with the utmost love possible, even throwing a celebration in the son’s honor. The parable is a beautiful depiction of God’s relationship with humanity, and His desire to see His children returned to Him.
Many fans believe that Kanye West lost his way, but if the GRAMMY award winner is truly a prodigal son come home, perhaps it is time we embraced our brother rather than shunning him for experiencing trials that many of us could not begin to understand. Christians have often made hasty convictions of individuals without developing proper relationships with said individuals, missing out on an important aspect of correction. A select few can even claim to have met Kanye West, and even fewer can claim to be one of his companions. Without knowing the man behind the façade of “Yeezus,” can one even begin to make a fair judgment of the Def Jam star?
Whether West’s “come to Jesus” moment is genuine or not, consider Jesus’ words in response to the John in Luke 9:49-50, “John answered, ‘Master we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (ESV).
For the sake of argument, say that Kanye West’s “reawakening” is an opportunistic business scheme, but maintains a strong faith-based tone with a push towards Christ. In this case, West would fall under those who are “not against you,” and Christians would fall into the same category as the disciples. Although Yeezy may not fit the mold of a conventional Christian artist, using his talents to proclaim Christ, even if it is just for a moment in time, Jesus is King can be a vehicle for the advancement of the Gospel.
Kanye West may never be a traditional Christian artist, but as we prepare to listen to Jesus is King, the best thing Christians can do is pray for Yeezy, and hope the next steps of his journey will push Kanye West forward in his relationship with the Almighty.