Kanye West “found Jesus” — but Bob Dylan did it first
Nia Sylva | Thursday, November 14, 2019
Kanye West has been born again. Anyone with even the slightest interest in mainstream culture knows this to be true. But that doesn’t make the release of his gospel-rap hybrid album, “Jesus is King,” any less noteworthy. The man once penned a song called “I Am A God.” He delivered lyrics that most Christians would deem blasphemous or, at the very least, misguided — “I know he the most high / But I am a close high” comes to mind — and he often approached religious concepts with a relatively flippant attitude. On “Hell of a Life,” released in 2010, West declares himself worthy of damnation but doesn’t seem particularly upset about it. “We headed to hell for heaven’s sakes, huh! / Well, I’mma levitate, make the devil wait, yeah!,” he raps, embodying both an embrace of debauchery and profound sense of hubris.
These attitudes have all but disappeared on “Jesus is King.” West, who spent the months leading up to his album’s release leading a gospel-rap performance called Sunday Service, has fully embraced his identity as a servant of God. Gone is the rapper’s tendency to posit himself as quasi-divine; in “Follow God,” he recognizes the distance between himself and his Lord, saying “Father, I stretch / Stretch my hands to you.” Similarly, “Every Hour” emphasizes both God’s power and West’s desire to praise Him at all times. Such reverence is a far cry from the casual way the rapper “talked to Jesus” on “I Am A God.” Once, he talked about himself as a “Monster.” Now, he’s singing about his “eternal soul” and speaking about his past shortcomings with humility instead of satisfaction, confessing “The Devil had my soul, I can’t lie / Life gon’ have some lows and some highs.” Clearly, West’s relationship to spirituality has shifted.
I won’t say that the content of West’s new music is entirely unprecedented. His 2004 hit “Jesus Walks” addresses religious themes. Even some of his most irreverent and hedonistic songs, such as the 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z “No Church in the Wild,” still include references to the divine (however twisted).
But “Jesus is King” is an album devoted entirely to God. It is a public declaration of religious faith, a celebration of Christianity that seems out of place, not only within his overall discography, but also as a work of popular music. People already have a lot to say about it. Perhaps shockingly, though, West isn’t the first extremely public figure to express his conversion through song.
When Bob Dylan released his first album of Christian music, it was just as polarizing as West’s (and even harder to believe). Dylan grew up Jewish and had been a loud proponent — and even an emblem — of the counter-cultural movements that characterized the ’60s. And then, in 1979, without making any sort of preemptive public announcement (unlike West), Dylan released “Slow Train Coming,” in which he embraces both God and Jesus. To the acute confusion of fans, he made explicit references to Christianity with songs like “When He Returns” and preached his newfound faith to audience members in mid-concert doomsday sermons. Although still a “challenging and engaging” album, critics failed to appreciate this first foray into religious music; among other things, the entry was called “Bob Dylan’s God-Awful Gospel” by The Independent.
Dylan’s next album, “Saved,” ventured even further into the realm of devotional Gospel, its style and content doing even more to alienate fans who were used to the subversive, “anti-authority” themes found in his previous works. A year later, the singer released “Shot of Love,” which married religious messages with more “secular” tracks. And by 1982, Dylan had returned to faith-free songwriting.
All of this “exploration” lasted only three years and covered only three albums. Hardly anyone remembers the legendary folk singer’s brief “evangelical phase,” which many probably consider a blip in Dylan’s long and prolific career. But the trajectory of Dylan’s time as a Christian raises questions about West’s own conversion. Will it be as brief? As ultimately unpopular? Only time will tell. And if the timeline tracks, then we’ve still got about three years left of “born-again” Kanye.