When Christ Came for Kanye
Yeezus has met Jesus.
Kanye West’s Jesus Is King has resulted in a flurry of hot takes and think pieces, both celebratory and critical. While some are concerned that West’s faith may be a version of Trumpian evangelicalism dressed in hip-hop and others are taking the “wait and see” approach, it’s worth remembering that amid all the speculation, it is God alone who searches and knows hearts, ours and otherwise.
Jesus Is King, however, is a musical offering we can search and know. And it is a Jesus-centered worship album through and through, a declaration of praise and a declaration of intent. On “Selah,” a track with intermittent, attacking drums and brooding organ keys, Kanye makes his praise and purpose evident in the first bars: “God is King, we the soldiers.” The military imagery is fitting. West, whose music has always been salted with Christian allusions yet who once declared “I Am A God,” is now under new holy orders. Jesus Is King is both West’s declaration and his marching orders, the truth he wants all to hear.
Nowhere is this intent clearer than on the three-song sequence of “God Is,” “Hands On,” and “Use This Gospel.” While several of the album’s songs feel like incomplete sketches (the same criticism was rightly leveled at 2018’s ye), these three are the project’s most polished work. As the only songs over three minutes long, they are vital to understanding his expression of Christianity. These tracks are a mini-narrative that encapsulate the core themes of West’s current Christian journey: revelation, consecration, and mission.
On “God Is,” West sings of God’s saving power revealed over a pitched up and looped gospel sample. With that stirring choir backdrop, West takes center stage to testify in his shaky, but charming falsetto:
You won't ever be the same when you call on Jesus' name
Listen to the words I'm sayin', Jesus saved me, now I'm sane
And I know, I know God is the force that picked me up
I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup
I know God is alive, yeah
He has opened up my vision
Giving me a revelation
West’s lyrics remind us that God is not an abstract idea; in his mercy, he actually acts for us in Christ, picking us up from the pit of sin and despair, revealing his truth and grace, filling us with his love and mercy, and leading us to walk in the newness of life. As a fan of West’s since 2002, I’ve often been lifted by his music into moments of transcendence, but never has it so explicitly and vividly drawn me to rejoice at the grace Christ has shown me.
“Hands On” finds West, assisted by gospel legend Fred Hammond, lamenting “working for [the devil] my whole life.” Yet the focus of the song is the cold reception West has felt from the church: “Told people God was my mission / What have you been hearin' from the Christians? / They'll be the first one to judge me / make it feel like nobody love me.”
Surprisingly, West doesn’t simply vent his church hurt. He goes further, extending mercy to the church, pleading for them to support him in prayer:
I deserve all the criticism you got
If that's all the love you have, that's all you got
To sing of change, you think I'm joking
To praise his name, you ask what I'm smoking
Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah
But I have a request, you see
Don't throw me up, lay your hands on me
Please, pray for me
Implied in West’s request is the understanding that faithfulness to Christ is impossible apart from the nurture of God’s church. West’s humble plea for prayer is a testament to the depth of his faith; how Christians respond to such a request reveals much about ours. West’s plea has forced me to healthy introspection: knowingly or not, have I come to the point where those who have freshly tasted the grace of Jesus—like West—need to be interrogated at arms’ length before I rejoice over the lost that has been found?
Jesus Is King is both West’s declaration and his marching orders, the truth he wants all to hear.
Having witnessed God’s revelation and having sought consecrating prayer from the church, West turns toward the world, calling listeners with a subtle urgency to “Use This Gospel.” Strangely, “Use This Gospel” doesn’t begin with a soul sample or the transcendent intonations of his Sunday Service choir, but with five, off-putting seconds of a sound that can only be described as the beeping car alert you hear when your seat belt isn’t fastened. (If you listen to this while driving, expect to keep checking your doors and belt.)
This beeping sample is soon accompanied by West’s melodic humming and crooning hook: “Use this gospel for protection / It’s a hard road to heaven / We call on your blessings / In the Father we put our faith.” Here the lyrics interpret the production and the production conveys the urgency of the lyrics. It’s no wonder the song starts with a singular pulsating alert. In a way, the beeping sample serves as an alarming sound for West’s alarming truth: unless we “use this gospel”—that is, receive Jesus as King—we remain in a state of spiritual danger, on a road that “leads to destruction." For West, Jesus is King is a commission, a truth to be personally received and urgently proclaimed.
In the Imax documentary released alongside Jesus Is King, West’s new, mission-driven holy orders are humanized. West appears at the end of the film, tenderly holding his child in his arms, singing the “Use This Gospel” chorus a capella. The same gospel West desires for his child to “use" is the message he wants to declare to the world.
Whatever lies within Kanye West’s heart, Jesus Is King demonstrates the beautiful arc of redemption that is true for every person who encounters the saving love of Jesus Christ: we are transformed by a revelation of who God in Christ is, we desperately need the prayerful nurture of God’s church, and we share and embody the good news of Jesus to those around us. Admittedly, it’s a shock to hear West craft an album so singularly focused on worshipping Christ. But as I reminded myself after my initial listen, because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst,” it’s really no surprise that Jesus has come for Kanye.