In 2002, Kanye West played an early version of “Jesus Walks,” his religiously themed rap song, to a small industry audience in New York. Recently arrived from Chicago, West was a young, mid-tier hip-hop producer, not known for his fluency in the tough-guy discourse then dominant among rappers. His track, which emphasized spiritual warfare over street violence, was greeted with bemused appreciation, at least to his face. But when West left, the room exploded in derisive laughter. “A few people even mocked him, mimicking his rap voice and making fun of his over-the-top zeal,” one of the observers, Jensen Karp, would later recall. “One major producer … even asked his assistant to make sure Kanye never performed like that again.”
Fourteen years later, West’s announcement that The Life of Pablo, his seventh album, would be a gospel album found once more an audience of little faith. No genre of black music seemed more antithetical to the dazzling, innovative mainstream rap for which West had become both famous and rich. Though Christian rap had existed for a long time, it did so only as an obscure and unprofitable subgenre. Birthed in New York, mainstream rap’s materialist focus on the here and now has always set it apart from the tradition of black music running from gospel, through soul, to R&B. In their lyrics, many prominent New York rappers flaunted their contempt for organized religion: One could cite The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 track “Suicidal Thoughts” (“When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell”) or, more recently, A$AP Rocky’s denunciation of corruption in the black church on last year’s “Holy Ghost”:
The pastor had a thing for designer glasses:
Yeah, I’m talking fancy plates and diamond glasses.
The ushers keep skimming the collection baskets
And they trying to dine us with some damn wine and crackers.
But just as “Jesus Walks” proved the skeptics wrong, selling over two million copies and winning the 2005 Grammy for Best Rap Song, West’s new album also delivers on its promise. The Life of Pablo proclaims its belief from the very start. “Ultralight Beam,” the first track, opens with a child’s voice enthusiastically imitating a pastor (“We don’t want no devils in the house, God!”) and features gospel superstar Kirk Franklin. West sings the refrain, “This is a God dream, this is everything,” while his fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper (real name Chancelor Bennett) seizes the only rap verse. It is a triumphant verbal display that boasts one moment and quotes a hymn the next:
You can feel the lyrics, the Spirit coming in Braille;
Tubman of the underground, come and follow the trail.
I made “Sunday Candy,” I’m never going to hell—
I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail!
This little light of mine Glory be to God, yeah.
Often imitated, West now has actual disciples. Chance’s own mixtape, Coloring Book, is a match for Pablo in its holy righteousness; meanwhile the West Coast virtuoso Kendrick Lamar, who includes West among his myriad influences, explores sin and redemption on his recent albums. Listen to these three together and a striking trend emerges: Some of the most prominent and critically acclaimed artists in rap are finding religion. At first glance, this could be mistaken for a conservative shift, a retreat into otherworldly rectitude within an art form known for its realism and insolence. But these artists are also at the forefront of the ongoing revival of explicitly political hip hop—and in the context of Black Lives Matter, the religious themes in West, Chance, and Lamar take on a radical edge.
Though Chance the Rapper routinely defers to Kanye West as an aesthetic and spiritual forebear, the Gospel teaches that the Son and the Father are one. The similarities between their new records are remarkable. Just as Chance features with a church choir on the first track of Pablo, Kanye West features with a choir on Coloring Book’s opening song. Like Pablo, Coloring Book wears a sacred heart on its sleeve. “This for the kids of the king of all kings, this is the holiest thing,” Chance announces on “All We Got,” a thunderous hymn to the power of black music. Two songs bear the title “Blessings”; another is named “Angels.” There is great exaltation (“How great is our God,” repeats the introduction to “How Great”) and some vaunting, too, as Chance declares that he literally speaks to God in public.
Not all of Coloring Book—a title suggestive of the Good Book, but also of juvenilia and nonwhiteness—is religiously themed. “No Problem” and “Mixtape” address business matters, as Chance jeers in the latter at record labels and the rappers signed to them: “How can they call themselves bosses / When they got so many bosses?” Fusing childhood nostalgia with mourning, “Summer Friends” is about Chance’s grief at the loss of many of his friends to gun violence during their adolescence. “All Night” is a straightforward song for and about dance clubs. All the same, the tone is pensive and redemptive throughout.
Despite all the close ties between Chance and West—their common class, race, and hometown; their shared religious tendencies; their recently becoming fathers—in its spirit of uplift, Chance’s album-quality mixtape is the antithesis of The Life of Pablo. For all its ambition, West’s album arrives at something less than moral perfection. The songs dissolve from a sacred radiance (“Ultralight Beam,” “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”) into a nihilistic period of doubt (“FML,” “Real Friends,” “Wolves”) before terminating in a cool, ambiguous twilight (“30 Hours,” “No More Parties in LA,” “Fade”) where recovery and loss seem equally probable. The sound shifts from warm to cold, smooth to jagged, lush to denuded as it strains to match West’s oscillations between gladness and despondency, devotion and suspicion. Pablo suffers from the desire to possess the world in its entirety, documenting the artist’s temptation by the demons of despair, adultery, and silence.
In Coloring Book, the spirit of temptation never interrupts the aura of sanctified fervor, even though it is alluded to (“I might give Satan a swirlie”). The mixtape commits itself to the smaller spaces of family and personal faith, and sometimes lapses into spiritual and sonic complacency, inadvertently equating monogamy and monotheism with monotony. Vexed and clamorous, Kanye West does not merely speak with God; he goes so far as to claim on his prior album Yeezus that he is a god. Chance, on the other hand, is humbled by the holy presence. He believes in God exactly as he believes in Kanye West—with grateful servitude. “Kanye was there when I tried out for the talent show,” he tweeted in May. “But still, every time I talk to him it feels foreign. I still get nervous and starstruck.… I’ve always known him and will never know him. I’m content with that.”
Meanwhile, far from Chicago, Kendrick Lamar shares the humility of Chance and the unimaginable ambition of Kanye West. In the past four years, the 29-year-old rapper from Compton, California has established himself as both the most accomplished and most pious rapper of the present moment. Lamar’s first major-label album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), begins with several young men praying for forgiveness through Christ. The prayer’s full significance only emerges later in the album, when it is repeated after the death of one of Lamar’s friends; members of a rival gang beat up Lamar, and his friend was killed trying to avenge him. The meaning of Christianity on the album comes into focus: It is the only way to break open an otherwise endless cycle of vice and violent retribution. “Alright,” the cornerstone track of Lamar’s second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), begins with the assurance, “I’m fucked up, homie, you fucked up, but if God got us, then we gon’ be alright.”
Though a supremely gifted entertainer, Lamar is willing to sacrifice pleasure on the altar of moral conviction. And, like Kanye West, he is willing to scandalize in the pursuit of justice. In 2005, West stirred up controversy with his claim, on live television, that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. Though less spontaneous than West, Lamar does not hesitate to break with social conventions. In his presentation of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” at this year’s Grammys, he equated the mass imprisonment of black Americans in the present with their enslavement in the past, and contrasted this state with the freedoms of African dance. The performance drew terrific, almost terrified, applause from the predominantly white studio audience. At Black Lives Matter rallies in 2015 and at an anti-Trump protest in Chicago in 2016, crowds chanted lyrics, quoted above, from “Alright.”
It’s no coincidence that Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar—the three rappers most devoted to synthesizing religion and mainstream rap today—interweave religious themes with explicit demands for racial justice in their music. It’s not merely theology that they wish to introduce to their art form, but liberation theology. West openly embraces Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam on The Life of Pablo, and Chance shares verses with Muslim rapper Jay Electronica on Coloring Book’s “How Great.” The religion in these songs is not especially concerned with the traditionally exclusive doctrines of Christianity. It would be closer to the truth to say that black cultural identity itself is the religion, a religion in which black Christians and black Muslims form two separate but noncompeting sects. The rites of this religion would be nothing more or less than the performance of black music itself, with rap at the forefront.
It isn’t difficult to spot the vast ambition in this shift in tone. Any rapper who conceives of rap as a religion of salvation necessarily nominates himself as a savior not just of hip hop but of black America. If such a Jesus walks, the likelihood he’ll march eventually is very high indeed.