"I made that song because I am a god. I don't think there's much more explanation. I'm not going to sit here and defend sh*t. That sh*t is rock 'n' roll. That sh*t is rap music. I am a god. Now what?" –Kanye West to W Magazine.
In the era of digital downloads and Vine, whoops, Instagram mini-videos, some have already moved on from discussing the record that only dropped 3 weeks ago. However, as a long-time fan and fellow Chicago native, I felt it was my duty to let the record sit with me, to play it over and over again before feeling like I got it.
Combining dark synths, punk rock, minimalist production, and booming dancehall bass, Yeezus has been met with mixed reviews rivaling 808s and Heartbreak in its polarization of listeners. Publications such as Rolling Stone gave it four-and-a-half out of five stars, while LA Times critic Randall Roberts says that Kanye-critics will have a "replenished arsenal" when they hear its outrageous-if-not-offensive content ("Put my fist in her like the Civil Rights sign”).
Yeezus is also a reminder of how much has changed. Ye' went from an overlooked producer trying to convince industry heads he could rap to a multi-platinum (yet often scrutinized) mega-star with major influence on pop culture. And in light of his artistic rebirth, the 'how' and 'why' in his usage of religious iconography as changed as well.
2004’s The College Dropout (a TIME Magazine–rated "All-Time 100" album) introduced West as a young man grappling with personal contradictions and combating societal self-consciousness in the midst of his own vanity ("Then I spent a hundred bucks on this, just to be like n***a you ain't up on this). The album had a strong gospel influence rarely seen in hip-hop (Sunday School-reminiscent piano on "Family Business" and the Aretha Franklin "Spirit In The Dark" gospel sample "School Spirit" to name a couple), most notably showcased in his fourth single "Jesus Walks."
The prayer-filled hook, powerful gospel choir chorus, and drill sergeant cadence of the beat blended masterfully on Ye's new age Negro spiritual. “Jesus Walks” used religion as a political tool, speaking on the negative social conditions of the time while praying to transcend them. West pleads "God show me the way" as he maneuvers through a cruel society. You don't have to be Christian to relate to his frustration with racism ("we eat pieces of sh** like you breakfast"), classism, and warfare, or to connect with the existential angst of an underdog searching for greater purpose in struggle.
"Jesus Walks” was a powerful counter-narrative pumped into conventional radio. Substituting money, cars, and a handful of women acquiescing to his sexual needs for religion was ambitious for a rap single.
"So here goes my single dog, radio needs this / They say I can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, and video tapes / But if I talk about God my record won't get played?"
This record did get played—enough to win “Best Rap Song" at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards. While the gospel influence in Kanye's music as stayed at a constant ("Roses" and "Hey Mama" on Late Registration and "Everything I Am" and "Glory" on Graduation) and references to his faith didn't disappear, they took a backseat to more frequent mentions of his struggle to live a godly life despite his vices.
'I had a dream that I could buy my way to heaven / when I awoke I spent that on a necklace / I told God I'd be back in a second / Man it's so hard not to act reckless' – “Cant Tell Me Nothing”
West revisited church on his last solo effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The uncensored version of the album cover and lyrics playing with of God, Jesus, and Satan ("Hell Of A Life" and "Devil In A New Dress") created controversy. YouTube scholars screamed "Illuminati!,” with West telling the New York Times that the album is a "back-handed apology"—a retaliatory jab towards media scrutiny. The album went on to be considered by many to be one of the best records of 2010 (five stars from Rolling Stone, and an "A" from Entertainment Weekly).
And now with the current juxtaposition of himself with Jesus, we can reasonably guess that Kanye West sees himself as a "martyr" of pop culture. Ye' professes himself an "anti-celebrity" and his music as creating a new, enlightened culture through challenging the existing one. He confronts the prison industrial complex on "New Slaves" (They trying to lock n****s up, they trying to make new slaves) or the demonization of Black masculinity ("They see a Black man with a White women at the top floor and they'll come and kill King Kong") via "Black Skinheads".
In the same sense, Jesus was a rebel against the dogmatic religious establishment of his time. He went against convention, preaching love and grace as the keys to salvation, not robotic adherence to rigid religious law. People called Jesus' teachings blasphemous, just as people have (and certainly will now) call West. The rapper fancies himself one who speaks "the truth," while Christ is known as the physical and spiritual manifestation of what is ultimately known as "the truth." Both took the traditions they were born in, challenged, and redefined them. Jesus was martyred, literally, while Kanye feels he is martyred figurative, through intense media scrutiny and paparazzi waiting to pounce on every miscue.
But Kanye's "Jesus plus Yeezy equals Yeezus" arithmetic doesn't sit well with many Christians. For them, Jesus's religious, and spiritual meaning cannot be isolated from an artistic one, and West's comparison between what he does for culture and Jesus did for humanity is arrogant, and blasphemous, since West is known to be a Christian.
Taking a giant leap further into hypocrisy, Ye claimed deity status with songs like "I Am A God" (which his W interview revealed to be Ye's diss to the fashion world for snubbing him at Paris Fashion Week). Lines like "I am God/even though I'm a man of God" seem like a vague attempt to mediate his own ego. And hardcore, sexually profane songs like "I'm In It" ("Eating Asian p*ssy/all I need is sweet and sour sauce") could leave some listeners questioning his "piety" even more.
But the larger irony of West's use of religious images, and his art in general, is that he strives to be iconoclastic despite the fact he is a massive icon. He criticizes (justifiably or not) mainstream America, but heavily contributes to it. As an artist signed to Def Jam, who also works with Nike and Louis Vutton, the hypocrisy of denouncing corporations in his lyrics but embracing them in his actions leaves some critics, like Power 105 personality Charlemagne The God, calling Ye' a "fake revolutionary for profit."
The majority of us however, have probably landed somewhere in the ambivalent middle about the album: not really buying Yeezus figuratively, but appreciating the music enough to get over it. For many, West's musical genius reconciles the abrasive nature of his lyrics—and the muddled themes in his message.
"I am a god. Now what?"
Joshua Adams is a writer and teaching artist from the South Side of Chicago. He is currently working on his M.A. in journalism at the University of Southern California.