How do the songs of rapper Kanye West help me on my journey as a Christian man?
Throughout the portfolios of two hip-hop legends, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, we find values shared by both: family, loyalty, aspiration. They also share grievances: financial struggle, racism, and social issues. But one area which has consistently preoccupied both artists is that of love and sexuality. Peppered throughout the work of both are lyrics which seem to objectify women or celebrate sexual conquests; such lyrics cause apprehension for many potential listeners, who would quite rightly prefer not to engage with artists who seem to blatantly express such deplorable ideas. But on examining the full portfolio of each of these two artists, I find the picture which emerges to be far more nuanced, and I daresay relatable, than the stereotype of brazen misogyny typically associated with rap music. I hear them struggling with an issue which, in my experience, is all too familiar to any man who identifies as a Christian: the problem of lust, and the devastation it can cause when allowed to take control. Kanye and Kendrick’s continuous grappling with this issue in their music should come as no surprise, then, given that both these men identify as Christians (as confirmed by their own admission, both publicly and in their music). Following on from a previous article about Kendrick, this time I’m diving into Kanye West’s discography to trace a journey of emancipation, from the grip of lust to freedom through Jesus.
Unlike Kendrick Lamar, whose relationship with God since his teen years has been a key feature of every album he has released, Kanye West’s engagement with Christianity in his music is far less consistent. His most recent album, Jesus Is King, seems at first glance to be totally at odds with everything he produced previously. Kanye has recently described himself as a new convert to Christianity, saying that before his conversion he was “asleep”, and now he has “woken up” – he now commits to making only music that glorifies God, unlike all his previous work (which he says he will now rewrite to include more pious lyrics).
It is easy to view the recent change in Kanye’s life with scepticism, given how drastic a departure it is from his previous lifestyle and career, and therefore to wonder whether it is genuine. Could his apparent dedication to Jesus be some sort of publicity stunt, or an artistic choice, or merely a passing phase? Having looked deeper at the lyrics which have chronicled almost two decades of his life, I have found that Kanye’s recent decision to surrender his whole life to God has not come out of the blue at all. It is the latest step on a long road to freedom – freedom from lust.
As Kanye said in his recent interview with Zane Lowe, “My dad had a Playboy left out at age five and it’s affected almost every choice I made for the rest of my life.” In another interview he explained how this impacted his music: in everything that he created, an aspect of lust came through. He explained to Big Boy, “I didn’t know what it meant to be saved. I was talking about, The Life of Pablo was a gospel album – and still it got a picture of a girl in a thong on the cover… But that shows you that, people can want something, and there’s no one around standing up and saying, ‘This is how you get it’.” “I got to a point where I was always letting that Playboy magazine that I found when I was five years old have an effect on my music. It couldn’t ever be one hundred percent everything it could be, ‘cause I had to add that in, always. And it got to the point where, literally, I went from ‘Jesus Walks’  to ‘You’re such a f***ing ho, I love it’  – ooh, I bet you the devil was happy on that day.”
It seems that a part of Kanye’s soul was always seeking salvation from the darkness which trapped him, seeking to be “saved” from the grip of lust. Although often swamped under an appearance of misogyny, greed, and self-centeredness, and despite the additional obstacle of mental health issues in the later years which could only have complicated Kanye’s process of self-expression, I find that there is a longing to be free of it all, which breaks out in brief moments of self-awareness throughout Kanye’s pre-conversion musical catalogue. This longing is perhaps what finally took over when Kanye chose to be born again, spawning the incredible declaration of a radical newfound faith which is Jesus Is King.
On his debut album, The College Dropout (2004), Kanye reflects, “Always said if I rapped, I’d say something significant, / But now I’m rapping ‘bout money, hoes, and rims again” (“Breathe In Breathe Out”). Perhaps more obvious is his lament in “Jesus Walks”: “And I don’t think there’s nothing I could do now to right my wrongs, / I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” On the next album (Late Registration, 2005) we are shown what Kanye was struggling with under the surface the whole time: “Addiction.” Kanye asks,
“Why everything that supposed to be bad make me feel so good?
Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would.
Man, I tried to stop, man, I tried the best I could, but…
What’s your addiction? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed?
I’ve been afflicted – by not one, not two, but all three.”
In each of these examples, it seems to me that the artist is aware, if only momentarily, of a need to break free from the lust which we now know was plaguing him since a young age, to change his lifestyle and turn towards God. Even before the release of Jesus Is King, Kanye was showing some changes in his state of mind: in “Violent Crimes” (ye, 2018), he pleads, “Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma, / ‘Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer.” These are Kanye’s reflections on his attitude towards women, expressed after he became a father to a baby daughter. And yet, a few months later, Kanye released perhaps his most lust-infused track ever, the aggressively provocative “I Love It” (2018) referred to by Kanye in the interview above.
But in late 2019, with the release of Jesus Is King, Kanye’s addiction was finally broken. His music ceased to be overshadowed and controlled by lust, becoming instead a song of gratitude and worship of Kanye’s saviour. As Kanye declares in “Selah”, “Whom the Son sets free, is free indeed”: Kanye is now free of lust, free of shame, and free to build his relationships with God, his wife, his children, and the rest of the world.
Kanye West is the man who made “I Love It”, the man whose collected works feature more sexual references and misogynistic slurs than any other artist I can think of. But when I listen to his extensive portfolio, I do not hear the voice of a depraved misogynist, of a selfish man condoning sexual debauchery. What I hear is the story of a man struggling to escape the grip of lust and never quite succeeding – until Jesus broke through. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 6, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but… against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” By allowing the influence of lust in his music, Kanye was once, as he says, “working for the devil”. Now he joyfully claims a new master, Jesus, who liberates him from the bondage in which he used to operate. This is the same choice that every Christian makes, and continues to make, in choosing to turn away from lust and embrace the only one who could truly set us free: Jesus.