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Psalm 82:6 : I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
Religion and the pursuit of divine power have always been central tenets of Kanye West‘s life and music. Seven years after he drew ire over a Rolling Stone cover depicting him as Christ wearing a crown of thorns, Kanye West’s brazen sacrilege and self-idolation reached a new zenith with the release of his 2013 album Yeezus. The blasphemous religious appropriation, epitomised by the lyric, “I am a god / Even though I’m a man of God,” (which far exceeds John Lennon’s notorious ‘more popular than Jesus’ gaffe), maps the development of Kanye’s faith over 10 years and six albums. The themes of his first releases (The College Dropout, Late Registration) painted him as an evangelical, Jesus-loving momma’s boy. He looked to Christ as a model for how to live; he questioned what constituted Christian behaviour in hip-hop’s culture of conspicuous consumption and sexual promiscuity. In the Yeezus era, Kanye is more concerned with preaching his god-like talents, both musical and phallic.
“Kanye’s position was that of the charismatic, celebrated prophet spreading the good word from behind the pulpit of a studio soundboard.”
In the early days of his career, Kanye was the hip-hop equivalent of a prophet. He desired respect and awe from his fellow men in order to spread amongst them the glory of God. For the wide-eyed, 26-year-old Kanye in his College Dropout days (2004), success was about getting closer to his God, knowing Jesus Christ better. Dropout songs like ‘Fly Away’ and ‘Jesus Walks’ appropriate traditional hymns and church choir rhythms in patently fervent exaltations of Christ, bringing Jesus to the club. In ‘Jesus Walks’, Kanye turns to God for salvation, asking him to “show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down.” Kanye knows that blatant religious sentiment is rare in commercially popular hip-hop: ‘They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh? / Well if this take away from my spins / Which will probably take away from my ends / Then I hope this take away from my sins / And bring the day that I’m dreaming about / Next time I’m in the club, everybody screaming out / Jesus walks.” Rather than sharing the Christian message as a faceless missionary, Kanye’s position was that of the charismatic, celebrated prophet spreading the good word from behind the pulpit of a studio soundboard.
The religious joy of Kanye’s first few albums markedly waned in later releases. Fourth album 808s and Heartbreak (2008) demonstrates the conflicted evolution of his relationship with God, which entered darker, doubt-ridden territory in 2007 following his break-up with fiancée Alexis Phifer and the death of his beloved mother Donda West after complications arising from plastic surgery. Subsequently, Kanye’s respectful, positive attitude to Christianity loosened up, and his wordplay embraced a sex-obsessed hedonism and licentiousness, justified by his absolute certainty in the greatness of his artistic vision. Although far from an atheist, two years later My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy announced his ambivalence towards the religion that had guided him through childhood, resulting in lyrics as in ‘Hell of A Life’ that brag about having the kind of sex that would “Make a priest faint, uh / Make a nun cum,” as well as the resolution, “No more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need.” On ‘Devil in a New Dress’, sex is a temptation impossible to ignore: “The way you look should be a sin, you my sensation / I know I’m preaching to the congregation / We love Jesus, but you done learned a lot from Satan.” Kanye boasts he’s “been talking to God for so long” (‘Clique’), but the conversation is riddled with contradictions.
“If Kanye’s relationship with the Christian God had become problematic, it seems natural that he would explore other mythologies and be attracted to the absolute power of the Pharaohs…”
Kanye found an alternative religious structure to Christianity in the supersized ego and living-god status of the ancient Egyptian kings, the Pharaohs. At several stages throughout his career, Kanye has gestured towards identification with the grandiosity of the Egyptian pantheon, seeming to find its power more alluring than that of any contemporary monarchy. In 2010, in a garish display of wealth, Kanye traded his Jesus chain for a cartoonish oversized, solid gold Horus necklace and a four-finger pyramid ring during his performance at the BET Awards. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped Horus as the God of War and of the Sky; they believed that he protected warriors and gave might to those who paid him tribute. Then, in May 2013, Kanye performed inside a translucent pyramid at a private concert at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Shielded by the pyramid’s murky surface, his barely visible figure suggested a Pharaoh buried within his tomb. If Kanye’s relationship with the Christian God had become problematic, it seems natural that he would explore other mythologies and be attracted to the absolute power of the Pharaohs – as well as the prospect of becoming one himself. He raps on ‘Monster’, “Have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh? / Put the pussy in a sarcophagus / Now she claiming that I bruised her oesophagus,” with typical sex-charged glee.
Kanye flirts with the identities of both mythic deity and mere sinner. If he’s trying to find his true place in this world – a search articulated in Frank Ocean’s cyclical refrain on ‘No Church In The Wild’ (Watch The Throne): “Human being in a mob / What’s a mob to a king? / What’s a king to a God / What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” – then Kanye’s clearly looking up, and not from the gutter. On the significance of the new album’s title, Kanye said that “West was my slave name, and Yeezus is my god name.” By Yeezus, released June 2013, Kanye had conflated his immense and incontrovertible talent with immortality. “I got the answers,” he claimed in his polarising 2013 New York Times interview, “I am the nucleus.” He has also established a growing habit of referring to himself in the third person, projecting an entity beyond himself: “I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means”; “Even a Kanye West has compromised.” Now, having discarded evangelism, Kanye’s self-appointed role is to preach the word of Yeezus, fuelled by his boundless ego and by his belief in his own world-changing cultural significance. “God chose me,” Kanye said during his 2010 VH1 Storytellers performance. “He made a path for me. I am God’s vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.”
“Kanye has felt the need to prove his legitimacy doubly and triply to the rap world, to his fans, to the media, and to himself.”
The hunger for self-actualisation and the aspiration to rise above one’s allocated position in society are fundamental manifestations of the American Dream enshrined in rap culture. The majority of Kanye’s contemporaries from the American East and West Coasts were raised in rough neighbourhoods (Jay Z in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, Nas in Queens, Snoop Dogg on Eastside Long Beach, Eminem in Detroit). For these rappers, success meant fame and money as a means of escaping poverty and crime. In his brilliant memoir Decoded, Jay Z frankly describes life in the projects, and rapping as another form of hustling. A music career offered a potentially lucrative alternative to criminal activity without compromising independence. “My life after childhood has two main stories,” Jay writes. ‘The story of the hustler and the story of the rapper, and the two overlap as much as they diverge… the story of the hustler was the story hip-hop was born to tell.” By contrast, Kanye’s Chicago childhood as the son of an English professor and a counsellor was resoundingly Christian, middle-class and cushy. In 2005, he told Time, “It was a strike against me that I didn’t wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs… I had to hustle in my own way.” Because of his comparatively sheltered, preppy pink polo roots, Kanye has felt the need to prove his legitimacy doubly and triply to the rap world, to his fans, to the media, and to himself.
“Rather than a religious god, Kanye claims to be a cultural, material and musical deity…”
With Yeezus, Kanye ditched the garish gold chains and turned towards a new principle, which he terms ‘aspirational minimalism’. Gone are the outrageous, attention-seeking outfits – the billowing mink coats, the impractical shutter shades, the leather kilts. Always a dapper dresser, for a period Kanye experimented with haute couture, donning male and female runway pieces from luxury European fashion labels, and challenging rap’s ingrained homophobia. He received criticism for doing so – on the widely-circulated 2011 annual list of the Softest Rappers in the Game, a prolific Ghostface Killah impressionist lambasted him: “Crossdressin aint fly son. Fuck is you doin ‘Ye?” But as he continues to dabble in fashion with his own clothing line, Kanye isn’t seeking approval from the hyper-macho world of rap. The wearing of high fashion is part of Kanye’s demonstration of his Wildean commitment to art in all aspects of his life, as he models himself as an icon, a god of art and pop and culture. In the New York Times interview he boasted that, “the idea of Kanye and vanity are like, synonymous.” He is certain of his “complete awesomeness at all times… awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness.” Rather than a religious god, Kanye claims to be a cultural, material and musical deity – one who makes films, defames presidents, creates experimental video projection artworks and designs limited edition $120 white t-shirts.
Having attained prestige as a rapper despite his lack of an OG background, Kanye doesn’t strive for the typical goals of money and material success. His aspirations are higher, his vision larger. Kanye believes in himself as a cultural tastemaker and icon, an artist who is “so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.” He tweeted in July 2013: “I open the debate… The 2nd verse of New Slaves is the best rap verse of all time….meaning … OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD.” [Sic]. If he still covets the traditional rap game tokens of success – the cars, the clothes, the excessive manifestations of wealth – it is with a nuanced awareness of their symbolic properties, and not because of their material worth or a transparent desire to show off. On ‘New Slaves’ he says, “What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things.” In raising questions of desire in the face of temptation, Kanye problematises these symbols of success and material freedom (women, clothes, cars), highlighting rap’s complicity in its own new slavery. He wants us to know that he possesses all of the markers of wealth distributed by the white capitalist system, but that, as one of its self-made kings, he operates on a separate level, looking down on the system from above.
“Kanye’s anxious perfectionism is the cause of his Yeezus incarnation, in which his former glorification of God has given way to constant comparisons between himself and Jesus.“
At the same time, Kanye admits he himself is not free from these constraints, rapping on ‘Bound 2’ about the dangers of having sex in fur coats – “Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink.” Kanye is unable to resolve this paradox, despite the distress it works upon his psyche. The struggle to reconcile the base instincts enshrined by some strains of rap culture with the tenets of Christianity runs through Kanye’s career. He has never been able to sit peacefully in either world, never attained perfection within either set of principles: he and partner Kim Kardashian lived together unmarried for a long time, and had baby North West out of wedlock – his attempt to assume a serious rapper’s perspective was obstructed by the shutter shades. Kanye is ensconced within the money/cash/hoes-oriented culture of so much contemporary rap even as he rejects it. This struggle creates the lyrical contradictions, back-steps and humble-brags that run through Yeezus, as Kanye attempts to dictate perceptions of him even as he continually redefines himself and searches for a stable identity. Kanye’s anxious perfectionism is the cause of his Yeezus incarnation, in which his former glorification of God has given way to constant comparisons between himself and Jesus. These come mired in a flood of openly disrespectful, blasphemous references to Christianity. On the overtly sexual ‘I’m In It’, he not only disregards but attempts to usurp religious power roles: “Uh, I’m a Rap-lic priest / Uh, getting head by the nuns.” Despite the bravado, his spiritual fears linger: “I’m so scared of my demons / I go to sleep with a nightlight.” Deep insecurity has always belied Kanye’s egotistical antics and self-mythologisation. In the tormented hostility of ‘I Am A God’, the song builds through an exhausting succession of outrageous demands, peaking in the genius “Hurry up with my damn croissants.” It implodes under its own pressure, culminating in a sequence of feral, agonised screams. These screams articulate the angst of an artist who seeks spiritual purity but cannot stop himself from coveting. They voice the gap between religious values and rap’s superficial gratifications. Kanye’s existential struggle, equal parts profound and ludicrous, is left unresolved as his cries fade out.
Kanye in 2014 is a conflicted, bombastic, egomaniacal figure of sadness and bravado. He is deeply concerned with the representation and actuality of his self: he’s self-aggrandising but also ‘so self-conscious’. When he attempted a position of absolute authority on ‘I Am A God’, his career-long metamorphosis climaxed in an identity crisis. Lyrically, Kanye is still trying to reconcile his baser instincts, his hubris and his masturbatory self-glorification with his faith, but by combining them in uneasy, sacrilegious permutations he only degrades his purported spiritual integrity beyond repair. Kanye himself doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to claim that he is the God, a god, a prophet, a king, or a mortal. In attempting to appropriate all these roles, to assume their cumulative heft and symbolism, Kanye drains their significance and achieves none, leaving him floating as his own self-created entity and hopelessly alone. The Pharaoh comparison is perhaps ultimately most apt. Like a Pharaoh, or all the most miserably iconic superstars, Kanye’s elevated status distances him from the world he is trying to connect with, surrounded by gold but entrapped within his tomb. For all his power and majesty, his omnipresence is incomplete. He still cannot witness his own performance through the eyes of the crowd.
This essay was first published in a different form in Kanyezine.