By Aaron Gonsher (Washington Square News, NYU)
It's a disconcerting image: Kanye West in liturgical colors, quietly genuflecting as a soft glow diffuses through rosy stained glass windows. Light passes over him, and the wires wrapping his jaw snap away, clearing his diction for the first time in ages. As he walks out of the church, the resounding echo of his shoes stomps out a simple rhythm — bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp-bah-bomp. All that's missing is the celestial choir (but Kanye figured that out soon enough).
It's easy to forget how incendiary "Jesus Walks" was. At the time of its release in 2004, songs like "Freak-A-Leek" and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" still dominated the Billboard charts. Kanye himself recognized the distinction: "They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns sex lies video tape / But if I talk about God my record won't get played." Sure, one could argue that he abandoned one set of popular themes for Christian exploitation, but that would be denying just how honest, sincere and unapologetic he was in his approach.
At the risk of sounding reductionist, "Jesus Walks" was the "Heroin" of rap, the first time a taboo subject matter was addressed so succinctly and straightforwardly. Like Lou Reed's song, it also eventually became separate from the image of the artist himself. If Reed was consumed by the need to spike his veins, Kanye West ached to be a prophet, to experience the agony and the ecstasy, stigmata and all. It's a consumption that has slowly faded away since "The College Dropout," and now Kanye seems more prone to self-victimization than doing anything truly inflammatory (that Taylor Swift incident notwithstanding).
But "The College Dropout" remains sermonic. It begins with the admonition to give "somethin' that the kids is gonna love when they hear it." Throughout, Kanye acts the consummate preacher, railing for the duration of the album against evils in both society and from within, weaving his own experiences into parables and cautionary tales, summing things up more often than he allows for any loose interpretations. It's an artistic and personal manifesto presented for the education of others, and the spiritual fervor of religion and preaching is ever-present within it. He yearns for ideals of absolute goodness. Yearns, too, for persecution.
Kanye's religiosity even goes so far as to infect the aspirations of his guests. "Never Let You Down" ends with an unadorned sermon by J. Ivy that describes the raps as "hymns from Him" and ends with a commandment to take the listeners to church. In the same song, Jay-Z compares himself to an archbishop and Pope John Paul.
What about that Rolling Stone cover where Kanye wears a bloodied crown of thorns? Or his first performance at the Grammy Awards, featuring Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama? In that performance, Kanye re-enacted his car accident and fell into the arms of a praying figure, returning with a bang in a pure white suit and wearing angel wings. This scene is of startling pomposity and arrogance, but the key to "Kanye as preacher" is in the first half of the song: gesticulating wildly, Kanye moves around the crowded pews of shaking churchgoers, inciting them onward and upward with his words and rants. It's a mesmerizing and well-constructed image of spiritual inspiration.
This article is published by Washington Square News- click the link to read more or for more information.