Kanye West and controversy go together like bread and wine. His recent turn to religion has unleashed a tidal wave of discourse on Christianity, pop culture, and hip-hop. Despite several delays, his hotly anticipated gospel album Jesus Is King dropped last week. After analysing Kanye’s entire discography, we now present an updated overview of Kanye’s spiritual journey, including this current Christian chapter.
As explained in our first investigation, major word searches were performed using an automated R script and lyrics on Genius. It is no surprise that Jesus Is King dominates every other release for Christian references. As an update to our first post, the collaborative albums Watch the Throne (2011) and Cruel Summer (2012) were also included. (New search terms ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ were included, as featured on JIK track “Everything We Need”).
The lyrical breakdown by album is shown below:
This can alternatively be visualised as a word breakdown, with albums colour-coded as follows:
The top three mentions across all Kanye projects go to 1) God, 2) Jesus and 3) Lord. With the release of JIK, The Life of Pablo is relegated to second place for references to Christianity. Watch The Throne places third. This is not surprising, considering the album’s use of religious and Renaissance iconography, including this iconic verse from Frank Ocean on the humanist “No Church In The Wild”:
Human beings 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?
Will he make it out alive? Alright, alright, no church in the wild
While Watch The Throne was an expression of prideful decadence, JIK is an exercise in humility1 and worship. When examining the lyrics on Jesus Is King, it isn’t enough to just consider word count. Of course ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ will be mentioned more than a few times. To gain a better understanding of what exactly Kanye is saying about his faith, the use of these words was categorised into six major faith-related themes, with other themes nominated based on widely accepted theological jargon. While a more subjective approach, a more meaningful insight can be obtained regarding the album’s lyrical content.
This word frequency breakdown is shown below, colour-coded by theme.
Once again, ‘Jesus’, ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ dominate lyrically. Jesus is repeated most often on “Water” (see below), and “Jesus is Lord”. “Hallelujah” features predominantly on “Selah” as a repeated choir refrain.
The themes can be separated as follows, (with the three highest occurring themes highlighted with icons):
One example of a Christian term highlighted includes ‘supplication’ – another word for things brought before God as prayers or requests. This is most clearly shown on “Water”, where Kanye calls on Jesus no less than 16 times for various reasons:
Jesus, flow through us
Jesus, heal the bruises
Jesus, clean the music
Jesus, please use us
While praise and worship dominate the majority of the album’s spiritual focus, there is a surprising balance with prayer. Kanye attempts to humble himself before Christ. After all, the album is called Jesus Is King, not Jesus is My Homeboy.
1. “Sing each and every millisecond” – Worship
The album opens with the Sunday Service choir letting listeners know that this is a no holds barred worship album. Referencing several traditional Gospel standards (example here), the choir sings at full bore to praise the Lord “every millisecond”. The album starts with a bang, including a Pentecostal-type refrain repeated umpteen times.
Sing every hour (Every hour, ’til the power)
Every minute (Every minute, of the Lord)
Every second (Every second, comes)
Sing each and every millisecond (Down)
We need you (We need you, sing ’til the power)
We need you (We need you, of the Lord)
We need you (Comes)
Oh, we need you (Down)
Kanye continues this thread of repetition on the next track “Selah”, with “Hallelujah” being repeated 42 times in total.
Hallelujah is an English transliteration of a Hebrew two-word phrase הַלְלוּיָהּ, meaning “To praise Yah”, i.e. God. It most commonly features in the book of Psalms, the Old Testament collection of songs.
While ‘Hallelujah’ isn’t exactly an esoteric term, Kanye does manage to flex his scriptural knowledge by quoting two verses from the Gospel of John (even long established Christian artists rarely do this in their lyrics). The two verses he quotes are about being “set free”. In the context of his troubled 2018, it’s perhaps no surprise that Kanye is looking for a way out.
Won’t be in bondage to any man
We the descendants of Abraham
Ye should be made free
To whom the son set free is free indeed
He saved a wretch like me
This sets the theme for the rest of the album. Kanye seeks deliverance, and he finds it in Christ. The album deals liberally with ideas of emancipation and thankfulness. As any good born-again Christian knows, the only logical response to salvation is one of thanks and praise.
The other side of worship includes singing about God’s attractive qualities or powerful acts. This is also in abundance on JIK. “God Is” is essentially a checklist of God’s characteristics, and “On God” has Kanye acknowledging that all his life and blessings are because of God.
While he references material and monetary blessings (including a sizeable tax return mentioned in recent interviews), his brushes with mortality have also affected his eternal perspective. Regarding his near fatal car accident in 2002:
In ’03, they told me not to drive
I bleached my hair for every time I could’ve died
But I survived, that’s on God
However, it’s not just about receiving blessings and thinly veiled Prosperity gospel teachings2. Kanye reflects on the character of who God is, even calling him by his traditional Jewish name on “Hands On” (which coincidentally fits with his own sobriquet, Ye):
I was never new ’til I knew of
True and living God, Yeshua
The true and living God
As a sidenote, worship also involves thanking the Lord. While “On God” is thematically about God’s provision, and “Everything We Need” even more so, there is only one line in which Kanye outright thanks Jesus for his help.
On “God Is”, he raps:
This my God-given right
Thank you Jesus, won the fight
2. “Somebody Pray for Me” – Supplication
While praising and worshiping God is important to the Christian life, prayer and supplication is critical too.
Kanye is obviously having a great time in his Sunday Services, leading scores of talented gospel singers in ecstatic singing and hand-clapping. However, on a more personal note, there is a real sense of abandonment and worry in some of the songs on JIK.
On the sombre “Closed on Sundays”, Kanye takes on a humble position, reflecting on surrendering his life to Christ:
Stand up for my home
Even if I take this walk alone
I bow down to the King upon the throne
My life is His, I’m no longer my own
This thread continues in “Hands On”. Christians lay their hands as a sign of support and prayer. Here, Kanye implores those listening to not forget to pray for him in his new mission.
Please, pray for me
Hold myself on death
Hold it down, all fallen down
Somebody pray for me
It’s a possible reference to Kanye contemporary Kendrick Lamar, who also raps about ideas of the spirit, God and the devil in his lyrics. On his Pulitzer-winning album DAMN, he used a lyrical motif to convey his sense of isolation:
Ain’t nobody praying for me
In a subtle callback to his career-defining “Jesus Walks”, Kanye reflects on the fact that rapping about Jesus can cost him his everything. Ironically, evangelical Christians have jumped to be the first to judge his motives and actions.
Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
The other song that deals with prayer as its major theme is “Follow God”. The song is built around a sample of a 1974 Gospel/soul track “Can You Lose By Following God?” by Memphis singer Johnnie Frierson. It’s a spiritual successor to his tracks from TLOP, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”.
As Kanye struggles to be more and more “Christ-like”, he knows he can only do it with God’s help.
I woke up this morning, I said my prayers
I’m all doing good, I tried to talk to my dad
(Stretch my hands to You)
The act of praying is simply to talk with God. These ideas also connect with a lyric on “Jesus Walks”, which Kanye has been flipping in his recent Sunday Service performances. This illustrates a distinct change of heart regarding prayer.
The original lyric was:
I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long
(I want Jesus)
and has been updated in 2019 as:
I want to talk to God, I ain’t afraid.
3. “The Devil had my soul, I can’t lie” – Struggle
While Kanye raps about freedom on “Selah” and “God Is”, he knows that there are still struggles to endure on this earth. On JIK, the main references to the devil are about Kanye’s struggles3.
Lifelike, this is what your life like, try to live your life right
People really know you, push your buttons like typewrite
This is like a movie, but it’s really very lifelike
Every single night, right, every single fight, right?
“I hate what I do, and I do what I hate” is a central idea in the works of the Apostle Paul. It also became a central message of Kanye’s 2017 effort, TLOP (“We don’t want no devils in this house!”) On standout track “Use This Gospel”, No Malice references the story of Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus:
From the concrete grew a rose
They give you Wraith talk, I give you faith talk
Blindfolded on this road, watch me faith walk
Just hold on to your brother when his faith lost
However, it’s not just the devil that believers struggle with. On “Follow God”, Kanye acknowledges that sometimes it is God himself that we have to wrestle with:
I don’t have a cool way, bein’ on my best, though
Block ’em on the text though, nothin’ else next though
Not another word, letter, picture, or a decimal (Father, I stretch)
Wrestlin’ with God, I don’t really want to wrestle
Kanye knows life is an ongoing spiritual battle (he references fighting in the Lord’s army twice on the album). Luckily he knows that he can “Use This Gospel” for protection in his struggles.
4. “You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name” – Miscellaneous
Several other lines stand out from these three categories. Worship and prayer are indeed the primary focuses, but Kanye also manages to remind listeners about the doctrines of salvation (“Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane”), obeying commands (“God is King, we the soldiers”, “Love God and our neighbor, as written in Luke”) and trust (“In the Father, we put our faith”).
Despite declaring that he is on a mission from God to spread love and the Good News, there are very few direct calls for listeners to believe. The only lines tenuously linked to an evangelistic call are a self-deprecating line on “Hands On” (“I’m not trying to lead you to Visas/But if I try to lead you to Jesus/We get called halfway believers”) and an expression of gratitude on “On God”:
“How you get so much favor on your side?”
“Accept Him as your Lord and Saviour,” I replied
The overarching theme is that Kanye simply desires to share how Christ has changed his life. Hopefully this is enough to entice listeners to consider his story and how their own stories can be affected by acknowledging a new king for themselves too. As he raps on “God Is”:
You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name
With his troubled 2017-18 period behind him, Kanye is seeking salvation. His highly publicised conversion has put Christianity at the centre of pop culture discussions. Jesus Is King is not the Gospel hip-hop magnum opus fans may have been waiting for, but it is an earnest expression of gratitude, praise and worship. It serves as a personal testimony as Kanye reflects on his life and how God has brought him this far.
Rather than preaching at fans, Kanye expresses himself the only way he knows – by doing whatever the hell he wants. From ‘chopping up the soul Kanye’4, to fully happy-clappy Gospel choirs, to a Kenny G saxophone solo, the album is an eclectic yet infectious snapshot of one man’s soul and his search for redemption.
Clocking in at around 27 minutes, it is the length of an average church sermon. Kanye invites fans to experience the joy and freedom he has found, simply using his music to point to his newfound King. This is nothing new in the Christian tradition, but for one of modern pop culture’s most influential and divisive figures, this is no small achievement. After years of praising Kanye above all others, Kanye is stepping off his self-appointed throne. It’s a gradual process, but for now, it sounds like he couldn’t be happier.
Graphs and data by Sara Loo (@slootherin). This post is Part 3 of an ongoing series examining Kanye West’s spiritual journey. Clickthrough to read Part 1 and Part 2.
For more insight into Kanye’s overall career, the following graphs are included. The total number of tracks on each album were compared with the number of tracks containing the aforementioned Christian references.
Finally, ‘lines with Christian references’ count can be expressed as a ratio over overall lines per album can be charted against his major Kanye life events, resulting in the following timeline (‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are near negligible, but included for consistency):
1 “I’m unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time.” – Kanye West, October 2019
2 The controversial belief that when you become a Christian, God will bless you materially. It is denounced as false doctrine by mainline strands of Protestant Christianity. Read more about it here.
3 In the lead-up to JIK‘s official release, the leaked tracklist included a song called “L.A. Monster”. The track was heavily inspired by Kanye’s experience in the hub of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles. He likened his time in LA to that of being in the devil’s grip. Read more about our take on it in Part 2 of Kanye’s Spiritual Journey.
4 A reference to the Kanye meme “I miss the old Kanye”, taken from his track “I Love Kanye”
Icons sourced from The Noun Project, courtesy of Simon Stratford, Ian Ransley, Matt M Higgins, Nook Fulloption, Eucalyp, enrico chialastri, Orin zuu, barurezeki, Matt M Higgins, Andrew Doane, Olena Panasovska, Gregory Montigny, and Gilad Sotil.