From its invocation of the Trinity to its use of prayer in Latin, the album is the latest evidence of the influence of the Catholic Church.
If you want evidence that 2020 was a crazy year—not that anyone needed it—it is this: on Christmas day, Kanye West’s Sunday Service Gospel choir released a classical choral EP entirely in Latin, and hardly anyone batted an eye.
In defense of those of us staggering over the finish line to 2021, Emmanuel only consists of five musical vignettes clocking in at just 12 minutes, and it dropped as a surprise with little fanfare. Nevertheless, while various music sites gave a perfunctory update on the EP, its religious and historical significance as a piece of music was largely missed—especially in light of what increasingly looks to be a Rome-ward trajectory of Kanye’s Christian journey the past three years.
A very Catholic album
The album unfolds on Trinitarian terms. Its title, a Hebrew word meaning “God with us,” was used by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 7:14) in connection with a virgin bearing a child, and was understood by the early Church to be an anticipation of Christ (Matt. 1:23). Meanwhile, the cover shows a descending dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
But while this surface invocation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may not be surprising in light of Kanye’s conversion, the choir’s deliberate use of Latin for all the song titles and lyrics is. Latin, of course, is the official language of the Vatican, and is widely associated with the Catholic Church and its history, a deep well of worship, prayer, and art—very much including music.
The EP opens up with “Requiem Aeternam” (Eternal Rest), the name of an ancient Catholic prayer for the dead that also opens up the Requiem Mass. Rev. Garrett Ahlers noted that Kanye’s wordless composition, which appears to be an original, reflects “heavy influence from Old Byzantine chant” as well as “thick textures of Mozart’s Requiem,” giving it “a more modern flavor.” (The other wordless track, the lovely “Puer,” which is Latin for “boy,” would appear to be connected to “Puer natus est nobis,” a Gregorian chant for Christmas. But one Kanye fan pointed out that it actually appears to be a take on Patrick Doyle’s “Kissing in the Rain” from the Great Expectations soundtrack—a surprising but fascinating blending of the contemporary into the ancient.)
Next comes a pair of more recognizable Christmas songs: “O Mira Nox,” a Latin rendering of the chorus for “O Holy Night,” and “O Magnum Mysterium,” a liturgical Christmas chant (lyrics here) made famous by Morten Lauridsen’s 1994 transcendent composition. The Latin spin on the classic 19th-century French carol (which appears to be a very rare choice) and the beautiful setting of the older choral chant (which, as Rev. Ahlers explained, is “highly influenced by the Renaissance tradition” and takes its musical cues from Palestrina’s composition, with additional influence from Laurisden—but ultimately appears to be another original) both represent unique contributions to the world of Christmas music.
Kanye’s dreams of a Gospel university
The album closes with the Sunday Service’s version of another ancient Christian prayer, the “Gloria,” whose first line mirrors the song of the angels to the shepherds in Luke 2:14. The choir has performed the song before in English (with slightly different wording), but here they appear to sing, in Latin, “Gloria, Gloria, Dominus Deus Omnipotens, Laudate Dominus” (Glory, glory, Lord God almighty, praise the Lord). When he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Kanye used this song to paint a picture of what he hopes to do with music in the future: “The songs that we’re doing at Sunday Service is basically my book of hymns for the future Gospel university that I’m creating, where I’ve envisioned, and will manifest, a two-hundred-thousand seat stadium, circular, with a hundred thousand Gospel singers . . . the coliseum for God. And have you heard soccer chants? . . . I envision that for God: a hundred thousand people, sometimes singing in harmony, sometimes in unison.”
Kanye, like Catholic artists and architects of old, is a dreamer—and he dreams big. Having been moved by grace to faith, he is bent on building the biggest and most beautiful things for God that he can. Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that he should be making use of the epic language, music, and prayers of the Church to do it. Catholics today would do well to join him in dreaming that big again; but if present trends continue, he might just join them first.
Listen to Emmanuel on Spotify: