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Still Christian, still Kanye: God’s light shines in the darkness on ‘Donda’

KANYE WEST

FPA | Full Picture Agency | AFP

Matthew Becklo - published on 09/14/21

He may leave some Christians cold, but for non-Christians, the album might just put them on a path to an encounter with God.

“This the new me, so get used to me.”

So raps Kanye West on his long-awaited tenth studio album Donda, named after the rapper’s late mother, who passed away in 2007. It’s a fitting tagline, because by now, many of Kanye’s old fans probably expected him to stop being so Christian, and many of his newer Christian fans probably expected him to stop being so . . . well, Kanye. But Donda offers ample evidence that he is still very much both: a man wrestling with his past, forging through the present, and thirsting for more of the grace that finally perfects nature.

The album dropped with no small amount of controversy and confusion: delayed release dates, multiple album covers, a public feud with fellow rapper Drake, and no less than three dramatic listening events, which featured sights like Kanye soaring up in the air and setting himself on fire, his wife Kim appearing in a wedding gown (which was captured in the music video for “Come to Life,” and which is also throwing reports of a pending divorce into question), and appearances from Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, both of whom are also featured on the album and both of whom are presently under fierce public scrutiny. 

Whatever one makes of all of these theatrics, one thing is clear: it hasn’t exactly hurt album sales. In fact, within 24 hours of its release, Donda was breaking records left and right: it reached #1 on Apple Music in 152 countries worldwide, became the year’s most-streamed album in a day on both Spotify and Apple Music, and even had the second-biggest debut on Spotify (100 million streams) and third-biggest debut on Apple Music (60 million streams in the US alone) in the history of the platforms. 

In many ways, what these millions are hearing is a striking departure from Jesus Is King. In the first place, it’s much longer—27 tracks clocking in at almost two hours—and the stated theme is not the rapper’s newfound faith but his late mother, who was a professor in Chicago State University’s English department. The opening track is a chant of her name, her voice is featured on “Praise God” and “Donda,” and her life—and death—are referenced on multiple tracks.

The production and lyrics of the album are also darker and grittier. (The album is clean, but not squeaky clean; for example, the verses are peppered with muted expletives.) The Gospel singing of the Sunday Service Choir plays more of a background role throughout, making room for big names like Jay-Z (“Jail), the Weeknd (“Hurricane”), and Chris Brown (“New Again”), as well as more underground rappers like Royce da 5’9”, Jay Electronica, and The Lox. On the second track “Jail,” Kanye sings: “I’ll be honest, we all liars / I’m pulled over and I got priors . . . Guess who’s going to jail tonight?” There are references not only to incarceration, but to murder, suicide, death, hospitalization, loneliness, deceit, betrayal, and the devil. From the pulsing anxiety of “Ok Ok” to the melancholy mood of “Moon,” the album casts a great, sad shadow of sin and suffering, and regret and of pain, with few moments of respite.

But into this darkness—not from without, but from within—shines the light of Christ. On a few tracks, Christian hope comes entirely to the fore: on “24,” Kanye and the Sunday Service Choir declare “God’s not finished,” and on “New Again,” Kanye raps, “What they vandalize, He’ll evangelize / He gon’ part the tides, He gon’ part the skies.” But more often, the religious element emerges in subtle references, titles (“Jonah”), and choruses of certain songs, as on “Hurricane,” in which the Weeknd sings: “I want you to see, I can walk on water / Thousand miles from shore, I can float on the water / Father, hold me close, don’t let me drown / I know you won’t.” 

Occasionally, deeper spiritual meanings are also poetically embedded beneath the surface. “Lord I Need You” is, on the face of it, about Kanye’s relationship with Kim; but the beautiful chorus, inspired by Briana Babineaux’s rendition of a Gospel song, embeds the mystery of marriage, in a move echoing St. Paul (Eph. 5:25–33), in the mystery of salvation. The cinematic “No Child Left Behind” is at first glance a song of political or personal significance; but Kanye’s repetition of the line “He’s done miracles on me” transform the title into a reflective light of the Scriptures: “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:20)—which is to say, all of us. “God our Savior . . . desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3–4). 

But the highlight, at least for me, is the track “Jesus Lord,” which is a kind of center of gravity for Donda, drawing together its various elements. Kanye reflects on the loss of his mother: “I swear you brought life to the party / When you lost your life, it took the life out the party. . . . If I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life? / And if I die tonight, will I see her in the afterlife? / But back to reality, where everything’s a tragedy.” He then weaves together a painful story punctuated by references to drugs, abortion, and murder. At the song’s conclusion, the theme of incarceration emerges again through a recorded message, over two minutes long, from Larry Hoover, Jr., who reflects on the impact of his father’s incarceration on their family, and Kanye’s plea for clemency on his father’s behalf at the White House. 

But from the outset, this dark, dramatic portrait is transformed into a drama of salvation:

Tell me if you know someone that needs (Jesus, Lord)
Now we’ve been through a lot of things
Tell me if you know someone that needs (Jesus, Lord)
He lives in a lot of things
Tell me if you know someone that needs (Jesus, Lord)

That chant, that ache, that prayer—“Jesus, Lord”—repeats throughout the entire song, including the over 11-minute reprise that closes out the album. 

To the chagrin, I’m sure, of many, Kanye West is still clearly a believing Christian. But how this shapes his understanding of his past, and his movement into the future, is still an evolving reality. If Jesus Is King was the triumphant planting of a flag on new ground, this ode to a mother is a cutting out into a new world with new vistas, a deepening and maturing of a new era. Donda’s more subtle, gritty, and occasionally overly casual approach to matters of faith may leave some Christians cold; but as for many non-Christians, it may challenge their notions of what the intersection of Christianity and art can look like, and perhaps even put them on a path to an encounter with God. It follows “Wash Us in the Blood” in taking a more sacramental approach to reality, seeing God not as a wholly transcendent force, but as the ground of being that has entered into time through Jesus, and continues to well up in the world with all its dysfunction—whether in the streets, in broken homes, or in the broken lives of celebrities—transforming it all for his greater glory. 

Where this is all headed, only God knows; but that Kanye West continues to meet so many people where they are, and share with them with the light of Christ, only God could have done.

“He lives in a lot of things,” indeed. 

Tags:
Christian MusicMusic
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