Theology with Kanye and Chance
WORDS BY CECILIA JOHNSON
Ask the average millennial to quote you either a rap verse or a passage from a religious text, and you’ll probably get some bars. That’s a generalization, but it’s hard to argue with the evidence; only “27% of Millennials [in the U.S.] say they attend religious services on a weekly basis,” while a 2015 analysis of Spotify users (the majority of whom were younger than 30 years old) reported that hip-hop is the most-played genre in the world.
In some ways, rappers are the new prophets. But what good news do they spread? Where do they find salvation, and how do their verses interact with religious texts?
Christianity colors Kanye West and Chance the Rapper’s work through and through. Both artists name-check God and wrestle with their faith. But each rapper channels a different part of the Trinity — Kanye spends his career chasing liberation, claiming to be a messiah but often detouring toward self-deliverance, and Chance is a conduit for immaculate, Holy Spirit-level joy.
A radical artist in both talent and attitude, Kanye West has run into obstacles since he started making music, but nothing has been more of a quicksand than racism. “My momma was raised in an era when/ Clean water was only served to the fairer skin,” he raps in “New Slaves.” “Never Let Me Down” continues, “At the tender age of six she was arrested for the sit-ins/ And with that in my blood I was born to be different.” Racism shows up again and again, everywhere from “Jesus Walks” to “Gorgeous” to “Black Skinhead,” which shows just how heavy discrimination wears on Kanye’s psyche.
Throughout Kanye’s career, he clings to liberation like it might be a dozen helium balloons. How disturbing it must be to crave flight so badly but never leave the earth. In “Touch The Sky,” Kanye sounds like he can taste the wind whipping around him, a fanfare giving his body a boost. But no matter how often he promises he’ll “Fly Away” — no matter how often he wishes he could buy a “Spaceship” — his feet stay soldered to the ground.
On one hand, the supernatural essence of flight as escape route harkens to Black speculative fiction, or sci-fi/fantasy. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the protagonist narrates, “I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself.” Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, draws on an old myth about enslaved Africans flying back to their home continent; the novel’s main character wants to soar his whole life long.
Most of all, the idea of escape syncs with Black Christian theology, which is considerably more liberal than its white counterpart. While white Christians tend to see theirs as an individual faith, Black churches generally frame deliverance as a common good, having strained toward freedom together through centuries of racial oppression. James H. Cone, a leading liberation theologian and author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, says he’s reminded by “the scriptures and the medium of African American history and culture [...] that God’s liberation of the poor is the primary theme of Jesus’ gospel.”
But when Kanye couldn’t fly, instead taking public nosedives for rants like “I’mma let you finish,” it’s like he tried to build himself wings. Back in 2004, he said, “I ain’t play the hand I was dealt, I changed my cards” (“Last Call”). By 2006, the stakes got higher; wearing a brutal crown of thorns, he made Rolling Stone’s cover opposite the headline, “The Passion of Kanye West.” 2012 saw him digging himself further and further down the tunnel of self-declared divinity (“The One”, “New God Flow”). And in 2013, he released his industrial, stinging, and gorgeous creed: Yeezus.
Regarding Chance: he and Kanye are tight. Many present-day listeners credit Chance with mixing gospel and secular rap, but Kanye has been in that space since at least 2004, and Chance always has counted The College Dropout as one of his foremost influences. Sixteen years separate the rappers, age-wise, but they’ve turned out some of their best work together (“Ultralight Beam,” “All We Got,” and even the in-the-works Good Ass Job). “I’m so proud of this young man right here,” Kanye said during his surprise performance at Magnificent Coloring Day, Chance’s one-day fest in Chicago. Chance stood behind his hero and beamed.
Kanye and Chance aren’t related just by their religious and musical sensibilities. They’ve both done a lot of work to fight the music industry. For Chance, those mean record labels; he’s always been unsigned, dropping mixtapes and songs for free. He may no longer be “independent,” per se, since Coloring Book and Surf (a project by Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, featuring Chance) both got exclusive Apple releases. But largely because of him, streaming-only music is now eligible at the Grammys.
Kanye has been working with record labels for over a decade (Roc-A-Fella Records, his very own G.O.O.D. Music). In the Dropout days, though, he pushed against a different sort of label: widespread presumptions about what he could and could not do. He gained fame as a producer, working with miscellaneous rappers in the late ‘90s before teaming up with the then-hyphenated Jay-Z on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde (feat. Beyoncé),” and several more. The problem: his peers kept trying to pigeonhole him. He tells it on “Last Call”: “Last year shoppin’ my demo, I was tryin’ to shine/ Every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme.”
Over time, Kanye proved he could be both a producer and a rapper, and Chance’s Coloring Book performed a similar binary break. Writing for NPR in May, Kiana Fitzgerald brings up several helpful points in her Coloring Book review. But she trips over one of the most intriguing qualities of Chance’s album. “Chance is walking the tightrope between secular and religious,” she writes, delineating a clear boundary. For Chance, though there is no line between the two. “I’m gon’ praise him ‘til I’m gone,” he sings on a mixtape with fairly explicit lyrics about sex (“Juke Jam”), drugs (“Smoke Break”), and violence (“No Problem”). It’s a gospel album, but it’s meant for the masses. Chance’s music is not “secular” or “religious” — it’s both at once.
Along with liberation, one more key facet of Black Christianity is the joy of the Holy Spirit. In rap, that’s all Chance the Rapper. Once known for 10Day and Acid Rap, two mixtapes laden with dark days and drug references, he now signifies an innocence steeped in crayons and overalls. He “might give Satan a swirlie,” he boasts in what might be the most cartoonish refutation the devil has ever gotten (“All We Got”). Optimism and a type of softness flow through him like the Holy Ghost.
So, if Chance is succeeding like few others, where is Kanye at? “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” sees him still in need of freedom, singing, ‘I just wanna feel liberated, I, I, I,” in a gummy, Auto-Tuned hook. The Life of Pablo is no easy ride, as awful tracks “30 Hours,” “Highlights,” and “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)” dilute the power of “Ultralight Beam,” a gospel/rap masterpiece boosted by Chance’s guest verse. “I’ve been wakin’ the spirit of millions/ More to come,” Kanye says in album closer “Saint Pablo,” but Sampha’s hook presses his personal struggle: “You’re lookin’ at the church in the night sky/ And you wonder where is God in your nightlife.”
Kanye is saddled with mixed reviews, $53 million of debt, and an inability to change his ways (“Saint Pablo”). He might call himself Yeezus, but he can’t save himself. However, no matter how his personal story ends, he’s shaped entire lanes of music (808s & Heartbreak alone created a genre). Just as Jesus leaves his followers with the Holy Spirit, Kanye bequeaths the world Chance.
“Some bright morning when this life is over,” goes the fifth track from The College Dropout. “I'll fly away.” A gospel choir glides onto the album, singing an old hymn about leaving prison walls for “God’s celestial shore.” Twelve years later, Chance releases “How Great (feat. Jay Electronica & My cousin Nicole),” and it exactly follows the example Kanye set. But instead of flight, it focuses on God’s goodness. “How great is our God?” ask the words in an almost rhetorical question. He’s “worthy of all praise,” sings the choir in this blissed-out praise tune.
When Kanye reached out to the masses from the Saint Pablo tour’s floating stage, thousands of his fans mirrored him. During “Ultralight Beam,” he crossed the whole floor from above, passing through one spotlight in the middle of the arena. The crowd that had billowed all night froze, now standing with their fingers splayed. It felt strange, but the image stuck; floating in a darkened arena, Kanye created the closest thing to Jesus’s Ascension — when he is “taken up into a cloud” leaving Earth (Acts 1:9) — rap has ever seen.