Kanye West's first gospel album, “Jesus is King,” debuted last month, and it's already making history.
The Grammy-award winning rapper is the first artist to dominate all 10 spots on both Billboard's Hot Christian Songs and Hot Gospel Songs charts. The album also reached the top of three other Billboard charts, including Top Rap Album.
West, who has been a polarizing figure for some time in part because of his MAGA hat-wearing support for President Trump, wanted to offer a formal presentation of his new spiritual growth in “Jesus is King.” But his “rebirth” is superficial, says Naima Cochrane, music and culture writer and former music executive.
Historically, black celebrities — genuinely or not — have produced gospel songs and albums as a part of redemption for their wrongdoings, Cochrane says.
“In the black community, when we have notable figures who have done something to offend or have done something that finds them in a disgraceful position in the mainstream, usually part of their redemption story is to reach back out to the black community through the grace of the church,” she says, “because the black church is known to be unfailingly forgiving, especially to our black men.”
At first glance, it may seem like that tactic is the rapper’s end goal with “Jesus is King.”
But Cochrane argues West isn’t singing faith-based hits for the black community — he’s “co-opting the black church experience for nonblack consumption.”
“He is doing this for his mainstream fans,” she says. “He's not doing this for us because he's actually doubling down on the things that pissed us off even while he's packaging this all up in a black church presentation.”
Same goes for his invite-only Sunday services, she says, which features A-list celebrities and sermons from West himself. She says his messages during these services, specifically his unfounded comments on slavery in the U.S., have been highly controversial.
“Some preachers and pastors have cosigned under the argument that anything that brings the message of God into a space where people don't normally hear it is a good thing,” she says. “But I'm of the mind that the messenger matters.”
He isn't the only popular hip-hop artist to cross over into the gospel genre. M.C. Hammer did it in 1990 with his single “Pray.” Last year, Snoop Dogg did the same with the 32-track “Bible of Love,” and Chance the Rapper released the faith-infused “The Big Day” this summer.
If West is not the first to cross over into the gospel genre, how and why has this new album experienced profound reach?
Cochrane points to the modern era of consumption, where on-demand music services are at one’s fingertips and social media’s massive influence has inundated daily life.
Plus, she argues, the album’s success has more to do with Kanye himself, rather than the subject material.
“You can't remove the Kanye factor from it,” she says.
And because of that, she says, West hasn’t single-handedly shifted the future of secular music and gospel.
“I would like to see it make more artists comfortable in exploring this avenue,” she says, “but I don't think — and I could very well be wrong — I don't think that 'Jesus is King' itself is going to signal some seismic shift in the genre going towards a more spiritual direction.”
This segment aired on November 11, 2019.