“Yeezus” and Pushing Boundaries

If you’re a hip-hop fan like I am, you’ve already listened to and absorbed Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus. If you’re not a fan of the genre, I really doubt this album will convince you. Perhaps some of Kanye’s older works would have a better shot (808s and Heartbreak or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Kanye writes vulgar music. Not just language (though I’ve already written about my thoughts on that issue), but right down to the actual content itself; this is R-rated stuff, easily. I actually think that’s what makes the album tricky to digest as a Christian (more so even than tracks like “I am a God”), but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The other thing you already know about Kanye, most likely, is that he’s really arrogant. I mean, just listen to what he said in an interview with The New York Times:

I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.

But none of this is news. It really isn’t. If you’ve followed his career at all (who could forget this?), you’re aware that Kanye thinks Kanye is a god. So the title Yeezus wasn’t really even that surprising.

Maybe an album called Yeezus sounds like an odd thing for an evangelical to spend a significant amount of time listening to and thinking about. And for many evangelicals, it certainly would be. But as someone who is concerned about the genre, I’m really fascinated by the sorts of things that Kanye consistently does. He’s the sort of artist who sets trends for years to come. He may be arrogant to say he’s the “Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture,” but he’s definitely often taking hip-hop and pushing its boundaries. And Yeezus is no exception. The problem, ultimately, is that it doesn’t work.

When judging media–music especially, but that has more to do with my reviewing experience–I’m often thrilled to praise artists who are willing to try something different. The other side of the experimentation coin, however, is the increased potential for poor music. For example, I love the experimenting Tedashii did on his last album, Blacklight, in the sense that I love that he experimented; tracks like “Riot” and “Can’t Get With You” are different for him, but ultimately fall flat (though “Riot” performs better live than on an album).

There’s something intrinsically stretching about experimentation. Sometimes writers are told to try writing something completely different (I was once told that I should try my hand at fiction writing; I got through two short ‘chapters’ before realizing it wasn’t for me, but I learned a lot about the unique problems of fiction writing through that little experiment), and with good reason. It is far too tempting to fall into the same rhythm, time and time again, especially musically. After all, Kanye must know what sells. He’s proven that he can release album after album of high quality music.

So what happened with Yeezus?

Well, he’s experimented too hard, in this reviewer’s opinion. Kanye’s focus on this album seems to be split two ways: first, he’s interested in attempting to flesh out some new and experimental sounds; second, he appears focused on marketing. While Kanye’s strength has always been production, his lyrics have never been as weak as they are here. The album feels thrown together haphazardly, rather than constructed to bring the listener through some sort of experience.

What lessons can Christians learn from Kanye West, a man who actually says “I know [Jesus] is the most high/but I am a close tie.”? We can learn three things.

1. We can learn to seek excellence in our respective fields, even if it means making mistakes. While Kanye may not be quick to admit to his mistakes (I refer back to the interview linked above), he’s certainly willing to act in ways that others never would (remember his skirt kilt?). By taking risks, by stepping out, he’s trusting that he will survive to the next day. While Kanye may fall flat (see: Yeezus), we can put our faith in something higher.

2. If nothing else, Kanye is honest and confident about who he is. You’d have to be to say and do the sorts of things he does. There’s a lot of talk right now in Christian hip-hop about what it means to be authentic: should Christians rap about their sin (which may imply a glorification of that sin), or should we purify our lyrics and rap sermons? I think Kanye reminds us that sometimes being honest works well, even if that honesty is brutal or difficult or unpleasant. Lots of people relate to Kanye’s music–far more people than most other artists–and this is in large part due to his presentation of both himself and his story.

3. We can learn where self-idolatry leads. Kanye may be rich, and he may be living a sweet life in many respects, but he doesn’t seem content whatsoever. Even in his interview he says he simply isn’t happy. While happiness shouldn’t be the great determiner for the state of our souls, we should be capable of having joy regardless of our circumstances. That’s something we don’t see in Kanye, even when he proclaims his status as a god, and the reminder can be important. People relate to him for a reason: many people live every day unsatisfied. Kanye’s music can be a stark reminder of this, but we can also see the answers that don’t work before attempting them ourselves (note: money, fame, sexual gratification, and traveling the world do not solve the problem).

So do I recommend you listen to Yeezus? Not really. If you weren’t planning on listening to it already, there’s no real need to change your intentions. But as you listen to the latest album from whoever you like, as you watch Man of Steel or any other Hollywood film, consider this: how is Jesus the answer to the question this work asks? I suspect you won’t need to look far to find the answer.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • PopVulture

    First off- great job! I agree with much of what you wrote here, but I think the biggest problem with the album was Rick Rubin’s involvement contrasted with Kanye’s lack of inspiration. Where Kanye’s bread-and-butter on previous albums was lyrical creativity and incredible production, he seemed too focused on really “saying something” here, relying instead on the shock value of tracks like “I Am A God” and “Blood On The Leaves”. We’ve seen this happen a million times before with artists who try their hand at concept or protest albums that end up long on headiness, but short on inspiration. Anyone familiar with Kanye knows there’s always been this dichotomy between the artist and the persona, but the persona seemed to grab the mic here, and the music suffers as a result. From what I’ve read, Rubin’s involvement came late in the process and reduced the album significantly (shocker), which leads me to believe Kanye uncharacteristically tried throwing the kitchen sink at the subject matter instead of obsessing over the details. I couldn’t quite identify what bothered me so much about the album until I revisited “Watch the Throne”, which I remember thinking felt a little hollow in comparison to Kanye’s previous releases, but now sounds like a masterpiece in contrast to “Yeezus”. He may have sleepwalked through “Watch the Throne”, but he called his shot, swung for the fences and ultimately struck out with “Yeezus”.

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