Back when they thought pink polos would hurt the Roc producer, Kanye West met with label executives with a song seemingly even less marketable than he was — an earnest devotional to Jesus Christ sampling Harlem's Addicts Rehabilitation Center choir. The unshakeable confidence that would soon become his hallmark proved industry heads wrong then, too: "Jesus Walks" went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Song and remains one of West's most popular tracks. Released as The College Dropout's fourth single, it represents Kanye's hermeneutics of the self, one bowed before a higher power and motivated by a faith in God's faith. And it's supremely successful because, like many of his songs, it's an inner monologue made public — a conversation about universal struggles, not a conversion narrative.
Kanye doesn't speak as a preacher here, but as a believer expressing the trait so often absent from the religious: yearning. Pious self-satisfaction wouldn't compel you the way his guileless, multi-tempo cadence can. He tells us plainly that "I want to talk to God but I'm afraid, because we ain't spoke in so long." The line speaks to the fundamentally human fear of rejection, from God or from anyone; the emotional honestly at the core of his music is what makes even this distinctly Christian song rich with meaning and accessible to so many.
All West's albums draw through-lines between the personal, the universal, and the social contexts between both. He bears witness to his flawed self via art that invites others to do the same, while simultaneously providing eminently listenable social commentary. The first verse of "Jesus Walks" contexualizes the unrest that shadows areas with little economic opportunity, describing the quality of life and adversity specific to the "the valley of the Chi where death is." The second verse challenges the industry to play a track that doesn't feature the trappings of a radio hit, and returns to meditate on Kanye's own resolutions: "If this take away from my spins... then I hope this take away from my sins."
Kanye's relationship to God is often interpreted as a self-identification. To be fair, he does have a song called "I Am a God," and a 2006 Rolling Stone cover depicting him as Christ, crowned with thorns. But he works beyond the simplicity and delusion his detractors project onto him. Kanye doesn't suffer from a God complex — he exhibits godliness, in all its human fallibility. And it's no more than the Bible itself perscribes, as Psalm 82 says: "You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High." If we are made in God's image, then living as if we reflect something bigger than ourselves is worship. If Jesus died for our sins, what is more prayerful than living with the conviction that you are worthy of that sacrifice?
"Jesus Walks" offers church minus The Church. And no where else does a personal paean sound so urgent than when backed by a military order to march and a gospel choir building to a crescendo as snares hiss to attention. Lesser artists reflect the zeitgeist; Kanye invites us into his psyche as a way to reflect on our own. What we so often see as bloated self-perception is his deliberate self-presentation. In the service of inspiring others, Kanye walks. AYESHA SIDDIQI