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KNOWLES: Kanye West Understands Freedom

By  Michael Knowles
Kanye West attends the FGI 36th Annual Night of Stars Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on October 24, 2019 in New York City.
Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Confounding the wise, Kanye West has produced the finest Christian album in recent memory. Jesus Is King surpasses in musical ingenuity, lyrical clarity, and theological sophistication every insipid ditty that has defined contemporary Christian music. Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Handel’s Messiah, the album is not. But the Good Lord seems to have inspired the “Gold Digger” rapper to proclaim the gospel more clearly than anyone else in the popular culture. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways.”

The lyrics are repetitious but never redundant, recalling the listener constantly to Jesus, to whom Kanye pleads for healing, cleansing, use, help, forgiveness, revelation, strength, grace, and life. In just 27 minutes—coincidentally, the number of books in the New Testament—Kanye manages to explore much of the faith, moving from theme to theme and tone to tone with an alacrity that shows the artist has not lost his sense of humor. “Closed on Sunday,” in which Kanye declares, “You’re my Chick-Fil-A,” reminds the listener of Chesterton’s observation that “the angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

One theme in particular dominates the album: the difference between freedom and slavery. In “On God,” Kanye credits the Lord with all of his blessings, from professional success to his very survival. Only on the question of freedom and slavery does Kanye take some credit. He describes the slavery of prison: “All my brothers locked up on the yard, you can still be anything you wanna be. Went from one in four to one in three. Thirteenth Amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me.” If one can see beyond the imprecise grammar and activism—criminal justice is not slavery, and one hopes to fulfill rather than “end” the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery—Kanye’s keen understanding of freedom becomes clear.

Freedom is a choice. The grace of God abounds, and man is nonetheless free. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux described in the 12th century, the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation awaits Mary’s reply; human beings are free to choose even the Incarnation. Last year, the singer endured weeks of criticism for suggesting that slavery “sounds like a choice.” His detractors interpreted his statement to mean that chattel slaves might simply have fled their plantations. In Jesus Is King, Kanye describes a more pervasive form of bondage.

“They say the week start on Monday, but the strong start on Sunday,” raps Kanye in “Selah.” Men who measure their lives by the work week, whether they be janitors or CEOs, are slaves to mammon. God Himself rested on the seventh day. So does Chick-Fil-A. Now, in the light of salvation, that rest does not mark the exhaustion of the week’s end but the grace of its beginning. 

Kanye probes freedom further. In “Selah,” he juxtaposes John 8:33 with John 8:36. Men may believe that they “have never been in bondage to any one.” But Christ shows them that “any man who commits sin is a slave to sin,” and he offers them salvation.

In “Hands On,” Kanye confesses lifelong bondage to the devil. “Told the devil that I’m going on a strike,” he sings. “Told the devil when I see him, on sight: I’ve been working for you my whole life.” Here again Kanye invokes the Thirteenth Amendment and the relationship between prison and slavery, but this time he accepts responsibility. “Thirteenth Amendment, three strikes—made a left when I should’ve made a right.” Just one poor choice can enslave you.

Even subtle temptations can lead one down the slippery slope to slavery. In “Follow God,” Kanye describes how our increasingly digital existence lulls us into the belief that our decisions in the virtual world have no bearing on our lives in reality. “This is like a movie, but it’s really very lifelike,” Kanye observes. “Every single night, right, every single fight, right? I was looking at the ‘gram, and I don’t even like likes.” The pun evokes the image of Instagram as a drug—a gram—feeding an addiction but never satisfying a longing.

Addiction is selfish, and selfishness is an addiction, as Kanye warns in “Closed On Sunday.” “Hold the selfish, put the ‘gram away,” he raps. “Get your family. Ya’ll hold hands and pray. […] Through temptations, make sure they’re awake. Follow Jesus, listen and obey. No more livin’ for the culture. We nobody’s slave.” An addict can never be free. In “God Is,” Kanye expresses his desire to “break down all the prisons” in the same breath as he declares, “There is freedom from addiction.” We destroy our freedom by imprisoning ourselves, Kanye tells us, but there is hope: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Kanye shows the flip side of spiritual slavery in “Everything We Need.” “Switch your, switch your attitude,” he instructs. “Go ‘head, level up yourself, this that different latitude. Life too short, go spoil yourself. Feel that feel, enjoy yourself ‘cause we have everything we need.” We may wallow in the misery of slavery, or we can give thanks for the grace that frees us. Kanye boasts, “I’m so, I’m so radical. All these people mad at dude. This for who it matter to, what if Eve made apple juice? You gon’ do what Adam do? Or say, ‘Baby, let’s put this back on the tree’ ‘cause we have everything we need.” We are not victims of circumstance but free men made in the image of God, saved from the slavery of sin and death. We are blessed and might rejoice even in our suffering, as goes the Easter proclamation: “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a redeemer!”

In Jesus Is King, Kanye is free. The singer we encounter is not a different Kanye but one who is complete. C.S. Lewis described the difference: “To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man—to be an ex-man or ‘damned ghost’—would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.” In freeing himself from his worst inclinations, Kanye has become more fully himself: more perceptive, more witty, even more confident. The Apostle set the stage: “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”

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