Most people I know (you know, middle-aged suburban folk, like me) have a strong dislike for hip-hop artist Kanye West. He is fantastically egotistical and abrasive. He is famously contrarian and needlessly controversial. His words and actions regularly cause friction and anger. He chooses to live loudly in the spotlight, driving flashy sports cars, marrying reality television stars, and communicating regularly with President Donald Trump.
And yet I think he is one of the great artists of our time.
Harvard University professor Cesar Cruz famously said that “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Good art should be challenging, and maybe a little confusing and frustrating. By the very nature of art, we shouldn’t like it all, but we should do our best to appreciate it all.
For instance, in a creative attempt to get close to concert audience members, West fashioned a floating stage that brought him to all corners of large arenas. Wherever people sat, whether they were in the close up in the front row or deep in the nosebleeds, they found themselves close to Kanye, and they got to interact with him and his music in truly unique ways.
On Saturday Night Live, Kanye performed “Jesus Walks” laying prone on his back on the stage, under a low ceiling dressed in monotone colors against a monotone backdrop, posed as a crucifix. The top of his head faced the audience.
Comfort the disturb. Disturb the comfortable.
The work of Kanye West becomes that much more intriguing when considering his bad behavior and his combative language. There have been suggestions that he is bi-polar, or otherwise challenged. Such assumptions have been made about other artists throughout time. Kanye’s in good company.
I don’t consider myself a big Kanye fan, but every time I watch him perform, I am intrigued, and listening to his 2004 debut album The College Dropout, the great song “Jesus Walks” jumps out at me every time. Every single time.
God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down“
The song begins with a march. It’s a marching band. No, it’s a platoon. No, it’s an army. Walking in lock-step and chanting. An army of God.
Doubt Kanye’s religious beliefs if you must, but religion has always been a big part of Kanye’s work, and a vital part of the ongoing conversation he has had with his fans throughout his career.
In the very first lines of this great song, from his very first album, the religion jumps off the recording, as does its connection to the music of The Rolling Stones, Wyclef Jean and Robert Johnson. Kanye knows his beliefs. He knows his music. He knows his history.
“I walk through the valley of shadow where death is
Top floor of the view alone will leave you breathless
Try to catch it, it’s kinda hard
Getting choked by detectives yeah, yeah, now check the method
They be asking us questions, harass, and arrest us
Saying “We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!”
Huh! Y’all eat pieces of shit? What’s the basis?
We ain’t goin’ nowhere, but got suits and cases
A trunk full of coke rental car from Avis
My Mama used to say only Jesus can save us
Well Mama, I know I act a fool
But I’ll be gone ’til November, I got packs to move, I hope.”
This song is a postcard. It’s an insight into a place many of us have never been. Young men of color being harassed by the police. The only escape they have the drug trade, and when his mother reminds him that he can find a better way through Jesus, he just goes back to the street. He may way to find his way back, but he can’t. The march continues.
“The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now
And I don’t think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs
I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long, so long”
Now with the bridge of the song comes a census of the people from the streets of Chicago who are looking for God, and an acknowledgement that Kanye needs God too.
“To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers
(Jesus walks for them)
To the victims of welfare for we living in hell here hell yeah
(Jesus walks for them)
Now hear ye hear ye want to see Thee more clearly
I know He hear me when my feet get weary
Cause we’re the almost nearly extinct
We rappers are role models we rap we don’t think
I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus”
Kanye West has released a total of 9 albums during his relatively short career. Some have been hailed as brilliant masterpieces, some have been ignored as massive flops. Kanye continues to frustrate and confound fans, critics, and critical observers. And while I don’t care for his politics or the way he treats other artists and public figures, I am amazed by the way he continues to explore his craft. He pushes boundaries. He tries new things, and fails. He opens peoples eyes to new perspectives and new ways to see the world. He wants us to see the world the way he does.
You may like his art and music. You may not. He may make you feel uncomfortable. I think that’s the idea.
Written and Performed by Kanye West
Released May 25, 2004