Kanye West’s newest album “Donda,” dedicated to his mother, makes the strongest case yet that his true goal is to become a Christian artist for the MAGA generation. It’s worship music for those who believe that despite all their faults and failings, God owes them forgiveness. West himself clearly wants not only forgiveness, but also attention. The question is, does he deserve either?
West himself clearly wants not only forgiveness, but also attention. The question is, does he deserve either?
West’s music in the last few years, with its ecstatic gospel choirs and introspective confessions of sin sounds a lot different from the average praise brand. Neither contemporary Christian music nor gospel nor part of the Hillsong worship movement, it's a new genre unto itself, a self-referential testimony spun into song for maximum spectacle and financial gain. It is music for people who believe in God but also think (or hope) that they may be demigods. And while critics have given the album mixed reviews, I think the music takes back seat to West’s personal evolution from pioneering artist to selfish self-help guru desperately trying to hold on to his fame.
Prosperity gospel is not a new phenomenon in the Christian church. Evangelists such as Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Joel Osteen have all catered to their followers with the promise of health, wealth and God’s favor. And given West’s career arc, it’s not surprising this type of evangelism would resonate. Capitalist at its core, prosperity gospel encourages you to thumb your nose at convention because whatever you do, God is going to bless. Oh, and don’t forget to drag your enemies, especially if they might be more popular.
Similarly, West’s gospel is ultimately the gospel of hubris and prosperity. At his concerts in New York, Atlanta and Chicago, concessions were so expensive complaints went viral. In Chicago, he invited two pariahs to stand on stage with him: Marilyn Manson, who is accused of rape, and DaBaby, whose homophobic comments about HIV and AIDS this summer prompted a storm of criticism and a series of less-than-satisfactory apologies. Both Manson and DaBaby are featured in one of the album’s songs.
Flanked by these two, the infamously over-the-top West may have fancied himself Jesus on the cross, surrounded by the two thieves. But West is no Jesus, except perhaps, in his own mind. He also had his estranged wife Kim Kardashian, appear at a “Donda” listening event in Chicago wearing a wedding dress. He even invited former President Donald Trump to watch.
Trump didn’t bother to show up, which says a lot. Both men love an adoring crowd.
And while West’s album might still be called Christian worship music by some, I think it is more aptly described as an expression of his personal theology. That theology is, unfortunately, a jumbled mess.
The most authentic songs on the album are those that touch on West’s mother and her untimely death. The album and arena show is named after her, and dedicated to her, and he clearly is still processing his grief. But his true emotions, such as they are, are undermined by the sometimes petty and unexplainable contradictions of West’s life. Still in the middle of a divorce proceedings, he brings his wife to the show, then admits he cheated on her in his song “Hurricane.” He proclaims the album isn’t done, yet releases it Aug. 29 to honor his mother’s birthday. (Meanwhile, West’s ill-advised beef with Drake continues to escalate. Drake’s album drops Sept. 3, with a fascinating marketing campaign.)
As a religious scholar, I’m tempted to just write off West at this point. “Jesus Walks” was groundbreaking at the time of its release, and his “Sunday Service” events (which included selling $50 socks proclaiming “Jesus Walks”) were initially intriguing. But while this early West was complicated, his music was sophisticated and even fun. Now his songs are laden with angst, a confusing spiritual vision. Honestly, it’s tiring. Who wants confused prosperity hucksterism in this ongoing pandemic? Die-hard fans, I suppose.
If nothing else, West’s latest album highlights the cultural power of evangelical ideas in America. Many of the most cynical prosperity gospel proponents — and now West — preach an intense focus on one’s personal relationship to God at the expense of others; an arrogance that you deserve forgiveness without truly seeking it; and a self-referential piety that reeks of narcissism rather than reality.
In this way, “Donda” is an album well-suited to our current moment. Every day, we hear more stories about the legions of Americans who believe they know more than doctors, who dose themselves with quack cures, and who have disdain for direction. Kanye West may no longer be as groundbreaking as he thinks he is, but he’s definitely a sign of our times.