The “Jesus Walks” rapper is a master of creating spectacle, but it’s surprising that his pivot to spirituality has whipped up quite such a frenzy. The cult of personality factor for West can’t be ignored, but what he’s doing is hardly unprecedented: Blending hip-hop with gospel isn’t radical. Prominent rap producers like Timbaland, Pharrell and Zaytoven developed their musical chops in the church and brought influences into their work; other producers, like Pimp C, pulled Hammond B3 organ chords, hand claps and choir vocals straight from the sanctuary to add soul to their tracks. Several mainstream rappers have released gospel-influenced songs and even entire gospel albums. Most notably, contemporary gospel artist Kirk Franklin kicked the door wide open for the marriage of hip-hop sonics and gospel messaging 20 years ago. Even the idea of a rapper forming a church isn’t new; Hammer and Ma$e both retreated to ministry after their commercial heights.
As we await Jesus Is King -- or whatever Mr. West is preparing for the public -- let’s take a look at the gospel of hip-hop over the years.
MC Hammer, “Pray” (1990)
While West rightfully deserves credit for the bold choice of a single that was, formulaically, a gospel rap song, and for opening the doors for Lecrae and Chance the Rapper to later do the same, he wasn’t the first artist to merge the two genres together for commercial success. Just the first of his era. The distinction of being the first rapper to venture into gospel arguably goes to MC Hammer.
If Hammer's 1990 breakout LP Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em is the marker for rap’s full crossover into mainstream music, then hip-hop embracing gospel has been a thing from the beginning of rap’s commercial dominance. The pentacostal-raised MC started his music career as part of a Christian rap group called The Holy Boys, and included a gospel rap song, “Son of the King,” on his debut album.
His ode to prayer on the Diamond-selling Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em was accessible and infectious, with chants of “That’s why we pray” repeated over a sample of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The lyrics spoke more to the state of society than God/Jesus, but MC Hammer gave the Big Guy a shout out at the end of the song to make sure the intent was clear:
We're sending this one out to the Lord, and we thank you and we know we need to pray,
‘cause all the blessings that are good, they come from above.
“Pray” was one of the biggest songs on the blockbuster set, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- higher even than the ubiquitous “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer (with the “MC” dropped from his name) also updated the hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” as “Do Not Pass Me By” for the 1991 follow-up set 2 Legit 2 Quit, to less success.
2Pac, “So Many Tears” (1995)
Over the next several years, religious and inspirational themes occasionally showed up in rap hits. In the height of the crack era in the 1990s, violence and untimely death were part of everyday life growing up in urban areas, and rappers sometimes navigated struggles of the soul, confronted their mortality, or mourned their losses through music.
Pac’s mix of consciousness and spirituality was part of his identity as a rapper, and he referenced God, the afterlife and salvation from the “world of sin” in multiple songs. (Pac might also be the rapper most depicted through art in angel wings.) “Tears” is his most straight forward plea to be forgiven for all he’s done and seen, and is even more haunting because he sounds like a man aware that his remaining time on earth is short… and scared.
I shall not fear no man but God
Though I walk through the valley of death, I shed so many tears
If I should die before I wake, please God walk with me
Grab a n---a and take me to Heaven
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, “Tha Crossroads” (1996)
Bone Thugs’ ode to mentor Eazy-E and friends and family lost -- we all miss our Uncle Charles -- propelled the Ohio group from horrorcore rap stars to Hot 100 chart-toppers. “Tha Crossroads” was a surprisingly heart-tugging track from the collective, whose 1994 debut EP on Eazy’s Ruthless Records, Creepin on ah Come Up, was primarily about the realities of street culture. Because of their unique sing/rap style, Bone didn’t need an R&B singer or sample for the chorus to convey the emotion of losing loved ones, the hope of seeing them again in the afterlife, and the desire to stay protected while facing the sins of the world -- a prevalent theme in more spiritual-leaning rap songs.
God bless you working on a plan to heaven
Follow the Lord all twenty-four-seven days, God is who we praise
Even though the devil's all up in my face
But He keeping me safe and in my place, say grace
Kirk Franklin and God’s Property, “Stomp” (1996)
Gospel music had migrated over to the R&B and pop charts occasionally over the years, starting with The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ rendition of “Oh Happy Day” in 1968, but the genre started embracing R&B more in the ‘90s, incorporating New Jack Swing and contemporary soul sounds and moving away from traditional choir-backed hymns. However, the gospel world still wasn’t ok with rap. Hip-hop glorified materialism, drugs, sex and violence -- the opposite of the fruits of the spirit. In the mid-'90s, Kirk Franklin changed the sound and culture of contemporary gospel music, as the genre's first star to truly be of the hip-hop generation.
The then-23-year old broke radio records for gospel in 1993 with his more traditional debut single, “Why We Sing,” but Franklin was also known for flipping secular lyrics -- both R&B and rap -- in his music and performances to keep the crowd engaged. For example: “When the holy spirit comes, you know it comes correct…woo-hah!! It gots you all in check!”
On the production side, Franklin was even more bold. He pulled samples from the same secular funk and soul sources more commonly expected from the Bad Boy Hitmen or Trackmasters production teams of the ‘90s, like Parliment/Funkadelic, The Jacksons and Tony! Toni! Tone! He’s recently described his sonic style as “Jesus with an 808.” Franklin not only embraced rap’s sound, he embraced rap culture. He wore platinum chains and shiny suits -- this was the bling era, after all. He was the first gospel artist on the cover of Vibe magazine. He danced on stage -- alot. He moved like a rapper. He was even signed with group God’s Property to Interscope records, most notoriously the home of Death Row.
Despite the enormous backlash 1996's “Stomp” received from the Christian community for the sample and rap feature from Cheryl “Salt” James, it was a massive crossover hit, the first gospel video to get MTV airplay, and a pivotal moment in the merging of gospel and secular music. Franklin created an accessible form of gospel for young audiences, expanding the genre beyond the church into the club and skating rinks, and youth choir directors all over took his inspiration to adapt secular songs to high energy songs of praise -- just like Kanye's choir does at Sunday Service.
Puff Daddy & The Family feat. Faith Evans and 112, “I’ll Be Missing You” (1997)
Puff’s tribute to Biggie Smalls the year of his death was both a memorial and a prayer to his fallen friend and his label's marquee artist. Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out was the beginning of a new era for Bad Boy; the label’s success up to that point was anchored around Biggie. After the tension and violence of the infamous East Coast/West Coast beef, plus the murders of Pac and Big a year apart, the Police-sampling "I'll Be Missing You" was a cleansing -- a way to both mourn and move forward, for the Bad Boy family and the fans. Combs has stated that creating the track pulled him out of a depression, and moved him to get back to making music.
The church-honed vocals of Big’s widow, Faith Evans, added a gospel feel, and she incorporated the melody and partial lyrics from the classic spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” for the bridge.
One glad morning, when this life is over
I know I’ll see your face
Live performances of the hit were big, tiered productions; with mass choirs, dramatic lighting, video montages, and even Police frontman Sting himself on one occasion.
DMX, “Prayer (Skit)” (1998)
The centerpiece of Earl “DMX” Simmons’ career -- aside from his intense love of dogs -- is his public battle against his own dark side. Struggles with addiction and multiple, frequent arrests have been consistent through most of DMX's career. Themes of prayer, salvation and death have also been consistent. Starting with the “Prayer” skit on his multi-platinum 1998 debut It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX has included a similar prayer on each LP and incorporated prayer in his live shows. (The “skit” modifier was likely added so as not to scare people -- X was dead serious.)
Simmons was the first guest artist at Sunday Service to bring the element of prayer into the event, elevating it to an actual worship service. Like label-mate West, DMX has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and Kanye likely identifies closely with his signature dark and painfully urgent brand of artistry. In 2016, West lamented that X’s kind of passion was missing from the game, tweeting “That’s why music is so watered down right now. I miss that DMX feeling.”
You give me the word and only ask that I interpret
And give me the eyes that I may recognize the serpent
You know I ain't perfect, but you'd like me to try
Unlike the devil who just wants me to lie till I die
Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” (2005)
If there is a single defining song in West’s catalog, it’s arguably this late single from his debut LP College Dropout. “Jesus Walks” was more urgent than any of the previous rap/gospel cross pollinations that made their way into the mainstream (except maybe Kirk Franklin’s “Revolution”). It was a call to arms against the evils of war, and the “war with ourselves;” a plea from the common believer, trying to survive the perils of being a young Black man.
West’s unflinching and unapologetic admission of faith garnered critical and commercial praise, from both the secular and gospel music worlds. West was nominated for best gospel artist at the 2005 BET Awards, and College Dropout was nominated for multiple Stellar Awards - the highest Gospel Music honor. (the awards committee eventually withdrew the album from consideration, determining a secular LP wasn’t eligible.)
“Jesus Walks” did reignite the conversation about gospel and rap music, and opened the door for gospel rap as a viable genre, something that hadn’t happened successfully even during Kirk Franklin’s height. It was also the beginning of Kanye’s musical relationship with the divine, and possibly a God-complex. Following the infamous 2006 Rolling Stone cover with West depicted as the crucified Christ, Kanye’s career has been peppered with titles like Yeezus, “I Am a God,” and Yahndi, and references to his closeness to God.
Lecrae, Anomaly (2014)
Lecrae is currently the most successful and most visible Christian rapper, a spot he earned through consistent grinding for more than 15 years. In that time, his style has evolved from gangsta rap to southern rap and trap to conscious hip-hop, and he’s collaborated along the way with secular rappers and producers including Big K.R.I.T., David Banner, Ty Dollar Sign, No Malice, 9th Wonder, Metro Boomin, No I.D. and Street Symphony, and other inspirational artists and rappers like Tori Kelly and Mali Music. His career can be traced as a real time evolution of the acceptance and viability of rap in Christian and gospel music, rather than a device artists employ occasionally to reach younger fans.
The rapper’s 2012 set Gravity can be pointed to as his mainstream breakthrough, earning the highest sales week ever for a Christian album with 79,000 units, and garnering Lecrae the first Grammy for best gospel album awarded to a rapper in 2013, and he hit another milestone when he moved to major label Columbia Records for 2017’s All Things Work Together. But this 2014 album marked the first time a gospel album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and the Gospel Albums charts, a massive mainstream feat.
Kanye West feat. Chance the Rapper, “Ultralight Beam” (2016)
Although Kanye often played with the idea of himself as a deity, it was a decade after “Jesus Walks” before he explicitly invoked the Holy Spirit on a track again. Kanye intended 2016's The Life of Pablo to be his gospel rap album, but mention of bleached assholes on “Father Stretch My Hands” quickly dispelled that notion. “Ultralight Beam,” however, is the example of what TLOP could have been: With the help of Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, the song feels grand and layered, but not busy. It’s powerful. It’s reverent. Starting with the fervent prayer at the top of the track, the listener feels hope, and urgency, and submission, and petition -- it’s worship.
As mentioned earlier, a few other rappers have experimented with full length inspirational or gospel albums, or totally turned the corner to Christian-centered content, like No Malice of The Clipse. Christian and gospel rap has also finally grabbed a foothold over the last several years (althogh old school gospel music gatekeepers like to classify it as Christian -- a similar difference between R&B and pop -- due to tempo). If Kanye had been able to execute TLOP as a gospel project in full in 2016, he would have been in good company.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)
Where West’s moments of rap gospel have been Kanye-centered (as are all things Kanye), and maybe even tormented -- salvation is still a goal, not something already attained -- Chance the Rapper’s shared the joy and certainty of the redeemed. Chance is “the boy who lived,” a kid who grew up in the church, and survived a heavy drug habit to see the birth of his first child. His Grammy-winning 2016 set Coloring Book reflects the steadfast faith of someone who’s seen God work in their lives and wants to share His love and grace with others. The mixtape is full of direct references to God, blessings, praise and salvation. “Blessings” is almost a thesis: “I don’t make these songs for free, I make them for freedom. I don’t believe in kings, I believe in the Kingdom.”
In “Finish Line/Drown” Chance evokes baptismal waters, “How Great” is a rap spin on a praise and worship classic, even the more typical rap boasting on “No Problem” feels he’s bragging about the power of Big Homie in the context of this album. At his concerts, Chance gives his testimony, he shows excitement about God and his faith, and he incorporates an unassuming version of alter call: a moment where those who wish to be saved or to renew their faith come forward for prayer. People have been “saved” at Chance the rapper shows, and it’s hard to imagine that watching him didn’t inspire West.
Snoop Dogg, Bible of Love (2018)
Snoop’s consistent reinvention, starting with gangster rapper to family-friendly artist, is one of the greatest things about him. Comfortable that his legacy is firmly established, he’s spent the last decade making the music he wants to make, without concern for genre boundaries. After experimenting with reggae and soul, Snoop decided to do a full gospel album. He fully committed to the call; the project was part of a new joint venture between Snoop’s All The Time Entertainment (of the standard black church call and response: “God is good, all the time”) through RCA Inspiration, a label he created for emerging gospel talent.
He packed the double album with a lineup to rival the most impressive inspirational compilation: new, progressive gospel artists including Mali Music and B Slade; contemporary stars like Fred Hammond, Marvin Sapp, Mary Mary and Tye Tribbett; plus genre legends like John P. Kee, The Clark Sisters, Rance Allen and Kim Burrell. Snoop served more in a position of host than featured star, letting the roster of talent take the spotlight and not appearing at all on some tracks. It was promoted directly to and passed muster with the incredibly critical black church base, and while BOL didn’t have a strong performance on the mainstream charts, Snoop’s passion project garnered the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Gospel Albums chart upon release.
Whatever West has planned to bless his fans musically, and possibly even through ministry, he isn’t breaking totally new ground -- yet. With Kanye, there’s always the addition of Yeezy sauce that amplifies everything he does, no matter how seemingly simple. For now we wait to discover just how his next chapter will widen the bridge between the common and the anointed.