There is no chapel in Rockefeller Center, but at least twice last year, “Saturday Night Live” was transformed into Sunday morning at a Baptist church. In February, Kanye West, in anticipation of his upcoming album, “The Life of Pablo,” closed the sketch comedy show with a surprise performance of the album’s lead track—flanked by a gospel choir, R&B singer Kelly Price, pastor Kirk Franklin and the year’s breakout star, Chance the Rapper.
West begins by singing a riff on the Prayer of St. Francis:
Deliver us serenity
Deliver us peace
Deliver us loving
We know we need it.
Next, Kelly Price interrogates God on the problem of evil, asking:
So why send oppression not blessings?
Why, oh why’d you do me wrong?
You persecute the weak
Because it makes you feel so strong.
Chance the Rapper spits a line about St. Michael the Archangel (“foot on the devil’s neck”), whose prayer card he carries with him. Finally, Kirk Franklin concludes the song with a spoken prayer:
Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough / This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up / For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times / You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again.
All of this, just after your Weekend Update.
To bookend 2016, “S.N.L.” had Chance the Rapper back on (the main attraction this time) to perform his song “Blessings,” a rap lavished in religious language and themes. In between verses, Chance, in his red Christmas overalls, jumping around like a kid playing hopscotch, sings “Happy birthday Jesus, happy birthday Jesus…. I like to say your name on network television.”
This display of public theology wasn’t just a fluke on “S.N.L.” Rap got religious in 2016. Its beats and bars were baptized by holy lyricism and Gospel samples. Was it a conversion? A confirmation? Maybe you were told that hip-hop culture was gang culture, that rappers were drug dealers and misogynistic and ready to lash out. You were told that millennials weren’t going to church anymore, that your grandson would wear the flannel you bought him on sale at Macy’s but would cringe and stare at his shoes if you brought up Jesus.
What happened? Should we have seen it coming?
Like a beast crying out in the wilderness, Kanye rapped 12 years ago:
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus. / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?
And if Kanye said it, you can bet it was probably true. For much of the 2000s, rap music garnered mainstream attention and a fair amount of radio play. But it had been significantly sanitized for popular consumption—the type of music that served as background music for beer-pong-playing frat bros. Lil Wayne epitomized this trend, consistently topping charts with witty one-liners and chest-thumping anthems about being the best rapper alive. And there was 50 Cent, whose anthem “In Da Club” was bumping at high school proms from the Bronx, where hip-hop was born, to small-town Ohio, where I grew up.
Then Kanye West, as he has become accustomed to doing, redefined the genre. After hitting what many artists would consider the mountaintop of music, West’s life descended into deep valleys of sorrow. His mother died unexpectedly due to complications from plastic surgery in 2007. A few months later, he called off his engagement to his longtime girlfriend. Finally, he became the target of public hatred after taking the stage and the microphone during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards to air his objections to her win for Best Female Video (“Taylor, I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all-time!” ).
In the midst of all of this, West poured his emotions into his record “808s & Heartbreak,” an album that may not be his most impressive technical achievement but may prove to be the most influential. Today, it is perfectly normal (and commercially viable) for rappers to express their emotions. Drake is just one of several artists who made a name for himself morosely rapping about the traps of love and fame. But it wasn’t always that way. Shea Serrano, a staff writer at The Ringer and the author of The Rap Year Book, highlights “808s & Heartbreak” as a watershed moment in rap history. “After 2009, that’s when it really started being a thing where rappers were rapping about their emotions,” Serrano told me. And with emotions, religious feelings would surely follow. “Once that became okay, it became okay to talk about more stuff that’s going on inside your head.”
It was not just emotional rapping that led to rap’s religious revival—it was suffering. While promoting the album, West explained, “‘808s’ came from suffering a multitude of losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.” West became hip-hop’s Christ figure, taking the ugliness of suffering, diving deeply into it and from there allowing for a resurrection and reunion with the divine.
West would go on to release “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his most technically perfect and complete album, and “Yeezus,” both of which hinted at religious themes of sin and redemption. “The Life of Pablo,” released in 2016, is named for the apostle Paul.
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