Kanye & (K)hristianity

Kanye & (K)hristianity

One of the best things about being a current college student is that papers that you write for classes can become great content for the blog! Haha! This piece is about the relationship between Kanye West one of the most polarizing figures in the world and his relationship with religion. On the surface it appears there are not many parallels in between the genres of hip-hop and gospel music, but in an examination of Kanye West, the artist, and his lyrics, we can identify how related these genres truly are, and why West has consistently incorporated gospel elements into his music. Kanye West throughout his career has shown his willingness and enthusiasm to push boundaries in his music, his videos, his explicit lyrical content, and most of all with his general rhetoric. Kanye's relationship with religion has been interesting to say the least. From the infamous Rolling Stone cover, to calling an album of his "Yeezus", and even naming one of his songs "I Am A God".



Despite this strange relationship with religion West also has always experimented with the incorporation of gospel sounds into his music, and often creates lyrics that reaffirm his religious beliefs. So how could and why does polarizing Kanye even make music with religious themes? To attempt to answer I have examined three albums using word and sentiment analysis digital tools. The albums of particular interest are The College Dropout his first solo studio album, The Life of Pablo his seventh solo studio album, and Donda his tenth and most recent solo studio album. All these albums are important because they showcase Kanye at 3 key points in his career when gospel themes or religious content are more prominently featured.


Attempting to blend hip-hop sounds with gospel themes certainly is not a match made in ‘heaven’, pun intended, and they are not a match for numerous reasons. Hip-Hop the genre relies and thrives on the fact that there are no restrictions in how songs can be composed, how songs are structured, and its lyrical content is often explicit. Gospel music can be characterized as music with dominant vocals, a strong use of harmonies, and Christian lyrics. This genre of music is defined in style and does not tend to veer off this characterization. A piece of Kanye’s musical battles with religion through his music are the limitations that religion itself puts on its followers. Page Six, a popular source, notes how lines from his first album shed light on the star’s religious background while offering an introduction of his fixation on sin and salvation in their article titled “Kanye West’s Road to Religion and how Conversion Shaped His Career.” The lines in question are from a song from his first album called Jesus Walks. West raps in the song “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/ But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?” This shows Kanye since the beginning of his rap career has been hyper aware of gospel’s place in the hip-hop sphere and is conflicted about how to make hip hop music with religious themes. The article goes on to reference Jesus Walks again, when noting another Kanye reference to religion. It states, “he would eventually rap on the song 'Otis' from his Jay-Z collaboration 'Watch the Throne', “I made ‘Jesus Walks,’ I’m never going to hell.”  A scholarly peer reviewed article titled “Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks,’ Black Suffering, and the Problem of Evil.” sourced from The Journal of Hip Hop Studies keys in on the song "Jesus Walks" from Kanye West’s first album The College Dropout. This song is a lyrical commentary on Black suffering and oppression and origins of God and or the devil in hip-hop music. White people are aggressively involved in the "breaking down" that the devil is trying to do, but so are African-Americans and other minority peoples for their own possibly misguided contributions to the struggles. He also notes how mainstream media has a role for not playing West's song on the radio because West raps about Jesus, the police for their brutality against Black people, and the government for executing racism. It turns out in trying to understand the themes of Kanye’s music as it relates to religion, how he phrases certain words, and the sentiments behind them the best way is to read the lyrics or just simply just listen to the music. In close reading of these lyrics from Jesus Walks you can see the conflicts Kanye has with not only with religion, but with the world at large. I guess he really isn’t going to “hell.”



In a scholarly peer reviewed article titled “Ultralight Beam: The Gospel According to Kanye West” sourced from The Journal of Hip-Hop Studies. Writer Jeffrey McCune argues that this album is a part of a spiritual cleaning for not only Kanye West but for America. The article notes that the call is not a call for moralism but for an authentic admission that we must enter a new way of being, and that sentiment is bolstered by the voices of children. On track one off of the album "The Life of Pablo" titled “Ultralight Beam” , West uses the voice of a child praying and preaching to her family. The article also notes the importance of West, who is well known for his unpredictability, partnering with Kirk Franklin who has always been the “go-to” gospel artist who offered trailblazing, and sometimes distorted gospel tracks, which push genre categorizations to a new level. A piece written in The New Yorker called “How Kirk Franklin Is Pushing the Boundaries of Gospel.” written by Vinson Cunningham speaks in more detail of who Kirk Franklin is and possibly provides answers as to why Kanye sought him out for The Life of Pablo album. Cunningham writes about Franklin:


“It’s hard to describe in a word what Kirk Franklin does for a living. Franklin…is the most successful contemporary gospel artist of his generation, but he isn’t a singer. He plays the piano, but only intermittently onstage, more to contribute to the pageantry than to show off his modest chops. Above all, he is a songwriter, but in performance and on his albums his role more closely resembles that of a stock character in hip-hop: the hype man. The best hype men—Flavor Flav, Spliff Star, the early Sean (P. Diddy) Combs—hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead M.C., addressing the microphone in order to ad-lib or to reinforce punch lines as they rumble by. But a hype man is, by definition, a sidekick, and while most of the sound in Franklin’s music comes from elsewhere—usually, a band and an ensemble of singers—he is always and unquestionably the locus of its energy and intention.” Cunningham, 2017


To attempt to really make "gospel hip-hop" music, Kanye really went out and found him a gospel hype man! YEAH BOYYYYY!



In engaging with Digital Analysis tools Voyant and Sent Text to analyze his tenth solo album “Donda,” named after his late mother, I learned a few things I was not expecting. Voyant is a web-based text reading and analysis environment that is designed to facilitate reading and interpretive practices for students, scholars, as well as for the general public. SentText explores the polarity of a text, sentence or token, differentiating between positive, neutral and negative polarity as well as their polarity strength. We must note that Donda is an album that is not explicit at all. All of the profane words are intentionally censored, the content is very much in line with traditional gospel themes. The only difference between Donda and a traditional gospel album are the presence of the hip-hop style of beats, and of course it was created by Kanye West (duh). As seen in Figure 1 the tool Sent Text classifies the word “hell” in its eight most positive words. Now obviously the word “hell” is never thought of as a positive word, and it is especially not a positive word in the gospel or religious context. In fact, “hell” in a religious context is the most negative place to go! Additionally Figure 2 shows that rated most of the words on Donda as negative. Donda is extremely on brand with Christian ideals and gospel themes, these oddities showed me that these technologies cannot accurately quantify sentiments in musical texts.


Fig. 1


Fig. 2



Figure’s 3 and 4 show the differences in Voyant’s analysis. In comparison Voyant is superior at musical analysis, simply because Voyant’s job is to identify the words themselves, the phrases in which the words are used, and the contexts the words are used in, not to attempt to understand them. Kanye REMAINS misunderstood.


Fig. 3

Fig. 4



In summary we learned a lot of things using Digital Analysis tools to analyze Kanye West. It turns out in trying to understand the themes of Kanye’s music as it relates to religion, how he phrases certain words, and the sentiments behind them the best way is to read the lyrics or listen to the music. Words that are formulated within musical contexts transcend multiple worlds, fields, and schools of thought. Kanye West is the perfect example of how words transcend all worlds. Kanye, who has the propensity to say things publicly “George Bush don’t care about black people!” (facts) during the Hurricane Katrina telethon also says things like “God, the Son / All the glory / God the Father like Maury” on the song "God Breathed" from the album Donda. Again, he IS an extremely polarizing figure. The analysis of West's music further proves that Kanye, since the beginning of his rap career has been hyper aware of gospel’s place in the hip-hop sphere and is conflicted about how to make hip-hop music with religious themes. Lastly, Digital Analysis Tools cannot replace good old fashioned close reading when trying to understand music lyrics.





Denzel Rodgers


IG: @rodgersneighborhood


Works Cited

Kanye West cover picture courtesy of The Indendependent. Co Uk
“Yeezianity: The Church of Kanye West.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Jan. 2014, www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/yeezianity-the-church-of-kanye-west-9067698.html

McCune, Jeffrey. “Meditation - ‘Ultralight Beam’: The Gospel According to Kanye West.” The Journal of hip hop studies 6.1 (2019): 51A–138. Web. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2376671633?accountid=14055&parentSessionId=1stHFLQqmeJrxULTpU4pp%2FKKJ2bwbqTksQf1eLjnjZQ%3D#

Heigl, A. (2021, March 14). Kanye West’s road to religion- and how conversion shaped his career. Page Six. https://pagesix.com/article/kanye-wests-road-to-religion-how-christian-conversion-shaped-his-career/

Cunningham, Vinson. “How Kirk Franklin Is Pushing the Boundaries of Gospel.” The New Yorker, 9 Jan. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/16/how-kirk-franklin-is-pushing-the-boundaries-of-gospel.

Nelson, Angela M. “Meditation - Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks,’ Black Suffering, and the Problem of Evil.” The Journal of hip hop studies 6.1 (2019): 78A–138. Web. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2376670586?parentSessionId=4NfDFK%2FhgbqemELoIyBAgY4mRrW2UQ0ah9i5zdd56hA%3D&pq-origsite=primo&accountid=14055

College Dropout, Life of Pablo, and Donda full lyrics txt files via Lyrics on Demand.com

“Kanye West - Donda Album Lyrics.” Lyrics On Demand, www.lyricsondemand.com/k/kanyewestlyrics/dondaalbumlyrics.html. Accessed 12 Dec. 2023.

“Kanye West - The Life of Pablo Album Lyrics.” Lyrics On Demand, www.lyricsondemand.com/k/kanyewestlyrics/thelifeofpabloalbumlyrics.html. Accessed 12 Dec. 2023.

“Kanye West - College Dropout Album Lyrics.” Lyrics On Demand, www.lyricsondemand.com/k/kanyewestlyrics/collegedropoutalbumlyrics.html. Accessed 12 Dec. 2023.

Back to blog

Leave a comment