From Carman to Kanye: An Incomplete Timeline of Holy Hip Hop
Kanye West released a gospel album recently, and boy do people have opinions about it. What can’t be denied is that Jesus is King has been listened to a lot, as the album hit #1 on the Billboard charts, was nearly crossed the 200 million stream mark in a single week, and sold more albums in one week than any other rap or R&B album in 2019 aside from Post Malone’s Hollywood Bleeding.
Kanye has been such an enigmatic figure for the last 20 years that it’s difficult at this point to receive his music and judge it solely on its artistic merits. If you can give it a clean listen, then god bless ya. But Kanye is a complicated figure for people who have rocked with him from savior to sunken place, which was discussed in-depth last year on the excellent Still Processing podcast episode We Wouldn’t Leave Kanye, But Should We?
What I find most interesting about this particular moment is reflecting on how we got here. There have always been well-known artists in the hip hop community blurring the lines of the sacred and the secular. Oftentimes that crossover comes in the form of a single song, but there have been instances of larger shifts in the lives and art of individuals as well as in the industry as a whole.
MC Hammer’s legacy in pop culture lore is a snapshot consisting of his iconic pants, ability to dance, and a handful of hit songs from 1990–1996. Of all the hits, Pray would ascend higher on the charts than any of his other singles, outperforming U Can’t Touch This, 2 Legit 2 Quit, The Addams Groove, and even Pumps and a Bumps. If you want to hear some of Hammer’s first rhymes, you’ll need to track down the gospel rap group Holy Ghost Boys of which he was a member in the mid-late ’80s. Since he stopped making new music , he’s largely focused on ministry endeavors. Once he quit making music, Hammer became an ordained minister and
It was during this timeframe that a group of students at Liberty University join together to perform at campus talent shows, and later evolve into DC Talk which is for a long time THE Christian rap group. The period also gifted us some particularly cringeworthy moments of people who had no business rapping attempting to ride the wave, including Carman’s Resurrection Rap video. Something about a middle-aged man rapping while Jesus gets thrown into a dumpster by a group of brown and black men misses the mark on any number of levels.
A popular gospel choir director and musical artist named Kirk Franklin starts getting play on pop and rap radio stations by fusing the natural connections between hip-hop and black gospel music. He got Cheryl James of Salt-N-Peppa to lay down some bars on his track Stomp, which would propel it to the top spot on the US R&B charts and land it heavy rotation on MTV. He also collaborated with famed producer Darkchild (or Rodney Jerkins, as his momma named him) in the hit Revolution, the video for which looks stylistically very much like what Puff Daddy was putting out at the time.
Speaking of Puff Daddy, his prodigy Ma$e (aka Mason Betha) went on legendary DJ Funkmaster Flex’s radio show at the height of his fame in 1999 to announce he was retiring from music to pursue a calling from God. His path after that would zigzag all over the place, with Betha becoming a pastor, unretiring from rap with a cleaner image and content, leaving the ministry, and embedding back into parts of hip-hop culture that may have been fertile ground for ministry opportunities but had more of an influence on him than he had on it.
Jesus Walks is the fourth single to drop from Kanye West’s debut album, College Dropout. The song’s sample of Jesus Walk With Me comes courtesy of the Addicts Rehabilitation Choir in Harlem. The spiritual intensity of Jesus Walks is evident not only in the song itself but also in its various visual representations. West has three videos made for Jesus Walks and performed it at nearly every awards show in the year following its release. West is also able to pull Ma$e out of rap retirement to spit a verse for the UK and Australia releases of the single.
Jesus Walks isn’t a spiritual one-off on College Dropout. The album is full of Christian imagery that hits on the theme of redemption throughout. A straightforward version of I’ll Fly Away appears on the album, and Never Let Me Down provides deep spiritual introspection from West that like in Jesus Walks makes connections between Christian faith and racial injustice prevalent in America.
Thanks proved a difficult album to categorize. It won Kanye the Best Gospel Artist the 2005 BET Awards and was nominated for a handful of Stellar Awards (a sort of gospel grammy) until the awards committee decided the album was too secular and thus ruled ineligible for the ballot.
Rap duo GRITS achieved a modicum of success crossing over into the mainstream. MTV had a particular affinity for the group, with their music appearing in My Super Sweet 16, The Buried Life and Pimp My Ride. Their song Ohh, Ahh went Hollywood, showing up on the soundtracks to Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift as well as Tyler Perry’s Big Momma’s House 2. Featured on the track was none other than Toby Mac from DC Talk.
Lecrae sneaks onto the Christian rap scene and would become the first Christian rapper to gain prominence within the broader hip-hop community. His lyrics have stayed clearly Christian over the years, even as he has become a fixture in the rap game. ‘Crae has performed with The Roots on The Tonight Show, took a turn in the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher, and performed on the mainstage at the 2016 BET hip-hop Awards. One never knows who is going to pop up in his videos, with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike and DJ Premier making cameo appearances over the years.
Lecrae has also been a prominent voice for racial justice, specifically in response to police killings of unarmed black men. He’s penned op-ed’s for Billboard, and his talk on racial reconciliation at Yale in 2016 was well-received. His advocacy resulted in significant backlash from the Evangelical Christian community for whom speaking openly about justice and equality proved a bridge too far.
Kanye debuts an early version of his Life of Pablo album at a fashion show in collaboration with Adidas at Madison Square Garden. Ultralight Beam opens the album, thumping on the bones of a classic Kanye beat backed by a gospel choir. Kirk Franklin and Kelly price make appearances on the song, along with Kanye’s best prodigy, Chance the Rapper. Chance is largely known at this point for a couple of independent mixtapes that were well received by the music industry, but not have much traction outside of the hip hop community. Life of Pablo would find a place near the top of nearly every “Best Of” list for 2016, with Ultralight Beam landing Grammy nominations for Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Performance.
During his 20th Anniversary tour, Kirk Franklin hits the Milly Rock in a remixed version of Melodies from Heaven that incorporates the beat from Lil’ Kim and Biggie’s 1996 single Crush on You.
Chance the Rapper releases his much anticipated Coloring Book mixtape. It sounds so much like Ultralight Beam that I consider Beam a Chance the Rapper prequel track in the same way that I consider Avengers: Civil War an appetizer to Black Panther. The mixtape includes robust reflections about faith and spirituality, very much how I’d imagine David would write Psalms if he were hanging out in modern-day rap studios.
Kirk Franklin makes a couple of appearances on Coloring Book and also helps Chance turn his performance at the 2017 Grammy Awards into full-blown church service. Pretty much the type worship that make Jesus come back a day early. The mixtape would win Rap Album of the Year to go along with two other Grammys that Chance would win that night. It would still be another few months before he would receive his Grammys in the mail, however.
Snoop Dogg releases Bible of Love, a 35 track Gospel album spread over two disks. While produced by Snoop Dogg, his appearances on the album were limited as it was largely made up of contributions from Gospel artists. Snoop was invited that year to perform at the Stellar Awards, which is quite the plot twist.
Kanye releases Ye, his eighth studio album. It’s dark, brooding, and on some levels concerning. There’s a certain vulnerability as West opens up about his mental health struggles and addiction to opiates, among other aspects of his personal life that he is processing and questioning. Critical reviews are mixed, and the album sees far fewer sales than any of his offerings to that point.
Kanye releases Jesus is King. Finally. After a year of essentially workshopping the album at his Sunday Service gatherings throughout 2019 and missing the initial release date. Kanye is a talented rapper, an incredible producer, and absolutely otherworldly at keeping people talking about Kanye. If nothing else, you gotta respect the hustle.
It’s possible to see King as a sort of punctiliar salvation expression, which is why (along with the commercial success despite the disproven notion that a rapper proclaiming Jesus wouldn’t be accepted in the industry, as well as a good deal of piety signaling) it is penetrating evangelical Christian circles in a way other projects listed above haven’t. And while there’s an argument to be made that works of art should stand on their own, I tend to think Jesus is King needs the context of Ye and Jesus Walks and everything in between to be fully understood as it marks yet another phase of the artist’s spiritual evolution. Such processes can never be captured in a moment, and are rarely linear, but allowing the artist to pull us into that tension is where the complexity of the art and the artist helps us wrestle with life’s most important questions.