The Psalms of Kanye West: An Exegesis of Allusion

Like the author of the Psalms, Kanye’s proclamations are embedded with his identity as a speaker in a distinct time in place. Kanye’s gospel isn’t generic, our cultural conscience makes it deeply personal.

It was a story of and for the underachiever. Kanye West’s album “College Dropout” changed the face of hip-hop forever. Dressed in a pink polo, Mr. West sang over the sample of a Harlem choir, “Jesus walks / Jesus walks with me”. The Rolling Stone Magazine would name “Jesus Walks” one of the greatest hip hop songs ever created. Los Angeles Times would remark, “Its pulsating drums serve as the perfect backing for West’s reflections on his own mistakes as well as hip-hop’s tendency to focus on negative subject matter”. Somewhere between the pink polo and his coveted knitted sneaker release, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Mr. West released his fourth album, unabashedly proclaiming “I am a god, Hurry up with my damn massage / Hurry up with my damn ménage.” While “Yeezus” received rave reviews and was nominated for the Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards, critics were not slow to point out its contrasting heresies. Chris Richards of The Washington Post described the album as “West at his most wasted, stumbling through rubble”. In 2019, Kanye returned to the podium from the pew with his album “Jesus is King”. While Kanye describes his artistry as “gospel with a whole lot of cursing”, there is certain unmistakable veracity to the album that other faith-filled albums lack. It’s not just Kanye’s multi-faceted lyricism, brilliant sampling, or state-of-the-art production that makes the album powerful. Rather, what makes the album both authentic and authoritative is the omnipresent reminder of who Kanye is and was — from echoes of his early catalog in the album to his positionality in our cultural consciousness — his presidential bid, his coveted collaboration with Adidas, and his recent interview with Joe Rogan. One moment he is proclaiming he is a “ghetto pope” and a few months later, he is headlining youth conferences. Our inability to divorce Kanye from the album’s lyricism mirrors the tradition of inner-biblical allusion. Inquiry into this literary tradition not only eschews the authenticity of the album but is an invitation to engage in meaningful conversations about mental health.

Used as a prayer book, the Psalms contain songs of both praise and lament. The collection is expansive, composed of numerous writers, and is celebrated for being theologically rich while plumbing the depths of human emotion and experience. The independent pieces within the Psalms serve many purposes. Psalms 113–118 make up the Hallel; countless are included in the Siddur prayer book, vital to Jewish identity and practice. When citing the Psalms, ancient Near Eastern speakers understood the context of the writing as rooted in a sense of distinct place and time. Unlike contemporary songs of praise, the Psalms for the Jewish listener were not disconnected from their origination in terms of authorship and context. From Saint Paul’s use of parallelism to Jesus’ repetition of the Psalms, allusion-users expected their audience to possess enough knowledge to understand the literary device’s original context. What that means is lingering in the background of inner-biblical allusions is the Psalms’ stories of origination — the what, where, what that you might remember from high school English class. In exegeting inner-Biblical Psalm allusions, both Near East and contemporary listeners are confronted with the reality of the Psalms’ authorship. Most were written by a man with gross moral failings who nevertheless was considered “a man after God’s own heart”. What is more, some commentators such as Liubov Ben-None speculate that the King of Israel had mental health issues. “Evaluation of the passages referring to King David,” writes Ben- None, “indicated that he was afflicted by some mental disorder, and among the many possibilities major depression, dysthymia, and minor depression are the most likely. Of these diagnoses, major depression seems the most acceptable.” Despite bouts with belief and unbelief, faithfulness and heresy, and the ups and downs of mental health, David’s lyricism would be repeated and prophetically fulfilled centuries later by his ancestor the Christ. In this construction, the dynamic and reflexive allusion becomes a celebration of the faithfulness of God despite our humanity. It highlights the messiness of our redemption story — that God is faithful to his character and present in our belief and unbelief; faithfulness and heresy (Psalm 139); mental order and disorder.

This brings us back to Kanye. Like Davidic allusions, Kanye’s music cannot be divorced from the reality of who Kanye was and is given his cultural influence and public life for over a decade. The artist himself is hyper-aware of this public tension, singing before, “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye / I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye”. Tracks such as “Every Hour” or “Jesus Is” are intimately intertwined with the author’s failings both on account of his cultural influence and self-allusion. The album cannot be divorced from his public persona which includes his very open struggles with mental health. Like David, his proclamations are embedded with his identity as a speaker in a distinct time in place. Kanye’s gospel isn’t generic, our cultural conscience makes it deeply personal. In this positionality of knowledge, his lyricism, from his proclamation in “God Is” that “God Is / My protection / God Is / My All and All / God Is / My Light In Darkness oh’’ to “God is King, we are the soldiers” in “Selah” are not just lyrics from another generic praise song, they’re deeply personal. Engaging with the album like the Psalms, we become witnesses to the artist’s messy redemption story — that may mirror our own. Following, the album becomes an invitation to share in authentic and active conversations about mental health.

Not only are we constantly swinging in the pendulum of heresy and faith, belief and unbelief — “trying to keep my faith but I am looking for more,” many believers are struggling with mental health issues that have long been dismissed in places of worship (see “I Thought About Killing You”). A 2018 study published by Christianity Today revealed that mental health is not regularly addressed from the pulpit — reasons can range from sheer ignorance to blame on moral failings, although they are not mutually exclusive. “So many have allowed stigma and fear to prevent acknowledgment that mental illness exists within the walls of churches,” reflects Amy Simpson in “Breaking the Silence: How Your Church Can Respond to Mental Health”. “The silence sends a clear message that God is not interested in their suffering, serious problems have no place in the Church, and our faith has no answers for hardships like theirs.”

In this absence, Kanye’s self-allusioned album has become one of the few opportunities to deal with the intricacies of mental health and the gospel. Kanye’s lyricism gives us an opportunity to grapple with difficult questions like — where is God when I am depressed? Bipolar? Manic? Ridden with anxiety? Those whose “most beautiful thoughts are always the beside the darkest”? How does the local church come alongside those with mental disorders? Does the church have systematic counseling? How do psychology and spirituality intersect? Is it safe to be open about mental health issues in church? How have mental issues been over spiritualized and simplified? Paul repeatedly exhorts the believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’’. Perhaps, our playlist needed a more descriptive reminder of the psychological nuances of our redemption story. Grace is amazing because it is personal and pursuant — the descriptive “like me” part that remains unsung in the classic song. Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming Kanye is a prophet or his album should be canonized. I won’t be voting for him this fall. Nevertheless, his refrain is an opportunity to have courageous conversations about mental health in the church. For so long, we have tried “to say something/ compensate it so it doesn’t come bad / But sometimes, I we] think really bad things”.

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