Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

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