Whether it’s the work of a repentant convert or an insidious con artist, Kanye West’s gospel album Jesus Is King has vaulted to the apex of pop culture in its first week of release. Secular and religious critics have denounced West as a heretic who is commodifying the gospel for the spotlight and personal benefit. Tyler Burn, vice president of The Witness, a self-described black Christian collective, accused West in a Washington Post op-ed of repressing black rights by combining “a theology rooted in contemporary white evangelicalism with black gospel music.”
But the negative reviews have done little to stop the avalanche of West’s success with the album. Jesus Is King is on pace to earn the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 Chart in its debut week. On Oct. 25, the first day of its release, nine of the album’s 11 songs appeared on Spotify’s U.S. top 10 list.
How did this happen?
New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica called the album the culmination of a “gentle evolution.” Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick D. Kennedy concurred, saying, “West has never been far from the teachings of Christ.”
The rapper has historically drizzled Christian themes throughout his music, including his single “Jesus Walks” from his 2004 debut album The College Dropout and his soulful anthem “Ultralight Beam” in 2016. His signature style of incorporating high-level, philosophical ideas in his songs has set him apart throughout his career.
But Jesus Is King is more than an extension of his old spiritual undertones. The majority of the album overflows with Biblical truths of redemption and faithfulness. It also includes Scripture references.
Google Trends reported a 700 percent increase in searches for Bible verses that West mentions in the album’s second song, “Selah,” including John 8:33.
“God’s always had a plan for me,” West told James Corden during a taped segment on CBS’s The Late Late Show on Monday. West continued to excitedly announce his devotion to God: “Now I’m about to work for God, and He is showing out!”
God’s plan has taken West on a roller coaster of a spiritual ride—from his declaring “I Am a God,” the title of a track on his 2013 album Yeezus, to confessing “Jesus is Lord” on his new album.
West’s transformation extends well beyond the microphone. Last weekend, he expressed his disdain for abortion during a radio interview with Los Angeles DJ Big Boy. He also recently opened up about how God helped him overcome a long-lasting addiction to pornography.
“With God, I’ve been able to beat things that had a full control of me,” West told Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1.
Egotism still seems to hold sway over West, who hailed himself “the greatest artist alive.” But nobody is perfect—not the least a new celebrity convert.
Christians have reasonable grounds to be skeptical of West’s crusade. A similar stunt occurred in 2004 when R. Kelly released a pseudo-gospel album. Today the R&B artist faces sex-crime charges.
In the face of tentative acceptance from religious listeners, West beseeches Christians to lay hands on him in prayerful support in the single “Hands On.” It isn’t asking too much of the church. After all, as Munster Bible College professor Dustin Benge pointed out, there is something far more astonishing than West’s conversion.
“I am more surprised God saved me than I am that He saved Kanye West,” Benge tweeted, riffing on the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15. “I am the worst sinner I know.”