This year, Chance the Rapper made an album about the happiest day of his life. The Big Day is replete with reflection and nostalgia, sexy dance moves and cheesy ones; it all at once captures living in the moment, appreciating the past, and hoping for the future. It’s also an album that continues Chance’s grace towards God and appreciation of his blessings. On “We Go High,” Chance is earnest and dorky (“One livin’ true God, he make us Booyah”) as he vows his service to God rather than award statues. His album is both personable and conversational, opening up about his God without being domineering. When asked about his beliefs in relation to a religiously zealous Kanye West during a conversation with Zane Lowe, Chance remarked, “If we can’t talk about faith, then why we talking?”
Chance isn’t the only artist this year searching for redemption, guidance, and moral understanding with the help of Christian iconography. FKA twigs released her sophomore album MAGDALENE, which used one of Jesus’ exploited and underlooked disciples as a beacon of strength, sensuality, and healing; On her debut album Athena, Sudan Archives reimagines the Greek goddess in her image and uses gospel scriptures to reconcile her understandings of right and wrong; Kanye West released Jesus Is King as an album of redemption and repentance of his past music sins; Kristin Hayter uses biblical language to craft redemption songs for victims of abuse as Lingua Ignota. Musicians are either using the word as a means of personal transcendence, blind propaganda, or empowering subversion.
The growing hunger for exaltation and explanation is not much of a surprise considering that 2019 has been riddled with reminders of our mortality – Dictionary.com just dubbed “existential” as the word of the year. Whether it’s our dying planet, the frustrations with government proceedings, massive gun violence, or struggling for safety and autonomy of your own body, even if the world isn’t going to end soon, we’re constantly confronted with our corporal limits. The artists listed above are just a handful who are grappling with our existence, which has anxiously been up for debate.
Twitter’s most anticipated album of the year was a love letter to Christ, as well as a spotty conversion opportunity. Kanye’s music, without its mighty choral contributions and heartstopping organ compositions, feels like a panicked QVC commercial. He preaches his self-importance alongside a vague “salvation.” It’s odd to think that he preaches God’s glory, but doesn’t fully place it before him. Instead, he celebrates himself as a god praising a god – the track “Selah” positions him as a prophet already aware of his guaranteed entrance to the pearly gates. On Jesus Is King, there’s an overall sense that his wealth and seemingly teflon status in cancel culture is due to God’s guiding light.
Unfortunately, West cannot synthesize the good and the bad; he can’t completely reconcile with his humanity. This is revealed through his partnership with Joel Osteen, a steely-smiled televangelical millionaire who promotes prosperity gospel. It feels more like a capitalist validation for his reckless fodder that fuels a white evangelical agenda – his thinking is eerily similar to select members of the cultish group the Family, which was featured in a recent Netflix docuseries. Ye’s new gospel of faith equaling wealth creates a reward-fueled belief system, which is why it ties into political knots so nicely. Many people have put aside his controversial remarks and questioning of authentic gospel because if he’s talking about God, then that’s all that matters. But really it pushes forward his empty rhetoric, allowing his celebrity to help us forget to question his intentions. Through his art, Kanye isn’t doing anything innovative when discussing God, instead he’s piecemeal for a population of power-hungry individuals – from both sides of the political aisle – that either champion him or admonish him in order to create further division.
One foil to Kanye is FKA twigs and her relationship with Mary Magdalene, of whom her latest album is named after. Twigs uses her as an example of unconditional love and loyalty she aspires to. Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’ most important followers, and despite her selfless belief and fearless love, her character has been degraded throughout history. As opposed to Kanye’s fawning over written scripture for reward, twigs is admiring the character of a human being, of the one who didn’t run from Jesus at his crucifixion and was the first to see him resurrected. twigs not only uses her own personal relationship with this figure to grow and heal herself, she champions one of Mary Magdalene’s false narratives subverting religious patriarchal expectations. She is both seductive and vulnerable; she is both broken and complete; she is both gentle and strong.
What is so compelling about MAGADALENE is that twigs is critiquing the bureaucracy that dictates religion, but she still holds strong to her faith. On the title track, twigs discusses Mary’s grace and power, while also addressing a patriarchal beginning. “It’s easier to call her a whore, because as soon as you call a woman a whore, it devalues her,” she explained to Apple music. “I see her as Jesus Christ’s equal.”
Lingua Ignota is another experimental artist that uses ominous compositions, from drowning symphonic elements to black metal’s raw mentality, and biblical language for catharsis. Rooted in Ignota’s experience as an abuse survivor, CALIGULA is the product of exposing injustice and violence. Her lyrics call upon God and conjure Satan, fascinated with the absoluteness of the Bible and good versus evil. “It was also an effective way for me to process this stuff because it’s not confessional, contemporary language,” she said. “I can just put it in some kind of allegorical, biblical box. And it makes it not only relatable to more people, but also makes it a little bit separate from me and my experiences.”
In ancient Greece, Plato believed that certain modes of music would upend society. In The Republic, he grants gatekeepers with the task of making sure “the modes of music are never disturbed,” otherwise there will be an “unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions.” The philosopher advocated for order and structure within music in order to mirror society. Any jams used for pleasure would be seen as chaotic and destructive, instilling in his thinking a form of hegemonic control through arts. In an incredible essay by Ashon Crawley, he explains that what is “urgent for us to consider is what the use of this music, what the use of religion and the individual conversion narrative, wants us to misremember.”
As religion has grown and solidified itself in the United States over the past several decades, Evangelicalism has become increasingly associated with the conservative right. Not all evangelicals are bigoted homophobes craving a clean, white slate for America. But as the right and left make moves against each other, they will be picking their players on who to spread their ideological agenda. We don’t live in a vacuum where free will and faith can thrive untainted by human agendas. Either out of love or fear, these miracles and testaments were recorded by men, then reinterpreted over the years, and then used as building blocks for many western countries that stand today. What twigs exposes, Kanye forgets, Ignota redeems, and Chance is aware of, is that spiritual strength is revelatory, but is also man made.