51. Kanye West - Jesus Walks

I was lucky enough to grow up for the birth of rap & hip-hop. As a ten year-old I remember hearing "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang and thinking, "What the heck is that? That is soooo cool." I'm sure it's like the kids who heard Elvis or The Beatles for the first time. No, I'm not comparing the fun-loving Sugarhill Gang to the earlier musical giants, I'm just saying that the type of music was nothing you had ever heard before. It showed me that music can constantly change you and surprise you. It's supposed to change you and surprise you.

But as rap begat hip-hop, the music became more predictable and less original, and I make that statement completely ignoring the criticisms about music sampling. In the late 90's and early 00's, so much hip-hop was formulaic, where it was take an obscure sample from a James Brown song, layer in some keyboards and then rap about how awesome you are, how much all the haters suck, who you're going to shoot and who you're going to fuck. That's when rap and hip-hop lost me for a bit. I never completely abandoned them as musical styles that I liked, but my standards were not met by so many artists. A cool name and gangsta street cred do not a groundbreaking artist make.

Then, in early 2004, a friend of mine said, "Look, I know you're disillusioned with hip-hop, but you have to check out this record from this new artist." It was a friend whose musical tastes I trusted, so I downloaded the debut album from Kanye West called The College Dropout. Again, I relived that Sugarhill Gang moment and realized that hip-hop had just been changed forever. The production values and complex arrangements that Dr. Dre started in the early 90's were being taken to the next level. And the man who would change the way I saw hip-hop was indeed a college dropout. He left college because his need to write, produce and perform music was just too strong to be suppressed any longer.

"Jesus Walks" was actually the third single released from The College Dropout, but it was the song most responsible for my epiphany. It took all of the rules of acceptable hip-hop and set them ablaze. That the song discusses Jesus in a way that wasn't just taking his name in vain should have been strike one. That it had a choir singing the "Jesus walks with me" refrain should've been strike two. And the fact that all of this was coming in the form of a debut album should've been strike three. But instead of striking out and putting out a song that very few ever heard, Kanye West went on to capture a Grammy for it and become one of the exciting new voices of hip-hop.

The first time I head the vocal intro, I immediately thought of the chain gang chants that you hear about. And then when I saw the video, that's exactly what Kanye's got - a chain gang chanting and marching to the beat. As the subtle drum beat carries on, there's the choir that comes in with the "Jesus walk... Jesus walk with me," adding to the vibe of an old negro spiritual. But Kanye's lyrics don't have the hope and confidence of those old spirituals. This is a man in conflict with his God, his world and himself. You can feel his desperation as he raps, gradually getting more and more animated. His words echo that:

God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down
The only thing that I pray is that me feet don't fail me now
And I don't think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs
I want to talk to God but I'm afraid because we ain't spoke in so long

The music is sparse, letting the words and Kanye's rapping of them to shine. The chant continues throughout the song, punctuated with "ooooos." Then there's some vocals sequenced through a keyboard, giving them an almost yodel feel. The drums continue to be understated, but at the same time complicated, throughout the song, letting the chanting to actually keep the main beat.

Kanye even addresses the potential dangers that his subject matter may have on the commercial success of his record. But he was undeterred:

They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played Huh?
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I'm dreaming about

Rappers have almost never shown themselves with such vulnerability. It's usual the peacock puffery of self-important lyrics, with a more than healthy dose of bombast throughout. Self-doubt and retrospection are as taboo as rap's trademark misogyny would be on a Sheryl Crow album. That's what really caught my ear with The College Dropout and "Jesus Walks." It took all of the rap and hip-hop traditions and threw them out the window, creating a new sound that I'm sure old rock fans might have felt the first time they heard The Beatles.

Aw, crap. That means that I'm old. Oh, well....

(Fun Fact #523: While listening to the song the first time, I thought the lyrics below were such a scathing retort to so many ignorant people who verbally berate others:

They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us
Saying, "We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast"
Huh? Y'all eat pieces of shit? What's the basis?

It's a great line, but it struck me as familiar. Hopefully Kanye didn't steal it and it's just a coincidence, but that line is an almost word for word quote from the dramatic masterpiece that is Adam Sandler's comedy Happy Madison.)
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