Kanye West’s Reactionary Turn Isn’t Just an Act

Kanye West at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards in New York City (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
If his conversion is sincere, is there any doubt that he’s “free indeed”?

In Edgar Allen Poe’s harrowing short story, The Premature Burial, a cataleptic man worries that his bouts of unconsciousness will be misinterpreted by the medical establishment as a sign that he has died, and that he will accordingly be buried alive. In one particularly jarring moment in the story, the narrator is awakened in the dark after a cataleptic episode:

At length the slight quivering of an eyelid, and immediately thereupon, an electric shock of a terror, deadly and indefinite, which sends the blood in torrents from the temples to the heart. And now the first positive effort to think. And now the first endeavor to remember. And now a partial and evanescent success. And now the memory has so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of my state. I feel that I am not awaking from ordinary sleep. I recollect that I have been subject to catalepsy. And now, at last, as if by the rush of an ocean, my shuddering spirit is overwhelmed by the one grim Danger — by the one spectral and ever-prevalent idea.

When the narrator opens his eyes, he regains his faculties one by one until that horrible moment when he announces: “I am cognizant of my state.”

Woke, if you like.

Religious conversions tend to proceed the same way. The convert is taken first by impulse, the inborn instinct toward the supernatural, the soul’s longing for purpose. Next, thought: the rationalizing of the spiritual impulse, earnest contemplation of the divine. Then, memory and subsequent dread, recalling and lamenting one’s former self. The convert confronts “the one grim Danger — by the one spectral and ever-prevalent idea” that he might be lost, damned, or otherwise beyond hope. Then, as it does for Poe’s narrator when he realizes he is actually in the “cabin of a small sloop lying at anchor in the stream,” comes relief.

Kanye West’s conversion has followed the same basic schema. First, West felt the urge for meaning. After his hospitalization in 2016 for psychosis and bipolar disorder, West left the hospital starving for something that would give him order and purpose. That impulse begot the thought that perhaps the one worthy of worship was other than Kanye West. The rapper announced that his faith required his “being in service to Christ,” and “radical obedience” to God — a radical departure from the self-obsessed Ye of years past.

West is still bombastic and proud. What’s changed is that he’s now expressing reactionary, countercultural sentiments. “I was asking people to not have premarital sex while they were working on the album [Jesus is King],” said the once-libertine West. “When people pray together and fast together,” he says, “the power is increased.” He insisted that his wife, Kim Kardashian, dress more modestly, and said that he will not allow his daughters to wear makeup.

These are hard sayings. Who can hear it?

Memory, guilt, and relief. West’s new album Jesus is King contains serious, if simple, insights on each. Consider, from the song “Selah”: “John 8:33 / We the descendants of Abraham / Ye should be made free / John 8:36 / To whom the son set free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me.” Any interpretation of those lyrics is incomplete without consideration of the scripture he cites. From John 8:33-36:

They answered him: We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free? Jesus answered them: Amen, amen I say unto you: that whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever. If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.

Kanye West had “never been slave to any man” — he has always conceived of himself as a free thinker, unmoored from customs, from conformity. But he has been a “servant to sin,” and admits as much: “There was a time I let you know what high fashion had done for me, I was letting you know what the Hennessy had done for me.” He has battled with pornography and sex addiction. But now, Kanye considers himself “free indeed,” not by himself, or on his own accord, but instead on the One who “abideth for ever”: “I’m letting you know,” West says, “what Jesus has done for me.” “He saved a wretch like me.”

Time will tell if Kanye West intends to make virtue a habit rather than one passing fad among many in his career. But for the time being, he appears a man changed. And if his conversion is sincere, is there any doubt that he’s “free indeed”?


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