Kanye West — “Jesus Walks”

Released: 5.25.04

Peak: #11

Atheists and agnostics had reason to be restive in 2004, and the boot stomps of “Jesus Walks,” summoning simultaneous images of Bush’s Christian soldiers and Deep South chain-gangs, with that spooky children’s chant underscoring its martial thrust, did nothing to comfort us. “We at war,” Kanye declares–against terrorism, racism, and ourselves–shortly before Curtis Mayfield, from beyond the grave, repeatedly exclaims “Niggers!” in a sample snipped from his own ghetto prophecy: “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.”

Christianity is the biggest pop culture phenomenon in the United States by far. American Idol, the Super Bowl, Presidential elections–all scrawny competition as regards breadth of reach or depth of influence. It’s inextricable from our cultural and political life. If you think it’s condescending to treat religion as entertainment, you devalue entertainment– many artists derive strength or inspiration from some form of faith, however loosely they define that spiritual source. Many more, unfortunately, locate in Christianity a shortcut to the overblown sanctimony that makes for the worst kind of pop.

Kanye’s hardly immune to sanctimony: Even if some clueless exec did say he could “rap about anything except for Jesus,” quoting it here just smacks of the typical Christian persecution complex that fuels middle American resentment. But fundamentalist orthodoxy has hardly crippled anyone who claims to need Jesus “the way Kathy Lee needed Regis” or quotes Adam Sandler in the face of his adversaries. Walking alongside his own personal Jesus, Kanye espouses a faith that’s quintessentially American in its vagueness. And as a reminder that Jesus walks with the hustlers and the hos, “Jesus Walks” relocates the roots of Christianity in existential doubt and confusion and fear, not the innate holiness of its believers.

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