No question: Kanye West is bonafide star–these days known just as much for his manic outbursts (Taylor Swift), questionable fashion choices (window-blind sunglasses) and arm candy (Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian) as for his music. Ya might even accuse Kanye West of having a Messiah complex. Ironically, if it wasn’t for an unlikely rap sermon called “Jesus Walks,” Kanye might not ever be the agent provocateur he is now. With one song, he took us to church, daring us to love/hate him. We did. And we do.
Back in the late ’90s/early Aughts, Kanye West was viewed just as a hitmaking producer who occasionally rhymed atop the tracks he produced. Along with fellow super-producer Just Blaze, Kanye was responsible for crafting the hitmaking Roc-A- Fella soul-sampled sound that defined the rap genre back then.
But Kanye always saw himself as a double threat, and would sweat the big-wigs at Roc-A-Fella Records–Damon Dash, Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter–to let him emcee. The rap suits gave West a record deal mainly because The Roc didn’t want to lose his production services.
In February 2004, Kanye West released his debut album, College Dropout. The first three singles, “Through The Wire,” “Slow Jamz” and “All Falls Down” were pretty dope in their own right, but not in a head-turning or head nodding, wall-smashy way. But oh-thank-Heaven for track number 7.
Equal parts sermon, revival and testimony, “Jesus Walks” was West’s first serious artistic statement. Mixing rap vitriol with straight-up religious message, he recalled the days of artists like Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and Ray Charles, who all took church rhythms and lyrics, and cooly recast them as danceable soul food.
Growing up in Chicago as an art student categorized Kanye in the Backpack set, removed from the gang-banging or drug-selling story-telling of his rap contemporaries. Still, he made a hardcore song for “the hustlers, the killers, murderers, even the strippers” paralleling Christ’s death march to crucifixion in two of the song’s accompanying three videos while depicting the desperate plight of everyday strife.
Initially dubbed too hot for radio with its overt religious theme, Kanye’s rhymes came out like a dare: “They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus…/ If I talk ‘bout God my record won’t get played” The thumping martial beat under a haunting Gregorian chant mixed with children’s choir and female gospel wails made for the most incongruous club jam–yet, there we were, banging to it–just like Kanye said we would. Dude willed that ish into existence.
Peaking at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and certified gold, “Jesus Walks” won the 2005 Grammy as Best Rap Song of The Year. Ironically, College Dropout was nominated for a gospel Stellar Award for Best Gospel Album, which was later withdrawn due to the album’s secular content. (Guess someone actually listened to it?)
While he hasn’t openly rapped about Jesus since (His 2012 summer jam, “Mercy” is about a Lamborghini, not a spiritual virtue), “Jesus Walks” done changed the game. Even Darryl DMC McDaniels told TIME magazine that he had stopped listening to contemporary rap music altogether until he heard "Jesus Walks." Almost a decade later, Kanye the devil still trynna break him down. But unlikely smash singles seem to be Kanye’s forte. May he do so forever more, amen.