So Kanye, after hell of a lot of talking about a hell of a lot on Twitter, released his 7th solo album The Life of Pablo on the 13th of February 2016. On my first listen, one thing that poked me was the alignment of gospel music and secular music on the album. I was involved in and also observed discussions both in person and online, where some people referred to it as a distasteful oxymoron, others said it was blasphemy and compared it to his “Yeezus antics”. An unexpected number were surprised, especially considering that this isn’t the first time that Kanye has addressed faith on a secular album, as he did so with “Jesus Walks” on The College Dropout.
This, put simply, is what I had to say on the matter:
The Gospel on Kanye's album did what Gospel does, fulfilled the purpose of Gospel. Him then talking about bleached assholes afterwards…
— Authentic Duplicate. (@CharisseeC) February 22, 2016
"Despite my mistakes, my sins and my flaws, God is still good and I want you to know that. So here in my music, are both sides of me"
— Authentic Duplicate. (@CharisseeC) February 22, 2016
The purpose of gospel music is to fulfil one or all of the following; to praise and to glorify God, to worship God, to spread the word of God and to uplift the spirit. “Ultralight Beam,” the intro to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Low Lights” (the only actual gospel moments on the album) do exactly this. That isn’t the issue, the issue is the conflict between the gospel and the secular. Whether Kanye was wrong for it or whether “hey, I’m human!” is a pathetic excuse is another topic.
By infusing Gospel into his music Kanye is honest about the duality of his reality, which I think many of us struggle to be. “I will say that I’m spiritual. I have accepted Jesus as my Savior. And I will say that I fall short every day” says Kanye post “Jesus Walks.”
How many of us are familiar with the “party on a Saturday, church on Sunday” narrative? Or the “what I did was wrong but (ironically) thank God I didn’t get caught!” As wrong as it may be, it is what it is. It happens, everyday. So why is music expected to be morally above humanity when so many humans make music in order to express themselves? I digress.
Kanye West is not the first to have gospel artists on a secular/hip-hop album. Kirk Franklin is not the first gospel artist to feature on a secular album. Let’s get that out of the way first. Gospel music and secular music have crossed paths countless times via sampling, beat selections, collaborations between artists and via artists like Kanye who make music to express the truth about their existence; of which God is a part of. There are many artists like D’Angelo for example, whose musical backgrounds are in Gospel but they have chosen to branch out with their careers.
I couldn’t help but start to think about other artists who have married the gospel and the secular. I started thinking about how they did it, what their purpose was and what sort of an impact they had.
Quickly though. A sidenote to Kanye. Kanye that verse on Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1 is utter shit. If it wasn’t for the amazing hook… if it wasn’t for the hook. The hook is what keeps me holding on. Your ear saves you where your mouth fails you on this album.
The Fix – Scarface
The Fix (2002) is an album by Scarface of Houston Texas and is my favourite example of a gospel/hip-hop album. He raps about his life and how he started out as a drug dealer at a young age doing “anything it took to survive, even if it took a n*gga to die.” He is honest about the life he lived on his block where he “had to hustle, ‘cause that’s how [they] were raised.” Amongst harsh words like “he who fucks with me gets the itchy,” The Fix has a number of Gospel songs and cries out to the Lord. “What Can I do?”, “Heaven” and “Someday” featuring Faith Evans.
“I wanna walk with you, follow in your footsteps
Talk with you to find out where my good’s kept
I been gone away from home for so long
Seems like everything I try to do without you go wrong
I’m confused about a lot of things, but not with my fate
So I’m depending on your holy ghost to guide me the way
See I’m a sinner in the 3rd degree
Ain’t afraid to admit it, ’cause I seen niggas worse than me
Who am I to judge a man when I’m a man myself”
Funnily enough, Kanye West is credited as a producer on this album for “In Cold Blood”, “Guess Who’s Back” and “Heaven” featuring Kelly Price. Kelly Price who sang a beautiful and uplifting verse on “Ultralight Beam”. Was The Fix a great point of inspiration for Kanye when it comes to the The Life of Pablo? It is very possible. There are a parallels galore. For example, on “Heaven” Scarface raps “who the fuck is you gonna trust when your road dog is scheming?” whilst on his album Kanye raps “real friends, it’s not many of us, we smile at each other but how many honest? Trust issues.”
Scarface’s shares his truth on this album. His relationship with God, his life and his journey. It speaks to and preaches the word to those brought up in similar circumstances, it is like the “ghetto gospel”.
Ghetto Gospel – 2Pac
“Ghetto Gospel” features on 2Pac’s posthumous album, Loyal To The Game (2004). The album itself is predominantly gangsta rap and has little to no gospel on it however, the ghetto gospel is a philosophy that stands as a running theme throughout. It is a philosophy that 2Pac lived by.
“Ghetto Gospel” is like being gospel without being a sellout, you know, not being phony. I’m not saying I’ve changed. I make a lot of mistakes and I say that in the song. But it says “God ain’t finished with me yet.” [There’s] a path for me, and I make mistakes and I might fall, but I’m gonna get up and I keep trying ’cause I believe in it. And that’s ghetto, you know, to do what you feel. It’s not all pretty, but it’s still what I feel. It’s still from my soul, my heart. So it’s ghetto gospel. – 2Pac
The ghetto gospel was 2Pac’s personal form of faith, he almost adapted the word of God to fit his reality and his lifestyle. He speaks upon what he sees, for example, asking God to “come save the misbegotten, lost ghetto souls of black cotton.” On “Ghetto Gospel” he says “I stop and stare at the younger. My heart goes to them, they tested with stress that they under.” Kanye’s “Pray for Paris, pray for the parents” is reminiscent of this call upon God to look over the circumstances of the world. A testament to the fact that, yesterdays social issues are still today’s social issues. We’re still praying and hoping for the salvation of the same people. 2Pac is widely recognised for the fact that he spoke unapologetically, for the people, from the perspective of the people.
Faith – Faith Evans
Faith (1995) is a slight alternative to the previous selections, the narrative is different. It isn’t ghetto gospel and it isn’t confessional with hopes of redemption. Faith is R&B/Soul; it is love songs, devotion, heartbreak and passion.
The term “secular” simply refers to anything that is not pertaining to or connected with religion and so not all secular music is bad or sinful. It just simply isn’t made with the sole purpose of glorifying God. So even singing “all I do is think about the way you make me feel” as Faith does on “Soon As I Get Home” would be considered secular.
Faith Evans, who was brought up and began singing in the Church, kicked started her music career when she was signed as the first female vocalist to Bad Boy Records by P.Diddy aka Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, in 1994. Bad Boy is responsible for some of the most iconic Hip Hop/R&B records and was at the centre of what is arguably biggest feud in Hip Hop (Bad Boy vs Death Row). Despite the controversy of the scene that she was involved in, Faith managed to maintain a purity about her music.
Her debut album incorporates two Gospel interludes (a recurring feature on her albums) “Faith” and “Thank You Lord”. From my perspective, at that time, Faith was like Hip Hop’s beacon of light. Even her presence on secular hits like “One More Chance” is a breath of fresh air, she exudes an indestructible and welcoming elegance when she sings. No matter the genre.
So here you have three of my favourite gospel/secular albums. This isn’t me trying to advocate “gospel/secular” as the title of the genre, but for the purpose of this piece I will classify these albums as such. Any others that spring to mind? What are your favourites? Are you against the idea completely? Are you warming up to it or do you love the concept? Let us know @vsnotebook!