Earlier this month, rapper Kanye West described his latest release as “a gospel album with a lot of cursing.”
The phrase exemplifies the sense of confusion and apparent contradiction surrounding The Life of Pablo—which came out February 14, after lots of hype and speculation. Christians also wondered about what was to come from the famous husband of Kim Kardashian (and foil to Taylor Swift): How much gospel will be in this “gospel album”? Who exactly is Pablo?
For starters, it isn’t a typical album in any sense. Following its digital release, it has yet to be transferred to a physical format (no CDs, no vinyl). The Life of Pablo is not, and may not ever be, available for purchase. So while we’re told the album exists, it requires a certain amount of faith to experience.
It is not available on iTunes, Amazon, or Spotify. No man cometh unto The Life of Pablo except through Tidal—the online music-streaming site run by Kanye’s figurative “big brother” Jay-Z offers the only legal way to listen to the project.
During the final months of production, the album went through a spiritual journey of its own, rumored to originally be titled So Help Me God, then SWISH, later confirmed as Waves, and finally The Life of Pablo.
It’s the latest entry on a lengthy timeline illustrating Kanye’s use of Christian themes and imagery in his work. Occasionally such efforts have been viewed by believers as an earnest search for truth. The song “Jesus Walks” from his debut album was nominated for a 2004 Stellar Gospel Music Award.
And just as often, Kanye’s ideas are seen as outright blasphemy. That Stellar Award nod was later rescinded after the threat of protests about vulgar language contained within the song and the rest of The College Dropout. He also caught hell for his “I Am a God” track from 2013’s Yeezus album. The title was initially explained as a reference to Psalm 82:6 (“I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you’”) and later noted as being as bold and indefensible as it appeared.
But many Christians who proclaim the scandalous grace of the Gospels seem to be willing to extend an olive branch to even the most outrageous offenders. For some, The Life of Pablo qualifies. It has an intriguing, possibly religious title. It includes contributions from notable Christian artists. The artist’s ever-bubbling Twitter stream bursts with tweets that confess sins while affirming his need for forgiveness and redemption.
It also carries an “Explicit Lyrics” label, a braggart’s swagger, and feeds the fears of those concerned about the mixed messages it will send less mature and discerning listeners. So how should followers of Jesus approach The Life of Pablo and the artist behind it?
This Is a God Dream
The easiest entry point for believers will be the first track on the album. “Ultralight Beam” is more or less the public prayers of its authors and performers. It begins with an audio recording from a viral video sensation known as Natalie the Great. In the first 30 seconds of TLOP, four-year-old Natalie is heard praying to Jesus and against Satan.
The song then moves into Kanye’s verses asking God to deliver us serenity, peace, and loving while embracing the spirit of the prayer. Next, a choir sings psalm-like cries to Jehovah in the midst of doubt and depression:
I'm tryna keep my faith
But I'm looking for more
Somewhere I can feel safe
And end my holy war
I'm tryna keep my faith