There’s a scene in the biopic Ray where an irate group storm one of Ray Charles’ shows to (basically) insist that he stop taking gospel songs and ‘secularizing’ them. I think of this scene every time I hear Christians who complain about ‘secular’ music.
Why do we always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist?
Modern gospel music is a strange thing. From a musical standpoint, it’s not actually a genre per se. Instead, it borrows the sounds of other genres (including those its listeners sometimes criticize) and slaps God-related lyrics over them; both reversing and copying what Ray Charles did.
I remember all the shade Kirk Franklin caught (back when I was in secondary school) for his ‘gospelization’ of ‘secular’ hip-hop and R&B. His critics could have looked at it as some kind of reclaiming for gospel of what Charles adapted. After all, R&B is the musical descendant of the soul music that Charles co-invented through secularizing gospel music in the first place.
Thankfully (and regardless of such creative conservatism), Franklin’s kind of gospel is now very much the norm in Christian circles, at least out here in Ghana. Yet some who have no problem listening to Kirk are still at great pains to draw distinctions between the sacred and the secular; criticizing artists like Adomaa (a preacher’s daughter catching flack for singing outside the church although all her lyrics are in line with her Christian principles), Paapa (who has also shared labels/stages/songs with non-gospel artists) and (still!) Kirk Franklin for anything from not limiting themselves to gospel to associating themselves with sinners. They must be doing something right: Jesus was accused of the very same in his lifetime.
… aaaaand in walks Kanye West.
Say what you want about his out-of-studio shenanigans: seven critically-acclaimed albums deep, the man has had one of the longest runs in music history. Ever. Kanye’s politics may bore me to tears, but the man is talented. That said, no one in my musical circles had particularly high hopes for his new album (it’s a long story: we’ll tell you about it in a podcast someday).
What rekindled my interest in (‘SWISH‘… sorry, I meant ‘Waves‘… Oh: slight correction…) ‘The Life of Pablo‘ was this headline from Relevant Magazine:
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the word ‘gospel’ that gave me hope here.
Same as it was before I became Christian, gospel is rarely a particularly interesting or innovative genre to me. I hold gospel to a higher standard. It’s not enough to simply praise God with your lyrics. The way I see it, if you’re dedicating your music to a being you worship, then it should blow minds, stretch paradigms and birth new forms. I’m a DJ and when I’m mixing songs together, I may string together songs with similar themes but I’m mostly focused on beats, melodies and such. If your music is a reflection of a God-given gift, then your instrumentation and arrangements and concepts and production, mixing and mastering should all push the envelope. You should never be accused of sounding stagnant. Why? Because creativity is the closest thing (besides reproduction) that humans have to creation. It is a chance to emulate the being you claim created you.
The gospel music I usually hear often presents watered down (or watered-up, depending on how you choose to look at it) versions of other genres, without adding anything creative. There are exceptions. Sadly, they aren’t that popular. In contrast, hip-hop (especially Kanye West’s style of it) is often based on samples, opening it up to accusations of being derivative, and yet it still does something creatively interesting to those original sounds.
So, it was obviously the combination of the words ‘Kanye West’ and ‘Gospel’ that caught my attention. Kanye’s public persona is that of a man unhinged and listening to ‘The Life of Pablo‘ (apparently a reference to Paul) confirmed my suspicions, while also shattering any of my doubts in Kanye’s ability to produce yet another creative, interesting and at times awesome album (‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘FML’ are on loop right now). I have a bunch of problems with the album and I’m not sure I’d call the final cut gospel (whatever that really means), but it’s a deeply human one, and somewhere in there is one of the most earnest cries to God – both in praise and in need – that I’ve ever heard.
There is not much I can say from a critical perspective about ‘Pablo’ that has not already been written elsewhere. I had wanted to write a post looking at it as a gospel album. Then I listened to the Forth District podcast dedicated to dissecting the album track-by-track, and it says everything I was going to say and then some.
So I highly recommend you listen to it too. Especially if you’re not interested in gospel.