The Misguided, Unhelpful Christian Conversation Around Yeezus
Bad criticism raises my hackles. As a person who has spent the better part of four years writing criticism, including nearly a whole year on this outlet, I’ve begun to develop a keener voice and an eye for substandard work. My editor brought this issue to my attention, and I would not be writing this without his insistence. I have little-to-no connection to the Christian world other than through a few personal acquaintances. Look, most churches don’t take kindly to feline parishioners, and, sure, I may have devoured one or two incompetent organists. No one could blame me, though. My veins were pounding in protest. Because my editor reads Christian music criticism, mostly to keep tabs on a nascent attempt by some Christians to engage non-Christian culture more constructively, and he forwarded these reviews to me for my analysis. We had some conversations about the issue, and I agreed to write down some thoughts on these pieces.
Those who read this blog regularly probably know that I loved Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus. Its pared-down, brutalist aesthetic, precise and obscene lyricism, and deft use of vocal distortion, guest artists, and warped samples combined to make it a highly potent record. Critical consensus has crowned this another in a six-album long string of successes for West, and the only significant and consistent bloc of dissent has come from Christian sites. This begs the question: what is it about Yeezus that makes Christian critics cringe–and, more importantly, write bad reviews?
To my surprise, the most sensationalist piece of the bunch comes from Think Christian, a site with a decent pedigree and a track record of mostly insightful criticism and professional writing. Consider: the site’s editor is Josh Larsen, co-host on the excellent Filmspotting podcast. Having done some extensive reading of the site’s content for the piece alongside my editor, I concluded that Larsen was the best writer on the site by far, but the rest were certainly competent and, thankfully, tended to avoid excessive moralizing. Though it is run by the denomination my editor recently left, he normally reads the site expecting high-quality work from a perspective that is distinct from his and mine.
The writer of the Think Christian piece, John J. Thompson, has had a long and productive career. From running a Christian alternative record store to serving as the rock editor for CCM magazine, he has a large body of work both on Think Christian and elsewhere. His background is not in hip hop, which is not closely covered on Think Christian, but rather punk-ish Christian alternative rock and Americana. For instance, he lavished love on Mumford and Sons’ Babel, a record I personally can’t stand, and many other albums specifically marketed to Christians. Also, he has written a fair amount about indie rock bands, including reviews of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and Wilco’s The Whole Love. Some of his most pointed and common pejorative words: “nihilistic,” “postmodern,” and “clever.” His writing also tends to emphasize whatever parts of an album talk about God or faith, at points reading religious themes into the work more than out of them. Fair enough: I have no grudge against his tastes. What I do find distasteful is his approach to Yeezus.
Let’s get to the heart of the problem. Thompson writes this paragraph:
“Musically, Yeezus takes hip-hop to new places, which many critics have praised. He gets credit for incorporating electronic dance music elements in ways that few mainstream rap artists have. Throughout these tracks, West offers the best alternative/techno/rap money can buy; Yeezus is innovative, creative and technically excellent. To accept it on that level, however, would be like buying a creatively executed painting of a pile of steaming excrement, a gorgeously designed propaganda poster in favor of human trafficking or a beautifully shot snuff film.”
This is the only paragraph he writes that talks about the album’s sound. Now, for my part, I think the way an album sounds, its musical form and quality, is far more important than lyrics in most cases. Music is also more subtle, subjective, and difficult to moralize. The result is that Thompson stumbles by bifurcating music and lyrics. “I like the music, but hate the lyrics,” is one of the most common responses to hip hop that conservative Christians have. If Thompson wants to rail against lyrics he perceives as offensive and misogynistic, he should note that. Yet a review of a whole album needs to consider how the music and lyrics work together. For instance, he takes issue with Kanye’s sexually explicit, arguably misogynistic lyrics. He fails to note, however, that many of the darkest lines are delivered with a sense of resignation, hopelessness, or fear, and that many of them are spoken in a distorted voice Kanye has used before to signify an awareness of his own monstrosity. Moreover, he fails to engage the work in anything other than outrage and condemnation, all but consigning it to hell in his final line. From what I could find, this is also the only hip hop album review on Think Christian.
That paragraph also shows a clear failure to appreciate art that might address unpleasant subject matter in a graphic way. Shock does not go over well with him. Derivative and false, but “spiritual” Americana-infused lite rock like Mumford is fine, but something provocative and intentionally abrasive like this flops in his eyes. I doubt he’s a fan of Francis Bacon, let me tell you. I think this signifies a lack of critical imagination and charity. Rather than giving the work a chance to provoke and disgust and then reflecting on that experience, Thompson assumes a position of overbearing judgment. It’s one thing to infuse a moral perspective into one’s work; it’s entirely another to make agreeing with your own moral principles the most important criterion for a works’ success. And this is another problem: a lack of consistency. In his review of Modern Vampires of the City, Thompson realizes that Ezra Koenig and company have some unflattering things to sing about Christianity and that they embrace a kind of postmodern uncertainty and unknowing in their music. Yet he lets them off easy, probably because, unlike Kanye, Vampire Weekend is willing to cloak and obscure, rather than let emotions and conflicts run at full bore. In summation: spiritual and uplifting and sincere lyrics matter more than musical effectiveness or the complexity of how word and sound interact. Hardly a fitting attitude for a music critic.
He also writes: “One listen and it’s clear exactly who Kanye thinks he is (a god) and what that entitles him to do (anything he wants) to whomever he wants (your wife.)” I find it incredibly arrogant that he seems to think that he can understand Kanye, whom he clearly has not listened to in any depth before (there is no contextualization of Yeezus with his other work in the review), after forty minutes of tsk-tsking in dismay. Thompson gives his theologically conservative Christian audience probably the easiest, most predictable, and least helpful review he could have. That’s a shame. Interestingly, though, Thompson has actually written a better review of Yeezus, and he did it in one sentence. He also mistakenly put it near the conclusion of his effusive Babel review. Just substitute Yeezus for Babel and see what happens: “The songs explore the effects of sin on the individual and on relationships with language and an intensity that is consistent with the brokenness they uncover.” So using intensity and potentially strong, even offensive language to show a bleak picture of brokenness that might hint at redemption or hope is fine for Mumford but not Kanye. Got it. I would like to politely ask: how much rap music has Thompson reviewed? His review is fundamentally ignorant and misguided, not including artistic context, an awareness of how, say, Justin Vernon’s and Chief Keef’s vocals on “Hold My Liquor” express unease and distress. Yeezus does not glorify Kanye’s ego but rather shows it to us as a pulsating mass of insecurity. Kanye has always been conscious of the warped morality of his tendency toward excess and hedonism. I wish Thompson were as self-aware and culturally savvy as West. It’s fine that he hates it, but I wish he could come up with better reasons than “it has a different worldview than mine” (of course it does) and “he says mean things about women” (more troubling, but also more complicated than just simple misogyny–see the excellent Spin roundtable of women critics on the album here).
The two other conservative reviews of the album, from Relevant and Christ and Pop Culture, have almost identical problems to a lesser degree. They also show more conscience of West’s previous work. Christ and Pop Culture even commissioned the review from someone with a strong résumé of writing about rap music. To their credit, they point out that he used to be more “conscious” in his lyrics. By that, I mean that he used to be less self-obsessed and more willing to specifically attack larger injustices in society. On songs like the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “All Falls Down,” this was certainly true. There’s also nothing wrong with arguing that artists should prioritize social and political concerns. Except.
Relevant, on its list of the best albums of the year so far, put James Blake’s Overgrown, Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. None of those albums address broader social concerns. Timberlake’s album is just as obsessed with romantic angst and issues with devotion and ego before its artist marries and settles down. I suspect, no, I’m fairly certain, that the only reason Kanye gets raked over the coals for being self-obsessed when Timberlake gets away with it is that Kanye is a rapper. And, in white-dominated Christian music critical culture (secular criticism also being white-dominated, but less obnoxious about it), hip hop almost cannot be good unless it’s attacking racism or talking about “the black experience.” What about a “black experience,” Relevant? Now, I’m a tiger with a white editor, and in no position to lecture people about being subtly racist. But I will dare to here. Why does the message matter so much more here than with Daft Punk? More than likely, it all comes down to explicitness, bluntness, and the fact West is rapping and not singing. I look forward to the Christian critical backlash against Bon Iver for always singing about heartbreak and “personal stuff.” When are you going to rail against the broader injustices of economic inequality and articulate the “white experience,” Justin Vernon?
To be fair, Kanye does make some deeply problematic and disturbing comparisons between the Civil Rights movement and sexual liberation, though the two were certainly not unrelated and originated in the same heady time. This deserves some real conversation though, as in the Spin roundtable, not knee-jerk damnation. No doubt West also paints unflattering, objectified visions of certain women. Again, that’s not a positive. It would be much better, in some ways, if Kanye could begin to work out his issues with women in more positive ways. However, a measure of charity and understanding should be extended to him, as well as a recognition of the gap between artist and work.
Because he’s rapping and not singing, and a solo artist and not in a band, it’s much harder for critics to distinguish between a real person and the persona they choose to present in their art. The person telling those horrible stories on Yeezus is not Kanye West, living being but Kanye West, poetic persona. There are connections and similarities between the two, indeed many more than usual because of Kanye’s outsize personality. But just like I don’t think Sufjan Stevens actually “punched [someone] in the head” while the person “laughed and “laughed,” I don’t think the unrelentingly id-fixated Kanye we see on Yeezus is a straightforward stand-in for the real man. Yeezus is creating a world that should feel unbearable and exciting, excessive and nightmarish. It’s the most incarnated, body-focused journey into the mind of Kanye we have had yet, and I understand why that puts people off. I wish that people would realize that an album you happen to dislike (even if, like Relevant, they admit they love the music, which is really confusing) isn’t just an excuse to be offended. It’s the product of a real person (whom you should not patronize with prayer requests) attempting to construct meaning, however fleeting, through art.
As for the article from the more liberal perspective, found here, I have less to say. I will say, though that this article, from a blog that just joined Patheos’ Progressive Christian portal, contains a clear contender for worst overall pair of sentences. After noting that Kanye claims to be “a man of God.”
“If you come from a more traditional evangelical or Black Church perspective, the blasphemy of comparison to God is enough to disqualify him. From a progressive perspective, his misogyny cuts him out of the running.” Face. Palm. Sorry to be so vulgar, people, but come on! There are so many layers of contextual ignorance, stereotyping, and poor assumptions in that sentence it makes me want to eat my tail. And, again, the article goes on for far too long about how it would be better if Kanye actually used the Civil Rights imagery to talk about the black experience and yadda yadda. At least it provides some historical insight. Still, despite being from a more liberal Christian perspective, it’s just as graceless, moralizing, and uncharitable as the others. My editor was ashamed to be a Christian reading these reviews. I’m still very proud to be a tiger, thank you.
Yeezus is replete with flaws, befitting its creator, a man who is utterly open and honest about all of his myriad personality defects. I would never want to spend a day with Kanye West, unless it were in the recording studio. No. But I have listened to Yeezus over a dozen times, and I think it rewards repeated listening. Once the shock and awe of the album’s sonic novelty wear off, you start to get a closer appreciation for its other virtues. This is music that is raw and that refuses euphemism. But it’s also valuable and praiseworthy in many ways, and this is what Christian critics should at least consider. Plus, you know, getting people who actually understand and listen to–maybe even like?–hip hop to review albums from now on.
I don’t ask critics from these outlets to like it. Just give it half a chance before you start calling it “demonic.”