Rap God: Some Musings on Idolatry and Celebrity

Yeezus by Joshua Drakes
Yeezus by Joshua Drakes
“Rappers have a tendency to be a little on the arrogant side” is hardly a controversial claim! A music genre whose dominant themes are so often money, sex and reputation, is hardly likely to produce shy, retiring and humble practitioners. Certainly some of the most prominent artists are masters of controversy and thrive by trying to shock listeners through outlandish declarations.

But I’ve been struck recently by the prominence of the Messiah Complex in rap music. Again, it’s nothing new. What rapper hasn’t had themselves depicted on a cross at some point: think Tupac, P. Diddy, Nas… and so on. It has often been noted that rappers – of all faiths and, more often, none – seem to hold an affinity for Jesus, since they tend to consider themselves so similar; the misunderstood, the marginalised, the oppressed, the people tasked with speaking truth to power and being publicly berated for doing so.

Let me point out – though I’m sure it hardly needs saying – I’m no expert on rap music, being a middle-class white-kid from Kent! But I have some appreciation for the genre and I try to give at least one spin to the latest releases from the most prominent artists; particularly those who generate conversation and manage to express deeply-felt needs in our culture. I don’t always like what I hear, but I find it helpful to hear it at least once.

So I’ve found it striking just how frequently the claim of ‘being a god’ has emerged in the albums I’ve listened to of late. Both Kanye West and Jay-Z have made it the dominant theme of their latest albums, and although Eminem’s album isn’t out yet, it’s certainly the theme of his most recent single. Which raises some interesting questions.

Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus came out in June and was the next logical step in a years-long trajectory. In 2005 he declared that ‘Jesus walks with me’ in a song that I distinctly remember being cited, if not played, at various Christian events… the censored radio edit of course! A catchy song depicting brokenness and humanity and an honest brand of faith that’s not straightforward. But as many people have pointed out, the essential claim of the track was that Jesus walks with Kanye, not the other way round.

In 2006 Rolling Stone helped him deepen his Messiah complex with their infamous The Passion of Kanye West cover art. The great-misunderstood rapper found affinity with the crucified Christ. Misunderstood. Mistreated. Hmm…

So an album named Yeezus with a track entitled I am a God is no great unexpected leap. Nor is his stunt of bringing a Jesus lookalike onstage during his latest tour. Though to be fair to Kanye, what he’s trying to do appears to be a little more complex than a straight up claim to divinity. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Kanye has a very biblical understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. Not sure I’m ready to go that far, but the lyrics are interesting:

“I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
So y’all quit playing with God.”

“I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “S*** I’m chilling,
Trying to stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
Mi casa, su casa
That’s our cosa nostra
I am a god.”

This is a guy who is wrestling with his place in creation alongside men and deities and he has claimed for himself a godlike status, even if he’s resisted claiming a Godlike one. Capitals make all the difference… apparently.

I must confess to being slightly sympathetic towards Kanye, who in his inimitably-ill-advised way is at least trying to grapple with the questions of celebrity and idolatry in a provocative manner (whilst still indulging in all the luxury of godness, of course!!) His lyrics are reminiscent of Psalm 82:6: ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ And in a perverse kind of way, Kanye demonstrates a weird sort of humility. In a world where he is undoubtedly treated like a God by his adoring fans, he still claims only to be a lowercase god.

This ‘humility’, such as it is, is far less evident in Jay-Z’s album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail. To be fair to Mr Z, to my knowledge he doesn’t claim to be a person of faith, and he has been happy to push the blasphemy envelope throughout his career, whether through adopting the nickname ‘Jay-Hovah’, or calling out God through his lyrics and interviews.

Magna Carta… Holy Grail is not (in my opinion!) a great album. Musically I don’t think it’s as strong as his earlier work, and lyrically his use of biblical imagery is sloppy and hackneyed. Tracks like Heaven come across as a ham-fisted hash of religious concepts, designed to shock rather than to make any particularly deep comment: God is his chauffeur; he’s God in the flesh; the arena is a church; he transcends mere preachers to become a prophet; icons and images are used for consumption – he drinks from a gold chalice and smokes the tree of knowledge… It’s all just a bit pompous, and so it’s no real surprise when on Crown he says,

“You in the presence of a king,
Scratch that, you in the presence of a god.”

And that brings me to the new Eminem track, Rap God. The title gives us a fairly unsubtle hint as to where the song’s going to go, and in the repeated refrain “I’m beginning to feel like a Rap God, Rap God” the most surprising word is ‘beginning’! His track closes with a sentiment similar to that of Jay-Z (and indeed the ruler of Tyre in Ezekiel 28):

“Be a king? Think not.
Why be a king, when you can be a God?”

Why indeed?

Many people are expressing shock and outrage at the idolatry of all three rappers. I yawn. It’s nothing new and it has ceased to be outrageous, if I can say that without implying that familiarity makes the idolatry any less egregious. It’s all a little pompous and predictable and I’ve ceased to be surprised by it. But it’s caused me to ponder a few questions:

Firstly, leaving aside the God-stuff, all three artists continue to reinforce toxic stereotypes and promulgate misogyny. In Eminem’s case, he uses lyrics that are downright homophobic and deeply offensive. Is this what you get to do when you’re a g/God? Make wild pronouncements that fly in the face of common decency?

Coupled with that, all three offerings are less-sonically pleasing than any of their earlier work. Kanye sees himself as a music-prophet, pushing the boundaries of sound; Jay-Z’s album is a dull and gimmick-laden, zeitgeist-y affair that I suspect will be quickly outdated and forgotten; and Eminem’s track is technically proficient, but really rather boring. There seems to be some kind of quality-to-genius ratio going on. Godlike status allows you to settle for lazy musicianship. You reach a point where you can do what you like, even if what you like to do is awful. And people eat it up.

I wonder how this all shapes people’s idea of what it is to be a ‘g/God’? Is that what people imagine deity entails? Making angry, irrelevant or culturally-offensive pronouncements? Just doing what you want, how you want, whether or not it’s good, true or beautiful, because you have the power and resources and couldn’t care less about human concepts of fairness or decency? Where did that perception come from? And why is this something to aspire to?

Secondly, all three rappers are grappling with the question of how they respond to the adoration of their fans, who treat them like gods. Whilst each of these artists is responsible for the words that come out of their mouths and the sometimes-blasphemous sentiments they contain, I wonder who is to blame for this idol-making? I think it’s unfair to lay the blame wholly at their door whilst we persist in a culture of idolising celebrity through our art, media, merchandise and reality shows. We long for gods because we’ve dethroned God. Is this not a form of Feuerbachian wish-fulfilment in a modern materialistic guise?

And I wonder if it isn’t also a product of idol-boredom. We get tired of worshipping insubstantial things, and since we imagine that there is nothing greater for us to worship – no true divine figure – we simply upgrade the terminology we use for our idols. There was a time when Elvis’ claim to be the King was enough for us… Scratch that. Why worship a king, when you can worship a god?

Acts 12:21-23 is an interesting passage to reflect on. Herod enthroned himself as King and delivered a speech and the crowd declared, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” One could say that the crowd were the idol-makers and they were to blame. But because Herod didn’t correct them or give the glory to God, he was punished. There is an interesting interplay between the idol-maker and the idol. Both are guilty, but the idol may pay the price for not channelling his fans’ adoration correctly.

All of which makes me realise just how complex a thing celebrity is. And some genres of celebrity are even more complex than others. How one ought to steward their gift and privilege within this kind of profession is not an easy question to answer. In a world that places such stock in possessions, status and controversy, the path between idolatry and celebrity is a tricky one to walk.

And that is just one of many reasons why you won’t see me emceeing any time soon…

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