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The Life of Pablo: Gospel Album of the Year?

Kanye West called his latest album a gospel album, it even features Kirk Franklin, who has received heaps of criticism from Christians for appearing on it. Where does the truth lie? Guvna B and Premier Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge are both huge Kanye fans. Here’s their take on it. 

Jamie: So this weekend, after almost a year of messing with titles and tracklists, Kanye West finally released his latest album, The Life of Pablo. Over the last few months he's been telling people it's a gospel album (as well as his perennial posturing that it's the best album of all time) and the appearance of Kirk Franklin only furthers the gospel hype. There's heaps to talk about here: the album itself (after a couple of listens, it feels like a real mix of his last three albums, but without the cohesiveness of any of them), Kirk Franklin's appearance (he took to Instagram to defend his role to some pretty harsh critics) and the question of gospel music: is this gospel? And if so, what does 'gospel music' even mean anymore? So what you saying Guvna; is this a gospel album?

Guvna B: Firstly, it's important to say that most Christian's don't even know what gospel music is. The lines were blurred before but Kanye has just made it even more complicated! Gospel music is confusing because it's the only genre that is defined by its content rather than its sound. Traditionally gospel had a musical style, but over the years it's evolved from hymns and songs sung by the Negro spirituals and choirs, to a way for Christians to share the gospel of Jesus in whatever musical style they want. The Life Of Pablo doesn't exactly tell me that God sent his only son Jesus to die for me so that I can have eternal life, but then again most 'gospel' albums don't either. TLOP does encourage me to know Jesus more though and I do feel a sense of faith rising when I listen to some of the lyrics. For me, I don’t think it’s a gospel album because the album in its entirety isn't coherent with what I know to be the gospel of Jesus. With that being said, I do believe Kanye genuinely longs for a relationship with God and I have faith he'll continue to keep growing in his knowledge of Jesus.

Jamie: So you'd say it's more of an album with some gospel tracks on, rather than a gospel album? I guess one of the interesting things about TLOP is that it feel less coherent than just about any album I've heard recently. This is reflected to the fact that Kanye was constantly adding and removing tracks up until the last minute. I guess that's a very post-modern attitude to the album, in that rather than catching a year's journey, it captures the very moment TLOP was released: the mood and thought process going on in Kanye's head at that time. Obviously out of the two of us you're the one who has actually made albums (though I might start making magazines like this, constantly tweaking what's in and out until the last second, much to the chagrin of our designer); does this approach surprise you?

Guvna B: Music is art. There's no right and wrong way to do it. It doesn't surprise me that TLOP isn't coherent because Kanye has made it known time and time again that he refuses to play by the rules any longer. Watching his interviews over the last three years it is clear that he's an impulsive and erratic person, so should it really surprise us that the album gives off the same vibe? It's definitely an album with some gospel tracks on as opposed to a gospel album.

“I loved what Franklin said on Instagram, 'I'm sorry he's not good enough for you'. There's a lot of truth in that; we definitely hold people in the public eye to different standards as everyone else.”

Jamie: Let’s focus on the first track for a second, ‘Ultralight beam’. I mean, the album certainly starts like a gospel album, with the kid saying, 'We don't want no devil in the house... we want the Lord, he's sick'. Then the track ends with Kirk Franklin outright praying: 'Father this prayer is for everyone that feels they're not good enough. This prayer's for everybody that feels like they're too messed up. For everyone who feels they said they've said sorry too many times. You can never go too far when you can't come back home again. That's why I need faith. 

Franklin has come in for quite a bit of criticism this weekend for appearing on the album. What did you make of that?

Guvna B: ‘Ultralight beam’ really is an incredible song and we wouldn't bat an eyelid if it was sung in church. I don't think people have an issue with the song in itself, I think they just have an issue with who created it. Kirk's decision to work with Kanye on this song is a great thing. Wherever light evades, darkness invades. I don't think Kirk compromised at all. There's no profanity on that particular track and the content is nothing short of inspiring. When Jesus spoke with prostitutes and tax collectors he didn't compromise who he was. I think it's outrageous if we exclude people because they don't meet our standards. We need to get alongside them and build genuine relationships while still maintaining our character.

Kirk saw it fit to go a step further and collaborate on a song with Kanye. Who are we to judge? The Bible says in Proverbs that a person may think their own ways are right but the Lord judges our hearts. I guess the question should be what was Kirk's heart? I think it was to be a light and when I think about the millions of people around the world that are listening to the powerful words in ‘Ultralight beam’, I think the light is shining very brightly.

Jamie: That's the thing right: so much of Kanye's work is judged on different terms simply because it's Kanye’s work. If anyone else put out ‘Ultralight beam’ featuring Kirk Franklin, or created ‘Jesus walks’, or opened their album with a child praying, or featured a track like 'Low lights' which is basically just a prayer... we'd be hailing them as the new hero of gospel music.

I loved what Franklin said on Instagram, 'I'm sorry he's not good enough for you'. There's a lot of truth in that; we definitely hold people in the public eye to different standards as everyone else. I'm interested if you ever feel like that: obviously you're not Kanye, but there's a tonne of fans/teenagers who look up to you and the music you produce; do you worry that the way you live your life/who your friends are etc impact the way people perceive your work?

My other question right now is: where else do you find God on this album? You said early on that TLOP (named after St Paul!) encourages you to know Jesus more and causes your faith to rise. What tracks specifically do that?

Guvna B: Yeah, Kirk's Instagram post was great. I do feel compassion for those in the public eye. Most of us get to work our faith through in private. Jesus, as well as our loved ones, give us grace when we fall short and help us get back up and keep going. It took me about three years to really know what it meant to become a Christian and live for God and I am still learning. The likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West are on the same journey but they have millions of people watching and ready to shoot them down when they make a mistake. God was patient with me and I know he's patient with Kanye and Justin too. Christians...not so much, and that's sad.

I feel the pressure to live up to the expectations of Christians but this is a dangerous thing because sometimes the expectations of Christ are different. For example when I worked with Keisha Buchanan (from The Sugababes) on my previous album, a few people said that it was the wrong thing to do because of her previous work. Listening to the song we recorded and knowing her personally I felt that God would want me to put the song out, so I did and I stand by that decision. Essentially all Kirk did was pray on a song. I'd hope that if we got the opportunity to pray for people in their situation, we would.

I think everyone finds themselves in those sort of situations. Tonnes of Christians work for companies that only care about making money and don't care about Jesus. They're just fortunate there isn't a camera in their face watching their every move. This world is full of darkness, and we need to be a light in whatever capacity.

‘Ultralight beam’ and ‘Low lights’ are the obvious standouts, faith-wise. I love Kanye; I find him inspiring in a weird way. People expect so much of us and the world pulls us in so many different directions. It's so hard to make everyone happy. He talks about all the things people expect of him, but really, we can't live life based on other people's expectations. Ultimately we have to do what God expects of us. Admittedly, the majority of the album is very explicit and there’s stuff that Jesus wouldn't be proud of, but I don't think I listened expecting anything else. Kanye is on a journey and hopefully along the way, he can filter out the darkness and focus on the light.

Jamie:This is where the nuance is tricky, because speaking as a youth worker, it's difficult to commend an album to young people that features a naked bum on the cover and lyrics I'd still feel awkward listening to with my dad in the room, but there's a heap of truth, and life, and love, and grace in there.

The interesting thing is that so many reviews of TLOP are about how overtly Christian the album is, and yet so many Christians are dismissing the album and criticising Franklin for appearing on it. In many ways, it's a musical version of the Rob Bell story (not Rob Bell: The Musical, though it wouldn't surprise me if that was his next project). But isn't it great that people like Kanye and Bieber are creating music that's getting people talking?

Looking at individual tracks on the album: 'Real friends' makes me want to cry every time I hear it. I've never heard a track speak so honestly about friendships in the 21st century. I can't remember the last time a piece of music challenged me so much about anything.
It definitely feels different from the last few Kanye albums in that every time I listen through TLOP (and I'm on listen number four this morning), a) I enjoy it even more and b) something else jumps out. Whereas My beautiful dark twisted fantasy was an instant pop-album, and Yeezus was an immediate visceral experience, TLOP is weirdly haunting. '30 hours', which seems to have been added in at the last minute, has this hook that's stayed with me since I first heard it.

To close then, I've got two final questions: what's your main takeaway/conclusion/feeling about TLOP, and how do you think the Christian world needs to engage with it? 

Guvna B: Well this is the thing, the album doesn't need to be recommended to anyone. Kanye says it's a gospel album but that's his opinion. I for one will not be shouting about it from the rooftops. If you're a Christian that loves hip-hop, you'll probably be interested in listening or having some kind of dialogue about it. If that's not you, then you can go about your daily lives.

No one is forcing anyone to like The life of Pablo or even acknowledge it. There's plenty of albums out there with just truth, life, and love, and those are the ones you can recommend. My focus is more geared towards those that would listen to a Kanye album anyway.

I think it's amazing that it's getting people talking. I find it interesting that non-Christians hear Jesus on the album and think it's overtly Christian, and Christians hear a profanity and think it's overtly secular.

I see an imperfect man trying to navigate his way through life. A man that has experienced overwhelming success but still feels like something's missing. As a result of that he is exploring the idea of Jesus publicly and we all get to watch it happen. Fortunately he has a few sound Christians around him such as Kirk Franklin and Rich Wilkerson Jr who can help him on this journey. I pray he grows in the Lord and the fruit of his relationship with Jesus starts to line up with how the Bible advises us to live out our lives. I think the Christian world needs to respond by being prayerful, non-judgemental and inclusive. 

Isaac Borquaye in interview with Jamie Cutteridge.

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