Kanye’s Pilgrim’s Progress: Authenticity as Salvation Virtue in “Two Words”
Two words, Chi town, raised me, crazy
So I live by two words, “**** you, pay me”
Screaming, Jesus save me
You know how the game be
I can’t let em change me
Cause on Judgment Day, you gon’ blame me
Look God, it’s the same me
- Kanye West, “Two Words” (2004)
One of the cardinal virtues in hip-hop culture is authenticity. (Anyone recall the early aughts pain that was DMX profanely shouting “Do You!” loudly on Funk Flex Vol. 4?) From exhortations to “Do you” to endorsements like “he a real one,” every card carrying member of hip-hop culture prizes authenticity.
So does Kanye West but in an altogether distinct way.
I would argue no hip-hop artist has tethered his sense of spiritual salvation to the preservation of his authenticity quite like Mr. West.
From the aspirational anthems of The College Dropout, the grappling-with-fame narratives of Late Registration and Graduation, to the vulnerable soul-bearing of 808’s, to the twisted confessions of MBDTF and beyond, Kanye has sought to prove that despite all the external changes of that fatal car crash, critical acclaim, and global superstardom — and all the hedonism and opulence that comes with — Kanye essentially remains Kanye, scarred but still authentic.
Authenticity as Salvation Virtue in Kanye’s Religious Imagination
A central pillar of the religious imagination in Kanye’s discography is what I call the doctrine of authenticity, namely that sincerity is next to godliness.
The ability to stay sincere, to remain as authentic as one was prior to the treacherous journey to fame and after arriving at said fame seems synonymous with spiritual salvation, according to Kanye.
Here I believe, Kanye, who grew up in the church, clearly mirrors Christian religious tropes of the “exile” and the world of fame as arena of contaminating godlessness.
As a result, every so often themes of staying Kanye and staying true pepper the lyrics of Kanye’s discography. But Kanye isn’t a common rapper simply epousing authenticity for the sake of authenticity like your typical rapper might. For Kanye, authenticity is pronounced, as in “Two Words,” for the sake of spiritual salvation.
Kanye’s Spin on Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
These bars on “Two Words” unearth one of the critical questions of Kanye’s debut album and by some extension his career: Can Kanye reach his dreams and navigate the soul-sucking perils and celebrity adventures of fame without losing his authentic soul or self?
In many ways, Kanye’s lyrics here (and elsewhere) find a parallel to the classic Christian allegory: Pilgrim’s Progress.
In Paul Bunyan’s allegory, the protagonist, Christian, leaves the City of Destruction and will reach the Celestial City (heaven) successfully if, after receiving God’s forgiveness, he navigates the trials and adventures of the world without falling into fatal temptation or damnation.
In Kanye’s religious imagination, if he can manage to attain fame and superstardom without changing or being changed by “the game” — on judgment day, he can plead his case: “Look God it’s the same me.”
Where Christian has to navigate the tempting perils of Vanity Fair, the dark night of the soul in Doubting Castle and the Slough of Despond, Kanye must deal with the game of the music industry, fame, and all its soul-trapping pitfalls; but he also must navigate the American context where he must “war with terrorism, racism” and himself, and of course, the devil: “God show me the way because they devil tryin’ to break me down” (“Jesus Walks”).
Kanye, Prophet of Hip-Hop’s Religious Imagination?
While there’s much more to discuss about authenticity as a salvation virtue in Kanye’s music — including how this intersects or diverges from ideas of works based righteousness, other seminal, relevant songs, and how this authencity viture fits with Kanye’s Christology in the line “screaming Jesus save me!”— that will have wait for another time.
More pressing is this: What do we gain from this type of reading of Kanye’s religious imagination and this doctrine of authenticity?
First, we come to appreciate the earnest vulnerability and soul-searching of his artistry, both in its overt and subtle forms.
Second, we gain insight into some of the religious imagination of hip-hop culture — and by some extension, American popular culture.
Third, we witness how religious imagination syncretizes and shifts through different mediums. Traditional Christian theology would posit that the authenticity to be preserved is the dignity of humanity being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–28) though this image — our ability to mirror an reflect God by relating rightly to him, others, and his creation — is tragic broken through sin. This image is restored by saving faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning work (Romans 3:21–23) but in no way is authentically living out of one’s humanity grounds for salvation. Placed classic theology inconversation with this reading of Kanye’s articulation in “Two Words,” we may have a new spin on religious imagination that unveils the pressing spiritual questions and beliefs emerging from hip-hop culture.