In case you either forgot about the election or forgot how divided our nation is along identity lines, here’s a reminder of the voting disparity between Millennials and the rest of the country. I begin with this both because I feel obligated to address what happened November 8th, and because “Millennial” is the only demographic to which I belong that didn’t disappoint me that day (Looking at you, white women! Thanks again!). These recently highlighted political differences are a reminder of my generation’s similarly staggering religious differences from our predecessors. According to Pew Research Center, Millennials are the least formally religious generation in American history. I say “formally” because Pew reports a large segment of Millennials identifying as “spiritual,” which they define as wondering about the Universe and the meaning of life, but I consider both activities fairly secular.
Despite this lack of religious devotion, three of the most commercially successful, highly-awaited, and critically acclaimed hip hop albums of 2016 had unmistakeable religious undertones. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde were all released this year to general warm reception and commercial success. Pablo was the first album to garner more than half its units of sale in streams and also debut at №1 on the Billboard charts. Chance’s mixtape — his first commercial release — received a 90/100 on Metacritc. Frank, having kept fans waiting for four years (while enraging the Internet in the process), released an avant garde decoy album before Blonde, then put out the real deal with the third largest debut of 2016 after only Drake and Beyonce.
Kicking off his career with The College Dropout, which featured single “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West took a noticeable break from explicitly religious music until this year, excepting the occasional Biblical allusion (see: “Devil in a New Dress) and “I Am A God,” if you believe Kanye to be a deity and want to count that. Pablo returns to what was one of West’s first trademarks (pre-cocaine-fueled late night talk show rant — money shot at 3:34) rapping about his faith. The first — and maybe most overtly Christian — track on the album, “Ultralight Beam,”comprises a gospel choir, one of my favorite Chance the Rapper verses, and perhaps the most succinct, generous explanation of religious faith I’ve heard in the form of a short monologue delivered by Kirk Franklin: “You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again; That’s why I need faith.” The choir comes back in on “faith” in a way so overwhelming I literally cannot explain it to you, and yes I did once cry to this song on a flight to Puerto Rico, how did you know?
The second track, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” continues the divine motifs with its title and intro then quickly devolves into a classic Kanye examination of whether or not the grooming habits of a model he met while high in Tribeca will ruin his next laundry day. Thematically schizophrenic, this interleaving of debauchery with devotion stages the rest of the album, which involves both a freestyle apparently performed by Kanye’s raw id (“What if we fucked right in the middle of this mothafuckin’ dinner table? / What if we fucked at this Vogue party? / Would we be the life of the whole party?”) and a personal testimonial delivered by an unnamed woman about why she believes in God — for the length of an entire track.
Chance the Rapper’s first notable experiment with religious hip hop arrived as 2015’s “Sunday Candy,” from Surf, effectively a Chance album but credited to Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. The buoyant ode to his church-going grandmother was a prelude to his most recent effort, Coloring Book, the religious devotion of which is impossible to separate from Chance’s nascent foray into creating a family of his own; the birth of Chance’s first child has only deepened his relationship with God as expressed through his art. The first track opens with a reference to “Ultralight Beam,” a celebration of Chance’s daughter’s mother, and moves swiftly into “This for the kids of the king of all kings / This is the holiest thing / This is the beat that played under the Word / This is the sheep that ain’t like what it heard.” Chance’s performance of Christian celebration seems less confused than Kanye’s bait and switch of provocative sexual imagery and foul language with ecstatic celebrations of God, but he still makes space for the recreational drug use that populated Acid Rap.
The song “Blessings,” featuring the explicitly Christian hook, “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / when the praises go up, the blessings come down” is followed by “Same Drugs.” The title perhaps misleading, the track is a bittersweet ode to how people change through the lens of an abstract former drug habit. “Smoke Break” recapitulates the drug themes and combines them with the plights of both adulthood and parenthood: “She just put weed in the bowl / She don’t have time for herself[…]You know she carry a child.” The mixtape is imbued with Chance’s awareness of how his life has changed in the growing up he’s done since becoming a father, not least significantly in his newfound appreciation for God the Father (#dadjokes). The celebration ends with a reprise of Blessings, “I speak to God in public I speak to God in public / He keep my rhymes in couplets / He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans.”
Blonde has the subtlest ties to Christianity of all three albums, as Frank Ocean often conflates a love of God with romantic love. Even still, his language distinctly recalls the language of worship. This vocabulary is first seen in “Pink + White,” the hook resounding: “You showed me love / Glory from above.” The song ends with “Bitch I might like immortality / This is life, life immortality.” Both the idea of glory from above and eternal life are obvious references to Christianity, though no word on whether Frank is directly addressing God as “Bitch,” or if so, whether God is like, cool with that.
After haphazard mentions of heaven and hell in “Solo” and comments about reverends and bishops in “Nights,” the penultimate track “Godspeed,” — conveniently named for this article’s agenda — cements the album’s fusion of romantic and divine love. Frank sings,
I will always love you how I do
Let go of a prayer for ya
Just a sweet word
The Table is prepared for you
Wishing you godspeed, glory
There will be mountains you won’t move
Still I’ll always be there for you
I let go of my claim on you
It’s a free world
You look down on where you came from sometimes
but you’ll have this place to call home always
In addition to recalling the end of “Ultralight Beam,” this lyrical chunk has Frank speaking to his love as God would speak to Jesus on Earth: the table a reference to the Last Supper, heaven again always waiting for those who wish to return, the narrator bidding a loved one the best with a side-dish reminder of his human limitations, still hurt by a separation that was easy for neither of them.
Despite their documented aversion to identifying with and practicing traditional religion, Millennials seem positively smitten with music espousing Christian themes. Part of the reason for the gross rift in political ideologies we saw above and on Tuesday relates to the social and general progressiveness of the youngest generation as a whole. Perhaps this can also explain the drift towards a collective secular worldview. Though there is certainly no reason people of any religion cannot also hold progressive opinions, certain hallmarks of social progressivism are condemned by many religions, making organized faith generally less palatable to Millennials who fall in line with a liberal ethos.
I don’t feel the need to find a source telling you that Kanye West is objectively cooler than Pat Robertson. Hip hop makes religion seem cool the way D.A.R.E. representatives warned you in elementary school that older kids would give you weed and make it seem cool — you know, before you grew up and realized that no one just gives out free drugs. More than that, these artists temper their religious material with other themes that appeal heavily to a socially liberal listenership.
Kanye raps about casual sex and drug use. In case you hadn’t heard, Millennials overwhelmingly favor a more lax drug policy, and have developed multiple software platforms to ensure the enduring ease of the casual hookup. Chance the Rapper is perhaps most famous for releasing his music for free until this year, rapping about doing so on both Coloring Book: “I’m pre-currency, post-language, anti-label” and Pablo: “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail / He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance three / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.” Streaming music exclusively, and thus precluding himself from Grammy-eligibility, taps into both the increasingly Internet-driven music industry model embraced and encouraged by younger listeners, and their general resistance to the institutions of previous generations — musical and religious.
Frank Ocean, also no stranger to drug and sex references in his music, famously declared his attraction to men in a 2012 Tumblr post. This marked the first time a mainstream black male hip hop artist has openly expressed a sexual interest in other men. Aside from the medium of Tumblr having a distinctly Millennial ring (we all know it’s perma-teen Tay’s social media of choice) the Millennial acceptance of sexuality as a spectrum is as well-documented as their endorsement of legal weed.
Examining how these artists legitimize religion for the youngest part of the population ignores the more interesting issue of why these themes resonate so well with a relatively nonreligious consumer block. Are we just taking what Kanye, Chance, and Frank decide to give us and singing along? Looking again at the Pew article I linked above, apparently shirking religion is not without its correlative downsides. Millennials are the demographic least likely to feel a sense of spiritual well-being and peace, with only 51% experiencing this weekly or more.
The intense tribalism uncovered by the results of the presidential race make it clear that Americans of all ages are no longer fulfilled just in their American identity. We apparently need to cling to a more defined and passionate ethos, however drastically different it may be from the ethos of our neighbor. The far-right movements I’ve previously mentioned in eastern Europe, as well as Brexit, speak to the same thing. The global population seems to be dissatisfied with something, or everything, and insularity helps assuage this, not in small part because of the thrilling prospect of sharing your fears, hopes, angers, and passions with an entire group of people.
I don’t mean this is causing 19-year-olds to buy Bibles and Creed albums. I do think the least religious American demographic is more satisfied than irritated by the Christian undertones in The Life of Pablo, Coloring Book, and Blonde, and the recently heightened violent uncertainty of the world might explain this. These undertones give a specific type of meaning and connectedness to life, but they’re tempered by the social liberalism within which many young people live their day-to-day lives.
Historically, hip hop was a definitionally subversive music genre, and probably still is to a lot of people whose votes November 8th came more from fear of difference and change than from coherent political ideology. How fitting then, that this medium can successfully deliver the tenets of one of the oldest subversive — religious and popular — movements of all time; maybe Jesus and Yeezus have more in common than we thought.