The Price of Fame: Kanye’s Faustian Bargain
In 2016, hip-hop superstar Kanye West opened up about an opioid addiction triggered by liposuction surgery, which he underwent to avoid being called “fat.” When the news broke, it was clear something was wrong. The bravado and arrogance that Kanye usually flaunted publicly were replaced by crippling insecurity. It was clear from his own words: “I was was really medicated, shoulders slumped down, and my confidence was gone.”
Worryingly, these insecurities, bottled up over the years, manifested as the mental health issues referenced to on the intro track of his 2018 album, Ye. “I Thought About Killing You” is quite literally a reflection—addressed to himself—of Kanye’s suicidal thoughts during his breakdown in 2016.
Ironically, while Kanye was drowning in a sea of personal demons in 2016, his career was thriving. The Life of Pablo, released during his breakdown, received overwhelming critical acclaim from Complex, NME, and Pitchfork, and was the first streaming-only album to go platinum, further cementing his legacy as an icon of the genre. Conversely, two years later, Kanye—despite being much more mentally stable—dropped his most mediocre album to date, Ye, which Pitchfork describes as “undoubtedly a low point in his career.”
This descending spiral is indicative of a larger curse that has haunted Kanye his entire career: his art serving as poison to his sanity. It’s almost a Faustian bargain in nature. Just as the erudite Faust sold his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge, Kanye has had to sacrifice his mental health for musical perfection and intergenerational fame. Now, a year after Ye, we have another release. Jesus is King is a sloppy, last-minute replacement to the forthcoming album Yandhi, which was shelved after a leak, and only corroborates this theory.
Despite a heavily anticipated release, Jesus is King is a critical and commercial disappointment. Most criticism centers around the album’s lack of authenticity. Rolling Stone claims the record has “little to hold onto,” Pitchfork describes it as “largely flawed,” and The Atlantic argues Kanye simply “doesn’t know what to say.”
Given the title—which begs comparison to his earlier Christian gospel sound in College Dropout and Late Registration—many fans expected a victorious return to Kanye’s roots. Unfortunately, however, when juxtaposed with his prior work, Jesus Is King falls short.
The entire album echoes the sentiment he expressed in this recent appearance on the Late Late Show with James Corden: “God is using [me] as humbly as he can to show off.” Kanye both professes his loyalty to God and puts himself on a pedestal because of his loyalty to God. Religion is merely a stepping stone for him to promote himself and his brand. This attitude makes his “newfound devotion” seem inauthentic, like nothing more than justification for his own ego.
This self-aggrandizement felt genuine in the past because it contributed to the authenticity of his albums’ themes. On Yeezus’s “I am a God,” the blasphemous line “I am a god, so hurry up with my damn massage” doesn’t try to hide Kanye’s authentic egotism. But, on Jesus is King, Kanye elevates himself to the status of a prophet, making the album feel superficial. In “Selah,” he compares himself to Noah and in “On God,” Kanye asks himself, “How you got so much favor on your side? Accept him as your Lord and savior.” The message of Jesus Is King is polluted by Kanye’s conflicting motivations of playing both God to his fans and prophet to Jesus.
For an album literally titled Jesus Is King, there is little interaction with what religion means to Kanye beyond his surface-level, dogmatic commitment. The album is filled with lyrics plagiarized from sermon cliches like “God is my light in darkness” on the track “God Is”, or “Let your light reflect on me” on “Water”. Absent is the lyricism that he is so masterful at using such as on “Gorgeous” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where he describes how hip-hop is forged out of struggle in the line “inner-city anthems based off inner-city tantrums.” On a conceptual level, the album contains no exploration of his own vulnerabilities with piety or his relationship with God. Missing is the complexity that we find in “Jesus Walks” on College Dropout where Kanye laments, “God show me the way cause the Devil’s tryna break me down.” Unfortunately, neither of the standout tracks “Follow God” and “Closed on Sundays”—embedded with solid production and compelling lyricism—save Jesus Is King from mediocrity.
What is missing in Jesus Is King and Ye is the blood, sweat, and tears Kanye is known for putting into his work. While the production isn’t bad—and can even be pleasant at times—it isn’t meaningful. The beats on the album don’t tell stories or communicate nuanced philosophy. The entire album feels unfinished.
Perhaps it’s because perfection is no longer a matter of life or death for him. Kanye’s recent tweet claiming he is “just trying new ideas without the fear of being perfect” is antithetical to the very identity of the hungry South Side rapper who once said “as a man I am flawed… but my music is perfect.”
The effortless magic of his earlier work, like 2007’s “Stronger” is the product of over 50 iterations worth of labor on the part of eight audio engineers, 11 mixing engineers, and Kanye himself, a dedication to the craft most evident in the nature of his samples. Crossing the boundaries of genre, space, and time, the man will parse through an infinite catalog of music to find the right sound and redefine it. This process has produced the iconic Shirley Bassey sample on “Diamonds are Forever,” the Nina Simone sample on “Blood on the Leaves”, and the Omega—a Hungarian rock band—sample on “New Slaves.” Kanye’s unparalleled work ethic coupled with his raw intelligence propels him to new terrains.
Kanye is a legend because of his ability to discover and innovate with these iconic melodies. It’s his knack for taking classic music samples and redefining them within the lyrical confines of street poetry. This intuitive mastery of musical manipulation—conspicuously absent from Jesus is King—allows him to pull from an entire universe of sound hidden to the average person and craft incredibly powerful, avant-garde compositions.
Kanye’s talent combined with his superhuman work ethic has propelled him to dominate Hip Hop since 2001. At the time, despite being only a mere producer on Jay Z’s most influential album—The Blueprint—he gave the album a soul influence, drawing from The Jackson 5 and Bobby Blue Band. While soul is now commonplace in Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole’s music, it was truly revolutionary at the time.
The impact Kanye had is a ceiling every artist dreams of attaining once in their career. For Kanye the man, a troubled OCD perfectionist, moving backwards was never an option. If he had already revolutionized the hip-hop industry once, then his next logical step was to revolutionize it again. So, with each consecutive avant garde album, Kanye diversified Hip-Hop itself, injecting novel sounds into the very DNA of rap, and created interesting new spaces within an otherwise rather closed genre. 2007’s Graduation introduced more pop-like, optimistic EDM music, 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak laid the foundations of emo hip-hop artists like Post Malone and Drake, and 2013’s Yeezus created space for fiery rock-and-roll rap.
But amidst all of this success, Kanye’s mental stability has dramatically suffered. On G.O.O.D Music’s “Clique”, he describes becoming depressed after his mother’s death in 2007. This was the catalyst for much of the thematic focus on pain and depression in 808s and Heartbreak. While the media was quick to ridicule and lambast a drunken, incoherent Kanye during the 2009 VMAs—indicative of attitudes towards mental health at the time—few stopped to consider the motivations of his behavior.
For a man who so prominently struts in the public eye, the signs have always been there. But Kanye’s music has always overshadowed his pain. That’s why he claims he’s “laughing to keep from crying.” He’s repressed his personal demons in order to thrive because he needs the demons to be Kanye the Icon. As Kanye puts it, his bipolar disorder “ain’t no disability”, it’s a “superpower.” This is why Kanye tweeted in 2017 that he “cannot be on meds and make Watch the Throne or Dark Fantasy level music.” Kanye’s creativity stems from his pain.
This is because Kanye the man creates Kanye the Icon. The man’s suffering lets the icon thrive. The transcendent beauty of the icon’s art is birthed by the pain of an overachiever doomed to underperform his own expectations. Just as the deal with the Devil was worth it to the erudite Faust in the German Legend, Kanye has seen his own Faustian bargain as necessary for years.
This was until he was forced to confront his problems head on after being hospitalized for a Britney-esque mental breakdown in 2016. Since then, he has worked on his health and reached a “much better place mentally”, with a beautiful life, family, and support system. Even if Ye and Jesus is King are mediocre additions to an otherwise stellar discography, they gift Kanye with a natural stopping point to his legendary career. For Kanye, a man who has been imprisoned by his obsessive perfectionist tendencies, Jesus is King is a blessing in disguise. It’s his get-out-of-jail-free card, his way out of his deal with the Devil.