Penitential Hymns: Kanye West at the Grammy Awards (Reflections on Grammy Nominees, Part 2)

We asked Christian Scharen, author of Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, to write a few blog entries reflecting on the Grammy nominations.

This is the second of three posts.


I love Kanye West. There. I’ve said it. You should know that up front as I begin this second of a three-part series of posts anticipating the 2012 Grammy Awards this coming Sunday. Kanye West is something of a Grammy award magnet, collecting 14 awards in a career that only began in earnest a decade ago. West’s seven Grammy nominations are the most received for any artist this year. Despite this success, West is a polarizing figure, not least because of his own controversial behavior. During a live telecast after Hurricane Katrina, he famously went off-script to say: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. His public outbursts at awards shows have also hurt him, including most troubling when a drunken West upstaged Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Swift had just won her first award, and in the midst of her acceptance speech, West charged on stage, took the mic, and said, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” West was removed and reaction was loud and negative. Many apologies followed, including a person letter and phone call to Swift, but the damage was done. West retreated from the public eye for nearly a year. I’ll come back to this and connect it to his Grammy-nominated song, “All of the Lights,” below but first a brief gesture to the reasons I have for loving West despite his obvious flaws. (I use West as a case study in my new book Broken Hallelujahs, if you’d like to see more of how I engage with his work.)

As a musician and artist, he has great vision and depth. He is—critics regularly admit—an amazingly talented guy. And I would add to that, his vision and depth regularly include moral and spiritual depth. An example: West made the most moving and powerful pop song rooted in Christian faith in the last decade—“Jesus Walks,” from 2004’s The College Dropout. The videos West made for “Jesus Walks” increase my admiration for what he is capable of musically, artistically and spiritually. Of the three, I think the version directed by Chris Milk is most complex and compelling, offering a video parable of baptismal dying and rebirth. (Warning: this video is hosted on West’s VEVO channel on YouTube and opens with a 30-second advertisement which when I checked was a very violent promo for a new Denzel Washington film)

This year, West gained Grammy nominations both for his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as well as a single from that album, “All of the Lights,” and for a duo album with fellow Roc-a-Fella recording star Jay-Z titled, Watch the Throne, as well as a single from that album, “Otis.” While this is too much here to discuss in a short blog post, “All of the Lights” provides another example, alongside “Jesus Walks,” to show what is so compelling about West. While I think highly of this song, that doesn’t mean I think highly of all the songs on the album, some of which are much more troubling, but that has been true on all his albums.

(In what follows, I learned, as I usually do, from the remarkable insights of fans writing on, this time particularly from “Tsuppi” who posted about “All of the Lights” on 3-5-2011.)

“All of the Lights” (music only) on Vimeo

“All of the Lights” begins with a one-minute interlude with soft, sad violin and piano, very classical in style (in fact, the song includes trumpets, French horn, trombone, flute, viola, and cello as well, adding up to a lush and complex arrangement). The song begins with a shout of “All of the lights.” Rihanna then comes in, singing the hook, “Turn up the lights in here, baby. Extra bright, I want ya’ll to see this. Turn up the lights in here, baby. You know what I need, I want you to see everything.” This theme, to me, is confessional. It could be a pop version of Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 3:20-21: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

It is a song written, I think, in the aftermath of the Taylor Swift incident and his self-imposed exile. In order to find forgiveness and rebirth, he needs to have “all of the lights” illumining the mess he’s made of his life. The song, mostly rapped by West in the verses, is written as a parable. It is a moving lament about “all the lights” shining on the brokenness of a man whose abuse causes him to lose his wife, daughter and life. Through a stint in jail and its aftermath finds himself at the brink of despair, yet trying to reach out, to reconcile, to be a father to his daughter so she doesn’t “grow up on that ghetto university.” The production includes no less than 14 guest vocals including, of course, Rihanna, but also Kid Cudi, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and more. It might have been a mess of hubris, but under West’s wise production, it works brilliantly. Fergie sings a final verse full of despair, after which the song nearly ends, musically echoing the lyric. But then, slowly, the flow of the song preaches new birth, salvation through living in the light. Here, Rihanna comes in again with the hook, and the song runs out from there.

West is a brilliant artist, a man of paradoxical passions that seem to both run towards and away from God. In this song, we see his remarkable gifts working towards God. It seems like the kind of pop song Leonard Cohen calls, on his recent album “Old Ideas,” a “penitential hymn.” In writing such a powerful and meaningful song, West’s already won respect, but I still hope he takes home a Grammy as well.  

Next up: Broken and Blessed: Lady Gaga and Lucinda Williams

-Christian Scharen

Find out more about Broken Hallelujahs in these videos with Christian Scharen: