Back in 2004, Kanye West still thought Christ was controversial. "They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus," he griped on his single "Jesus Walks." "That means gun, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God my record won't get played?"
It turns out the answer to that question was "no": "Jesus Walks" got played plenty, becoming West's fourth top-20 hit in the U.S. That fact may partly explain why he's gone all-in on the Christ talk for his new album, right down to its title, Yeezus. Track No. 3, for example, is named "I Am a God" and features the Chicago superstar bragging about hanging out with the Son of God: "I know he the most high / But I am a close high."
Anyone who's tuned out pop culture in the time since John Lennon caused an uproar by calling the Beatles "bigger than Jesus" might be surprised to hear that there's been relatively little controversy over West's recent self-association with Christ. But the truth is that its claims of divinity are one of the less-shocking things about Yeezus. Rap has been producing would-be messiahs for decades, a symptom of the genre's cultural origins, underdog ethos, and fixation on status.
Hip hop's god complex likely began in the '80s with acts affiliated with the Five Percent Nation, a Harlem-based Nation of Islam offshoot furthering Louis Farrakhan's Afrocentricism. Their doctrine immortalized the black man as God, the black woman as Earth, and reinterpreted Allah and Islam as acronyms for "Arm Leg Leg Arm Head" and "I Self Lord Am Master" respectively. Rakim, a teenage convert and one-half of the pioneering Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim, often went by "Rakim Allah" or even just "The God" in accordance with followers' practice of referring to one another as "Gods." Given further traction by major-label acts such as Brand Nubian, "Peace, God" became a convention, even a cliché, among East Coast rappers by the early 1990s.
When West proclaims "I am a God," however, he's sending a different message than the Five Percenters. "Gods of the Five Percent Nation have a gnostic theology: They believe that there is no invisible God, but that each black man is god of his own universe--his personal life and family," says Felicia Miyakawa, an associate professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Five Percenter Rap: God Hop's Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission."They don't say 'I am a God,' they say 'I am God.'"
Christ enters as a self-referential rap figure in the mid-1990s. Around the same time Ol' Dirty Bastard started calling himself as "Big Baby Jesus," Tupac Shakur's 1996 album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory raised eyebrows with a cover featuring an artist's rendering of Shakur hanging from a crucifix -- a picture lent poignancy by his murder shortly before the album's release date. Hoping to seize a throne vacated by Shakur and fellow slain icon The Notorious B.I.G., Queens rapper Nas (who has also collaborated with West) recorded a video for "Hate Me Now," the second single from his 1999 album I Am..., featuring him affixed to the cross at Golgotha.
Although Nas's early music is sprinkled with its share of "Peace, God"s, his 2002 album and a none-too-subtle abdominal tattoo would subsequently label him God's Son, while the cover of 2005's Street's Disciple places him in the seat of honor in a reimagining of da Vinci's "The Last Supper."