When Kanye West announced he was turning his back on secular music in 2019, it was not so much a surprise but an evolution.
That year’s gospel album Jesus is King and last week’s follow up Donda found him mostly doing away with street and celebrity tales to focus on the more existential questions that come with a life of faith: why are we here? And what is the purpose of our existence?
Donda is awash with such musings and, in return, West has never sounded more vulnerable and, at times, humble.
“Lord, I need you to wrap your arms around me,” he croons in Lord I Need You.
"I give up on doing things my way and tell me everything is gonna be alright.”
The buoyant God Breathed has West using braggadacious rhymes to remind himself that he is essentially weak in the grand scheme of things: "I know He got His hands on this / I know we got a chance on this / No, I never planned on this."
Kanye West never hid his faith
While West never planned on focusing his craft towards rapping about the great beyond, his journey to enlightenment has been recorded in song through his almost 20-year career, which started after having his jaw shattered in a near-fatal car accident in 2002.
His debut single, Through the Wire, recorded a year later with his jaw wired shut, has West acknowledging – albeit in a flippant manner – the miracle of his survival.
"Thank God I ain't too cool for the safe belt." he says at one point before admitting, "I must got an angel".
Taken from his 2004 debut album The College Dropout, the track is one of many in which West uses a spiritual lens to discuss societal and personal matters.
Both come together in Jesus Walks, a strident number that was revelatory in terms of its subject matter.
That year, we were more used to Snoop Dog telling us to Drop it Like it's Hot and 50 Cent being suggestive with 21 Questions, than West imploring God to "show me the way because the Devil's trying to break me down”.
While West would rarely be as spiritually direct again until Jesus is King, the albums in between were home to some soul-searching lyrics.
A stirring example is the single Heard 'Em Say from his 2005 album Late Registration.
The chorus has West coming to terms with the reality of life: “Nothing's ever promised tomorrow today/ But we'll a find a way/ And nothing last forever but be honest babe/ It hurts but it may be the only way.”
While West went on to make rapping about spirituality both cool and successful – Donda debuted at number one in 130 international album charts – he is by no means the only hip-hop act who took their faith seriously on the mic.
Here are four other artists who kept it real and spiritual throughout their careers.
1. Tupac Shakur was a man of conscience
2Pac was an uncompromising presence of the street, but carried a conscience beyond his years.
Although he found commercial success with gritty club bangers such as Hit 'Em Up and California Love, it's when addressing internal struggles his work transcends the genre.
In 1992’s Ghetto Gospel, 2Pac attributes his faith for giving him persistence amid the everyday struggle.
“I make mistakes but learn from every one. And when it’s said and done, I bet this brother be a better one,” he says.
“If I upset you, don’t stress. Never forget that God isn’t finished with me yet.”
In 1996’s stirring Who Do You Believe In?, 2Pac credits his faith for keeping him alive amid the senseless street violence in the US.
“Who do you believe in? I put my faith in God, blessed and still breathing,” he raps in the chorus.
“And even though it's hard, that's who I believe in before I'm leaving, I'm asking the grieving, who do you believe in?”
2Pac managed to turn these introspective themes into a hit song with I Ain’t Mad At Cha.
Released two days after his death in 1996, the eerie video has him descending from heaven to reconcile with grieving companions.
In a memorable passage, he discovers a friend who has sworn a life away from crime and converted to Islam.
While sceptical of the move, 2Pac respects the discipline that comes with a spiritual life: "You trying hard to maintain, then go ahead, ‘cause I ain't mad at cha.”
2. Lauryn Hill's lyrics are full of spiritual imagery
For the enigmatic rapper and singer, her Rastafarian faith is not a source of tension, but a prism to survey life.
In her acclaimed 1998 debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she weaves biblical scripture with social commentary.
In Lost Ones, she adopts a saying from the ancient King Solomon, mentioned in the Quran, Bible and Torah, to describe materialistic people involved in the music industry.
“Trying to grab hold of what you can't control. Now you're all floss, what a sight to behold,” she says.
“Wisdom is better than silver and gold, I was hopeless, now I'm on Hope Road.”
She carries that theme in The Final Hour, as she questions the false security wealth and fame provides: “And all the transparent gonna be seen through/ Let God redeem you, keep your deen true.”
In the album's final track, Tell Him, Hill addresses God directly in a plea for strength.
“Let me be patient, let me be kind/ Make me unselfish without being blind,” she says.
“Though I may suffer, I'll envy it not and endure what comes because he's all that I got.”
3. Lupe Fiasco brought Islam to mainstream hip-hop
While not the only US Muslim hip-hop artist to be open about his faith, Fiasco’s profile – labelled as Kanye West's protege – made him a pioneer.
Tracks such as Hurt Me Soul and Hi Definition feature Islamic phrases such as Astaghfirullah (I seek forgiveness in God) and Assalamu Alaikum, the Muslim greeting of “Peace be with you".
Fiasco fully elucidates on his beliefs in 2006’s Muhammad Walks, a version of Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, released two years prior.
Over marauding strings, Fiasco discusses some of the tenants of Islam.
“During Hajj, we walk, through Ramadan, we starve. Though you not eating, there's a feeding of the mind,” he says.
“A defeating of the demons, a seeing of the signs.”
4. DMX was hip-hop’s preacher
Rarely has an artist encapsulated the vulnerability and the struggles of the spiritual quest better than DMX, which is why his death in April from a drug overdose hit fans and peers so hard.
Where the fascination with 2Pac stems from his dichotomous nature, DMX’s comes from the weaved reverence and remorse through most of his tracks.
In Damien, he states the soul is vulnerable to corruption when heedless.
“The snake, the rat, the cat, the dog. How you gonna see him when you living in a fog?”
In his 1998 hit Slippin’, DMX pens touching lyrics about finding strength amid trauma: “To live is to suffer. But to survive. That’s to find meaning in the suffering.”
DMX was known to end albums and concerts with stirring spoken word prayers.
His final album, Exodus, ends with the lament: “If what you want from me is to bring your children to you/ My regret is only having one life to do it, instead of two. Amen.”