The year is 1966, three years after the world was first infected by a severe case of Beatlemania. It was complete, undisputed domination. The Beatles were inarguably the biggest band in the world, so big that John Lennon would say during an interview that they are, “More popular than Jesus.” The remark was based on his idea that Christianity is declining, the power of pop culture was rising, and that the Beatles now had more influence than Jesus and the good book. When the interview was published in the London Evening Standard, there was no real reaction. It wasn’t until the quote was republished five months later on the front cover of U.S teen magazine, Databook, that a backlash ensued that would ruin their United States tour. It was a complete nightmare, Southern states stopped playing Beatles records, their albums were burned during organized bonfires, they were protested and picketed by the Ku Klux Klan, and no amount of press conferences and explanations could control the damage of his words. The band would eventually recover from the turbulent scrutiny but would never tour again.
When Kanye announced that his album would be title Yeezus, and that it would contain the song “I Am A God” featuring GOD, I expected a flashback to ’66. Calling himself Yeezus does not measure up to the blasphemy of Lennon’s comment, but by putting himself in the same class as GOD it was practically asking for outrage, religious reference as clickbait. There were people that felt he crossed a line, claimed that Kanye’s ego had reached a new level of inflation, Pastor C. Andre Grier of Georgia for example, but their rage was a whisper compared to the excitement for a new album. A few feathers were ruffled, nothing more. I remember getting into a heated debate with my waitress at Steak and Shake one afternoon. She overheard my friends and I praising Kanye’s concert the night before and decided to comment. We went back and forth like a game of verbal Pong, she couldn’t bring water to the table without the discussing heating up. I refused to see the blasphemy in him bringing out a Jesus character for his tour and she couldn’t see the art. We eventually agreed to disagree, walking away with our views unchanged. I’m almost certain that this is how all debates and discussions occurred during the time of Yeezus, in private, unknown to Kanye, unknown to the world. No protest, no petitions, his career took more public damage when he interrupted Taylor Swift.
"I just talked to Jesus / He said, 'What up, Yeezus?' / I said 'shit, I'm chillin, trying to stack these millions' / I know he's the most high, but I am a close high."
Hip-Hop’s relationship with God as a representation of self dates back to its early affiliations with the The Five-Percent Nation also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths. The organization was founded by Clarence 13X after he left the Nation of Islam in 1964, six years before the beginning of hip-hop. They were there when it all started, DJ Kool Herc has mentioned their presences during the formative years as the scene began to form. The Five Percenters taught that black people are the original people that inhabited the earth, the black man is God personified and that the black woman is Earth. The organization’s influence on hip-hop could be felt strongest during the late '80s early '90s. Its teaching, terminology and symbolism can be found in the music and videos, even popular slang from the roots of that time period can be traced back to the The Five Percenters. Some of the most acclaimed rappers from New York were members and affiliates, Big Daddy Kane, Wu-Tang, Brand Nubian, Gravediggaz, Busta Rhymes, Nas, they all have lyrics considering themselves Gods. Even the music of modern rappers like Joey Bada$$ and Jay Electronica is infused with the teachings and knowledge, but I think Rakim and Big Daddy Kane are the most notable. Rakim’s moniker, The God MC is a title he gained for his lyrical prowess and for spreading the teachings through his music.
Back then to refer yourself as a GOD wasn’t because of ego or narcissism, it was religious, a way of spreading the teachings of the Nations of Gods and Earths. They weren’t looking down but trying to uplift their people. Of course, someone has to take it to the next level, turn it into a complex, that person was Jay Z. “Izzo” was the first time he referred himself as Hov, short for Jehovah the God in the Hebrew bible. He wasn’t like his fellow New York contemporaries, the pseudonym was a proclamation that he had reached the status of God emcee, he stood above all. “Izzo” was the first single off Blueprint and Jay Z’s first single to break into Billboard’s top ten, the record was huge, it was impossible to dispute his self-proclaimed title. Outside of Nas and Puffy being crucified on the cross in the legitimately controversial “Hate Me Now” video, it was the first time, I believe, that a rapper made much of a religious statement in the mainstream, at least until the producer of "Izzo" dropped "Jesus Walks" three years later.
History repeats itself. Everything comes back around, but never quite in the same fashion. Jay Z introduced the complex and Kanye escalated the concept. But even before Yeezus, Lil B was known in the underground for referring to himself as “The Based God.” He created a “based” worldview that he was the prophet of. This is also the same guy that said he looked like Jesus, another example of something that can occur today that would’ve never been possible in the '60s and '70s. Lil B turned being the “Based God” into a hash tag, a meme, and his cult following. He was a figure on the internet, harmless, but he’s recently started to expand into the general conscious. Appearances on CNN and ESPN for cursing basketball players, it’s slowly becoming outrageous and yet still remotely entertaining. Lil B has to be credited for popularizing being a God-like character, even if it was only known by those that followed him on social media and knew of his music.
The Based God may have been one of the first examples of the God rapper in the internet age, but he was only the start. Back in October of 2012, Gucci Mane released the artwork for his mixtape, Trap God. It was the first installment of what would be one of his most popular mixtape series. Since then, “Trap God” has been added to his many monikers. Gucci’s another underground trendsetter that never gets the credit he deserves. Almost a year later, October of 2013, Eminem would release the song “Rap God,” an extremely long lyrical exhibition that was meant to prove he’s a deity above the rest. Yeezus came just a few months before. With Kanye and Eminem both acclaiming themselves as Gods, it did what Gucci and Lil B couldn’t, started a widespread trend in hip-hop. Since then it feels like an influx of rappers calling themselves Gods or Lords or Popes (in Ferg's case all three), the complex seeped into their song titles, into their lyrics, monikers and even names. No one stirs when rappers named Slim Jesus or Slug Christ appears, to be a God now is different than to have the “Lil” or “Young” in your name.
Since the release of “6 God,” Drake has reinvented himself as just that. He made Toronto into the 6 and positioned himself as the God that views the city from a plateau too high for birds to reach, hands clasped in constant prayer. When the most popular rapper in the world refers to himself as a God it’s only a matter of time before it trickles down and that’s exactly what happened. Just a few weeks ago, Jeezy released a song called “God” with artwork depicting a cross on a door with the words “Jeezy” and “God” right above it. The hook goes, “I’m a God in the hood,” it’s filled with Biblical references and even references Kanye as a source of his “God shit.” The OG Trap God has graced the record with a remix, gods recognizing gods. Of course, there’s plenty more gods in the works. Waka Flocka’s recent mixtape, Turn Up Godz Tour, Paul Wall’s upcoming album, Slab God, King Louie’s Drilluminati (God Of Drill), Goldlink's God Complex, hip-hop now has enough gods and deities to create its own Greek Mythology.
Celebrity worship has reached new heights since social media became a holy connection between the artist and fans, the gospel revealed 140 characters at a time. It’s interesting that at a time when being a “God” is so popular people are also most hung up on followers. This is not what the Five Percenters had in mind. The most extreme form of idol worship has to be the Church Of Yeezus, even Kanye couldn’t foresee a loyal group dedicating a religion to his music. There’s always been a conflict between blasphemy and creative expression, but where once that conflict inspired persecution and protest it now often feels paper thin. In a true sign of the times, the BasedGod and Trap God and Yeezus aren’t considered deities, not even false idols, they’re considered brands. You’re more likely to spark outrage in 2015 by saying that the Migos are bigger than the Beatles, the same band that was once more popular than Jesus. So does that mean the Migos are more popular than Jesus? Well, if Quavo, Offset, and Takeover can turn a bando into a record deal, that might be more impressive than turning water into wine.
We are truly living in strange times. Maybe even the end of times.