PERHAPS HE MEANT IT AS A SYMBOL OF personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.
On the cover of February's Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.
It's all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.
He's certainly not the first hip-hop act or black performer to exploit biblical imagery. Nas and Diddy were hanged on crosses and stoned in the 1999 video for "Hate Me Now." Tupac appeared as a crucified Christ on the cover of his posthumous 1996 album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. You can go back even further in black music history to 1971, when Isaac Hayes proclaimed himself Black Moses on the gold-selling double-album of the same name. If you've been following West's two-year meteoric rise to super-stardom, then you shouldn't be surprised that he would pose as Christ. The performer seemed to presage it on last year's Grammys: He ended his bombastic performance of his hit "Jesus Walks" by rising above the church choir wearing huge angel wings.
"I think there's no question Kanye has a God complex," says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. "In many ways, his ego is a textbook case of someone who's been damaged emotionally."
As far as we know, West's personal background isn't rife with trauma. He's not the stereotypical hip-hop cat who rapped his way out of a life of drugs and crime. The artist grew up an only child in a solidly middle-class environment on Chicago's South Side. West's parents -- his mother was an English professor, his father a photographer and pastoral counselor -- divorced when he was three.
Psychoanalysis aside, the controversial cover couldn't appear at a more perfect time, barely two weeks before the Grammys. West is up for eight awards, including album of the year for his critically acclaimed sophomore release, Late Registration. Heralded as a rap masterpiece by some critics, the album, which features fine textured tracks, still isn't in the class with Run D.M.C's Raising Hell from 1986 or Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet from 1990. Deep down inside, West probably knows that. He's good but he's no genius. In the Rolling Stone article -- and this perhaps is the real point of the Christ cover and the inside shot of West as Muhammad Ali -- the rapper emphasizes his "greatness."
"In America, they want you to accomplish these great feats, to pull off these David Copperfield-type stunts," he says. "You want me to be great, but you don't ever want me to say I'm great?"
Poor Kanye. At 28, he hasn't yet realized that those who are truly great feel no need to boast about it. The gift shines through.
"The ego thing you take with a grain of salt," says Neal, author of the Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. "There's no doubt that in the last two years, it's been Kanye making it all about Kanye."
But West's art and posturing seem to send incongruous messages. In his music, West, whether subtly or overtly, often delves into spirituality and self-reflection. This, Neal says, is sometimes overlooked when critics assess his work.
"He's not some pious figure," says the noted author. "He's someone who makes his spirituality accessible. Half the stones he throws are at himself. When you put that self-criticism out there, particularly in hip-hop, it's refreshing."
In the last year, the artist to some extent has become "the voice" of the genre. When he's not talking about how much he loves himself, he does speak out (albeit inarticulately) about issues affecting his generation and his people. Who can forget his infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" line during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims? Weeks before, he had lashed out on MTV against homophobic rappers.
"From being critical of the Bush administration on Katrina to creating songs like 'Jesus Walks', Kanye West has fashioned himself as a politically conscious artist not dissimilar to rock 'n roll's coming of age era of the 1960s," says Ronn Torossian, chief executive of 5W Public Relations in New York, whose firm has represented such high-profiled rap acts as Lil' Kim and Ice Cube. "He has successfully branded himself as the new voice of young America, one that does not shy from speaking their beliefs."
But West, who also epitomizes how co-opted hip-hop has become, could hurt his marketability with his big mouth and diva-like antics. One of the most successful crossover rap acts in the last decade, West has used his image to sell iTunes and Pepsi products. Verizon sponsored his Touch the Sky tour last summer.
"The important question remains whether or not corporate America will become afraid of aligning their company with Kanye and hurt him in the wallet," says Michael "Blue" Williams, a veteran industry expert and CEO of Family Tree Entertainment in New York.
Even in the wake of his anti-Bush comments, West's record sales haven't suffered as Late Registration has sold more than two million copies. The performer is at the peak of his fame right now. Critics love him; fans adore him. He could possibly walk away with a wheelbarrow of Grammys Wednesday night. He's so heady with his own success right now that he equates his personal struggles with those of Jesus Christ. But if the fame, to quote one of his biggest hits, "all falls down," we'll see if Kanye West has the power to rise again.