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It's not just Jay-Z and Kanye West: The beatification of hip-hop

The Holy Grail? Yeezus? Why are rap’s power players obsessed with religious allusions? Gillian Orr takes a pew

During game five of the NBA finals series on Sunday night, which saw Miami Heat’s “saviour” LeBron James fail to keep the San Antonio Spurs from taking the lead,  another self-proclaimed Messianic figure, Jay-Z (or J-Hova), decided to surprise fans by dropping details of his new album, due out at the beginning of next month.

The hip-hop mogul used a three-minute advert to announce the arrival of Magna Carta Holy Grail, a preposterously titled record,  and one whose pomp is probably only bettered by Kanye West’s forthcoming album Yeezus, a portmanteau of West’s nickname Yeezy and, well, Jesus. Jay-Z’s record is being launched with the help of Samsung, the Korean technology giant that has paid $5m to give the record free to one million Samsung Galaxy phone users.

The religious allusions are provocative, sure, but this is hip-hop, where most of the big players have a God complex, or at least a son of  God complex. From 2Pac’s album, The Don Killuminati, which featured an image of the rapper being crucified on its cover, to Nas’s record, God’s Son, religious allusions and iconography permeates the genre. The most dropped name in hip-hop isn’t Courvoisier or Armani, it’s Jesus Christ. But what’s with the obsession with comparing themselves to these higher powers?

“It’s a combination of things”, says DJ Semtex, who presents the Friday night hip-hop show on Radio 1Xtra. “All these artists are religious to a certain extent and have spent a lot of time in church, so it’s something they’ve grown up with. And then it’s that hip-hop mantra about being the best. Even battling is about trying to outdo each other, so these  bigger and more powerful names are just  an extension of that. It’s not supposed to  be disrespectful. It’s part of the culture  of hip-hop.”

But for a genre that is regularly accused of materialism and misogyny, such religious proclamations might appear jarring. Often it seems that any grandiose word – king, throne, god, sinner, scripture – is simply thrown in, whether it makes sense or not. Kanye might call his album Yeezus but then it features a song called “I Am a God” (“I am a God/ Hurry up with my damn massage”). So which one  is it, Kanye?

And though Magna Carta sounds like a grand reference point, we’re not sure quite how a document signed in Runnymede, which served to limit the English king’s power and provided the basis for the rule of law, fits in with a mystical salver. Perhaps Jay is just looking for ways to wind up the ridiculous conspiracy theorists who are convinced the rapper is part of a global conspiracy. God maybe. Illuminati, probably not.