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 "If you look at today, everybody is into realism. You gotta come with reality" ...

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 "God is my n---a. He's my big homie" ...

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— by Shaheem Reid, with additional reporting by Corey Moss and Curtis Waller

The signs are abundant — all you have to do is open your eyes. Mel Gibson didn't need to team up with Danny Glover, show his bare behind or shoot one bullet to make his biggest film: All he had to do was tell the story of God's son. America's favorite Esther doesn't call her brother-in-law a "fish-eyed heathen" while swinging a pocketbook at him like her "Sanford & Son" namesake: She practices Kabbalah and has one of the biggest-grossing tours of the year. A once-shameless, purple-clad member of the pop royalty is revising some of the risqué lyrics from his past songs to be about spirituality on his top-selling tour. And phrases like "Jesus is my homeboy" and "Saved girls rock" are joining labels like Sean John and Baby Phat on the chests of teenagers across the country.

In 2004, pop culture is not only leaning toward religion — it's shouting about it. But one segment of the culture is shouting louder than everyone else: hip-hop. The most anticipated LP of the next couple of months comes courtesy of a "Bad Boy gone clean," Minister Mason "Mase" Betha. LL Cool J has plans to open a gospel-rap label, Cam'ron's "Lord You Know" is a bona-fide radio hit, DMX says he wants to trade in his dog collar for preacher's collar, and R. Kelly — who is as big a part of the hip-hop community as any MC or producer — is putting out a whole album of inspirational material. Perhaps the biggest story, though, is that for all the partying we're doing to the beats of records like "Lean Back" and "On Fire," Kanye West has the song of the summer with "Jesus Walks" — a song where he openly pleads with God to stay by his side.

  Kanye West
"Jesus Walks"
The College Dropout
(Roc-A-Fella Records)
The MC hopes that others will be joining him on this particular journey. "In hip-hop, we always say that we don't want anyone to bite or copy what we doin'," West said. "But if anyone copies 'Jesus Walks' and makes a song that's positive — bite all you want."

Like Marvin Gaye said: What's going on?

P. Diddy feels that this flush of faith is a manifestation of a positive spirituality that's often been present in hip-hop. "I always relate hip-hop to our old Negro spirituals," he says. "They were sung in the cotton fields to help us get by, to help us not kill ourselves by going crazy [under] the worst oppression in the world. The music, the soulfulness, the spiritualness expressed in song helped us to get through another day. That's the same impact hip-hop has had on this generation. People could try to undermine it, but it's honestly the truth. Hip-hop has helped us make it through our life in the inner cities."

However, the question remains: Why now? Most of the messages in hip-hop have been resoundingly harsh in recent years. If you pick up a mixtape, almost every other reference is about clapping somebody or stomping someone's head into the pavement — which is well and good if that's how you choose to present yourself, but artists with other messages weren't getting heard as much.

  "Jesus Walks" photos
That climate made it difficult for West to get on with "Jesus Walks." Earlier this year, he said, " 'Jesus Walks' talks about how you can rap about anything, but if you talk about Jesus, [radio and club DJs] won't play it. It talks about my relationship with him, [how I'm] trying to live a secular life but still have God in my life. I feel like I'm expressing a lot which the regular person is going through."

West started work on the song about three years ago, aiming to beat the system by making his testimony so compelling that DJs would play it on the radio and in the clubs. He couldn't be too preachy and alienate his audience — so he brought in a concept that people on the street could relate to.

The first verse is about a drug dealer who prays that the Lord will protect him while he hustles. West raps, "My momma used to say only Jesus can save us/ Well, momma, I know I act a fool/ But I'll be gone till November, I got packs to move."

The second verse arose from aggravation West was receiving six months after he laid down the first. After telling everyone his concept for the record, people told him he was crazy for thinking that a song like that would ever make it to airwaves, let alone move people in the club.

  Kanye West
"Jesus Walks"
live at the Hard Rock Cafe
The College Dropout
"I ain't here to argue about his facial features/ Or here to convert atheists into believers/ I'm just trying to say the way schools needs teachers/ The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/ That's the way y'all need Jesus/ So here go my single, dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/ But if I talk about God, my record won't get played, huh?/ Well, let this take away from my spins/ Which will probably take away from my ends/ Then I hope this takes away from my sins."

West's dreams have come to fruition. He has three different videos for "Jesus Walks" in circulation, the single is moving up the charts — and DJs are showing it love in the clubs.

"I been playing it for a while — before he put the videos out and people were checking for it," said DJ Drama, who spins throughout the South. "There's a definite reaction from it. I think his timing was perfect for the song. In a time like the bling era or the shiny-suit era, it would have been real hard to get that song played in a club. But if you look at today, everybody is into realism. Kanye got over 'cause he was fresh and brought himself. You gotta come with reality."

Next: 'Are rappers truly feeling the spirit or fronting?' ...
Photo: mtv.com

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  Kanye West
"Jesus Walks"
The College Dropout
(Roc-A-Fella Records)

"Lord You Know"
Purple Hayes

"Hate Me Now"
I Am

"Miss You"
The Great Depression

  Nas feat. Tupac
"Thugz Mansion"
God's Son