One of the more robust, detailed, and grounded theology projects popular culture has produced in the last few years comes from a seemingly unlikely source, which is perhaps why it has been so widely missed by theological analysis. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is a work of theological genius. On this, his third studio album, Lamar has fully caught his stride. And after the release of his new single, “i,” it seems that Lamar’s much anticipated fourth studio album will only pick up where Good Kid M.A.A.D City left off.
Lamar’s album is nothing short of a contemporary Confessions. Rather than regurgitating any sort of doctrinal statements, though, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City functions as a sort of existential lament, a confession of the struggles between a life of faith and a life of the world, between family and the streets, ultimately alluding to the tensions between ways of life and ways of death. It also accounts for the societal and structural issues necessarily at play in the development of a life of faith. He speaks to the struggle of an authentic life of faith in the contemporary American landscape, and he does so in a brutally honest fashion, thereby forcing our theologies to engage with the grimy aspects of the regular life of a seventeen-year-old (the main character of the album) in a city like Compton.
Lamar recognizes that the activities and powers at play in the world stand in stark contrast to the alternative kingdom offered in the Christian faith. The brilliance of this analysis rests in his understanding and articulation of the toil to identify wholly in one of these camps. He notes that this struggle goes all the way to the structures and powers at play, the principalities and authorities, dictating the ebb and flow of life in Compton. Lamar’s struggle for life is necessarily bound up in the economic and political vision of this landscape, so why wouldn’t his theology be so as well?
The album itself starts with Lamar and his friends dispassionately reciting the prayer of confession, which essentially frames the rest of the brilliant narrative, properly themed around struggle. From here we hear of and experience the narrative of a seventeen-year-old boy in Compton who has borrowed his mother’s van to visit a romantic interest. Perhaps the true stroke of genius in the album lies in its chronicling of the violence that necessarily comes with such a visit. This violence, though, is not concerned with gang involvement. Rather, it is from the voice of a civilian, as Ta Nehisi Coates has profoundly observed, and it’s violence that stems from the structures of life in Compton.
The true force of Lamar’s understanding of life is that he has no space for a divide between theology and lived life.Good Kid M.A.A.D. City tells the story of an existential struggle. Lamar’s prayers of confession and toil are far from ironic, and they are quite properly placed intermittently throughout the album, right in between the violence and toil of daily life. Along these lines, there is a similarity, a certain kinship, with Augustine’s Confessions. Both pieces craft a narrative—stemming from a particular set of experiences in a particular time and place—that touches on confession, sin, grace, friendship, and regret. Lamar speaks of family and faith as centering forces—sometimes with manipulative pressure—that ultimately counteract the pressure to involve himself in gang activity for the sake of surviving his life in Compton.
The true force of Lamar’s understanding of life is that he has no space for a divide between theology and lived life. There can be no distinction between his prayers of confession and his everyday activities, between a life of holiness and a life of struggle. This is precisely why the variety of factors at work in Lamar’s experiences become so weighty: he is caught in the play of a certain set of forces. Cosmic redemption, we come to discover anew, is only properly contextualized in the events of one young man’s single evening, with pressures pulling on all sides of him.
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is not a typical hip-hop album; it is a well-crafted art piece, what Lamar himself has subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” Rather than shedding light on the latent concepts embedded in the prose, a more robust understanding comes from examining the ways in which Lamar’s album function phenomenologically. That is, the album ultimately brings the listener into the experience with Lamar himself, thereby forcing us to engage and ask questions alongside the main character: Kendrick Lamar himself. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the album is the way that it draws the listener in, necessarily involving the listener in the activities, experiences, and questions of Lamar himself. We are hearing what he hears (e.g., his voicemails, van doors, conversations with friends). This is the deliverance of a few harsh realities; it is Compton in all its glory.
The more aggressive themes of the album come at a stage in the narrative in which Lamar’s adolescence is propelling him into adulthood. They come at a time when he is discovering his own skill, his own capability and potential as an artist. Rather than slipping into party mode, though, Lamar demands that we question alongside him. He is pleading that we work to take his content seriously, that we listen to the stories, lyrics, and voicemails as a singular piece, which ultimately calls our own “civilian” status into question. We are forced to examine and acknowledge the spaces in which we struggle to find life, in which we endeavor to properly articulate and name the reality of a resurrection. Lamar is dying of thirst, and he told us himself. This sort of confession is only possible after entering into a certain space of honesty and openness. Lamar hopes to have taken us into that arena alongside him, thereby forcing us into new posture of openness.
Through this album, Lamar is attempting to teach us to listen. He beckons us back to a center, of sorts. A theology that cannot properly address the joys, sorrows, and absurdities of everyday life is no theology at all. This is precisely why Good Kid M.A.A.D. City functions like a kind of tuning fork; it stands as a call, forcing us to engage by listening and participating rather than speaking, hoping that we can begin to align ourselves and theologies with the absurd realities of being human.
Lamar simultaneously challenges us to reframe certain aspects of our theological analysis in popular culture. This album demands that we extend the arena in which theology looks for and finds life, the resurrection of the dead. Lamar’s own articulation of the realities and struggles of a life of genuine faith and fidelity demands to be taken seriously. And this sort of honesty is perhaps more beneficial and appropriate than any doctrinal formulation, because at the end of the day, when we are most piercingly honest with ourselves, all we are left with is the hope to come out on the side of faithfulness, to be counted amongst God’s people. In this new space we find ourselves listening and confessing alongside Lamar:
You’re dying of thirst
So hop in the water, and pray that it works.