Kendrick Lamar is, by both general consensus and his own repeated boasting, the current king of hip-hop. He is, by turns, a “masterful storyteller,” the musician-laureate cum black sheep of Black Lives Matter, the most “beautifully complex” rapper alive, a “woke” sexist, a masterful hip-hop ventriloquist, a “superstar … in a popular culture he often portrays as debased,” and even (per Ta-Nehisi Coates) the exception to the rule that “rappers who talk about Jesus are whining.” His rapping energizes the climax of Beyonce’s Lemonade. He starred in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” His three major studio albums are “becoming a historic album run a la mid-1960’s Bob Dylan or early-1970’s Stevie Wonder.” Don Cheadle did the second music video for his latest, and it is killer.
Lamar is also a vocal and intensely self-critical worshiper and follower of Jesus Christ. Thanks to him, one of the slogans of Black Lives Matter became an act of communal repentance and faith: “I’m f***** up, homie / you f***** up / but if God’s got us then / we gonna be alright.” Each album he releases quotes Scripture and gives a sort of spiritual autobiography, all of Kendrick’s sinful attitudes very much included (and largely chastened). His music as a whole comprises “a spiritual exhortation to love our neighbors.” Repeatedly he builds up, sermon-like, to a polarizing question: are we, as individuals and communities, to find our purpose in God by loving and serving each other? Or are we going to spiral into sin, hatred, defensiveness, and incoherence, torn apart by our suicidal desires?Kendrick’s darkest fear was not that there is no God, but that Kendrick would deny the Great I Am.
Many readers of Christ and Pop Culture probably find Kendrick’s Christianity unexpected, perhaps even perplexing given his foul-mouthed presence in the rap tradition. And in truth, while Lamar is anything but secular, he is also theologically idiosyncratic, bouncing from syncretic deism to Black Hebrew Israelite theology even as he keeps a central focus on the divinity of Jesus and the importance of Scripture. His eagerness to honestly inhabit the theological margins makes his music problematic to many church-going Christians, both left and right, majority and minority. (For his part, Kendrick is often deeply critical of “church religion.”) Yet at its core, Kendrick Lamar’s artistic project distills something that is essentially Christian—and that most modern Christian art lacks.
Many talk about his honesty or authenticity, but that word isn’t quite correct. It is hip, these days, to quote Christians who are honest or open or even broken, who fill their music with human vulnerabilities. On the Christian-radio-friendly front, Sandra McCracken’s Psalms weep the heartbreak of a then-recent divorce. On the other side of the Christian cultural divide, Sufjan Stevens’s brokenhearted, postmodern Christmas carols are de rigeur for hipper-than-thou Christian holiday parties. Yet Kendrick offers something rawer and harsher than mere human authenticity. Kendrick’s self-vaunted “realness” conveys not just his own observations (and certainly not merely his own desires), but something beyond him. In the end, Lamar’s music pivots around one central idea: “Real is God.”
The phrase “real is God” comes from Kendrick’s first major studio album, Good Kid, MAAD City. The album dramatizes one of the worst days in Kendrick’s life. Beat up for dating a girl with the wrong gang connections, he finds himself getting drawn into an evening of uncharacteristic irresponsibility—fueled by peer pressure and the tragic presence of alcohol and drugs.
By the end of the night, one of his friends has been shot dead, and the rest find themselves running, terrified—until they meet an elderly, female neighbor. She scolds one of them for carrying a gun, complains about their senseless anger, and leads them in the Sinner’s Prayer. Like many skits on rap albums, the scene is devoid of music and played for realism; the old woman’s confidence, contrasted with the teens’ desperation, makes for vivid storytelling. She follows the prayer with a reminder: “Alright now, remember this day: the start of a new life. Your REAL life.”
In the next song (titled “Real”), Kendrick moves from uncertainty to accepting a vision of religious vocation that his parents cast for him. The song begins, however, with a note of confusion. Kendrick’s autotuned voice sings about his realness with a vulnerable uncertainty that belies the self-confident posturing of his words:
I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say
When I feel, and I
Look in the mirror and know I’m there
With my hands in the air
I’m proud to say yeah
I’m real, I’m real, I’m really, really, real
His parents knock the feet out from his “do what I wanna do” attitude. His mom has the most poignant lines. Her voicemail, after a night of uncertainty, bleeds with fear for her son. “And I love you Kendrick, if I don’t hear you knocking on the door you know where I usually leave the key. Alright?” Her passive position—the mother whose car Kendrick borrowed without permission—suddenly seems far more praiseworthy than Kendrick’s shallow attempts to fulfill a stereotypical masculinity.
Kendrick’s father’s words are less poignant, but more theologically telling. Echoing and correcting Kendrick’s initial desire for authenticity, he speaks of “Realness” as lying in one’s vocation:
“Any n**** can kill a man, but that don’t make you a real n****. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherf**** family. Real is God, n****.”
You are not real just because you “do what I wanna do / say what I wanna say.” Realness is achieved by fulfilling your duty. And this “Real” is defined not by humans, but by God Himself.
Or, more precisely, the Real is God Himself.
So far, the story Kendrick tells is actually relatively conventional within Christian narratives, even if the precision and crudity of his language are far beyond what people expect from Christians today. People sin, they see the consequences of their actions, they repent, and they are enabled not just to worship God, but to find themselves in their vocation, serving others on Earth. When the album ends with Kendrick finding a euphoric sense of vocation, loving Compton’s natives by celebrating their lives, one feels the joy of familiar territory. The prodigal has come home, it seems, and now the feasting can begin.
But for Lamar, the phrase “Real is God” is more than a clever, throwaway phrase. Repeatedly (and despite the doubts that his music often expresses), he claims a rock-bottom conviction that God is real—and, in fact, that our relationship to God is more real than anything else. As Kendrick puts it in a recent interview, “We all spiritual beings, period. I mean, that’s something I can’t ever run from.” The insight that God is not just real, but the Real—Kendrick’s inescapable belief that spiritual truths are more significant than physical appearances—echoes through his second major album, To Pimp a Butterfly. This is vivid on its triumphant climax, “i.” While the song is often presented (by Kendrick as much as anyone) as a celebration of positivity, it anchors itself in the divine. It begins:
I done been through a whole lot
Trial tribulation, but I know God
Satan wanna put me in a bow tie
Prayin’ that the holy water don’t go dry.
God is the source of life. God is the counter to both Kendrick’s struggles and the attacks of Satan, who offers a “bow tie” of mock respectability against the Real of service to God and others. By the end of the first verse, Kendrick’s knowledge of God has become corporate. “Dreams of reality’s peace / blow steam in the face of the Beast.” Reality—realness—stands above what we see. Reality is God, and therefore reality is peace. Catching sight of this in a vision lets Kendrick “blow steam in the face of the beast”—confident, as the allusion to Revelation makes clear, that the forces of earthly evil will not prevail. This is, after all, the same album that inspired the Black Lives Matter protesters with the hope that “if God got us then we gonna be alright.” From beginning to end, the Reality of God both shows the falseness of our world, and promises that the world shall be overcome.
There is a dark side to the vision of God as true reality. It means that when we return to look at our present world, we have something to contrast it with. If God is truly real, then even the systems we establish to make life bearable are shallow imitations of God’s ideals—and unsustainable imitations, at that. The vast majority of the world we see around us consists, in the most literal sense, of damned fakers.
The Prophet Isaiah was given one of the rare visions of the Lord; his response was to cry out, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah had already ranted against his people’s willingness to accept evil, exploiting the poor and worshiping idols. In the vision, he sees that even his very words—the medium of both communication and thought—are bent, turned away from the Real and toward destruction. Nor does the New Testament contradict this vision that those who see God will be unable to love the world’s stories. As Kendrick puts it on his latest album, DAMN., “James 4:4 says, / Friend of the world is enemy of the Lord.” Kendrick is profoundly aware of the distance between God’s reality and the world we see.
Kendrick never seems to forget the distance between God and his world—and it terrifies him. From the very beginning of his career, Kendrick’s darkest fear was not that there is no God, but that Kendrick would deny the Great I Am. As Salon puts it, “Lamar’s faith is sure but his sanctity is not.”
DAMN. is at first glance a distilled expression of this fear. It begins with a strange question: “Is it wickedness, or is it weakness?” This is followed by a parable-like narrative where Kendrick tries to help a blind woman, and she shoots him dead. The last line describes Kendrick dying in a gunfight. Throughout, tracks bear titles such as “PRIDE.,” “LUST.,” “XXX.,” and “FEAR.” “FEAR.” opens with an echo of Christ’s words on the Cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”): “Why God, Why God, do I gotta suffer.” It continues, “Earth is no more, won’t you burn this mother f*****.”
Perhaps the most chilling example of the album’s darkness ties two songs together. In one of the album’s rare upbeat songs, Lamar sings alongside Rihanna, praising the virtue of loyalty:
Tell me who you loyal to
Do it start with your woman or your man?
Do it end with your family and friends?
Or you’re loyal to yourself in advance?
I said, tell me who you loyal to
Is it anybody that you would lie for?
Anybody you would slide for?
Anybody you would die for?
That’s what God for.
Until Kendrick mentions God, the song seems pretty straightforward—a celebration of personal loyalty, whether to one’s significant other or relatives. Surely all these things are good things, especially when compared to being only “loyal to yourself in advance.”
Or are they good things? Kendrick returns to the question, chillingly, in “XXX.” A friend, whose son was recently murdered, calls Kendrick, seeking spiritual consolation and prayers. Kendrick’s response is a savage, angry, 18-line rant about how viciously he would slaughter anyone who killed his own son. This, too, is the fruit of loyalty
I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch.
The kicker? He ends the rant suddenly, hanging up so he can speak to a school about gun control. “Pray for me,” he says, quietly. “Daaaaaamn,” comes the response—a note of appreciation, perhaps, for the sheer forcefulness of his hypocrisy, but also a reminder of just how close to hell Kendrick’s heart is.
All this negativity—and that of the same person whose “i” abounded in exuberant hope—has brought up questions. One hip-hop fan noted this as evidence of a certain religious temperament in Lamar. Kendrick is named as the sort who becomes “gripped by the mystery surrounding [God],” even if it means constantly asking hard questions.
Kendrick himself responded to the article with a lengthy, unexpected email. The response is complicated, theologically idiosyncratic (to put it mildly), and saturated with a confidence in the existence of God and Christ. It also emphasizes God’s judgment. “As a community, we was taught to pray for our mishaps, and he’ll forgive you. Yes, this is true. But he will also reprimand us as well.” Two paragraphs later, he makes his point rather more vividly. “I love when artists sing about what makes Him happy. My balance is to tell you what will make Him extinguish you.”
At times, then, Kendrick’s latest album sounds not so much old school as Old Testament. The album “makes the case to love they neighbor, regardless of the circumstances,” but it also “hits like a muscled-up hulk smash,” even if his prime target is often Lamar himself. One might reasonably ask whether there is any space for grace—or even Christ—on the album at all. Yet the album does end on a moment of grace, and its midpoint hinges on a specifically Christian pivot.
The conclusion is a showstopper, a too-good-to-be-false story told with perfect rhythm and assurance. It chronicles a man, “Ducky,” who “Drove to California with a woman on him and 500 dollars / They had a son, hopin’ that he’d see college.” Having escaped the gangster life (more or less) and pursuing the intergenerational American Dream in the fast-food industry, Ducky nevertheless keeps his ear to the ground. When a local with a history of robberies shows up, Duckworth offers him free chicken—and is spared from a bloodbath when the store is robbed. The kicker: the robber went on to be Lamar’s producer, and the worker went on to raise Kendrick Lamar. In Kendrick’s telling, this becomes a parable of what can happen when two people are put in the middle of a damnable system but given “a soul / So they can make their own choices and live with it.” The result is one minor, worldly redemption—embracing Kendrick’s life as well:
If Anthony killed Ducky
Top Dawg could be servin’ life
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.
The moment re-contextualizes the album. Kendrick’s faith, sin-stained as it is, is only made possible by his father’s act of street-smart calculation and a gangster’s act of mercy. When a gunshot punctuates these last lines and the album rewinds, the otherwise mysterious opening skit takes on a new meaning. That “blind woman” represents, perhaps, an alternate world in which Kendrick could not escape cycles of violence and despair. The ease with which Kendrick can imagine a version of himself devoid of faith, hope, or love haunts the album.
The Kendrick who does live, warts and all, is a testimony to the a better possibility. Re-visiting the tracklist, one sees not despair but duality: “PRIDE.” followed by “HUMBLE.,” “LUST.” followed by “LOVE.” “XXX.” and “FEAR.” followed by “GOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.” The album becomes a bipolar tribute to those who are saved and damned, where the clear moral distinction between the two is muddied by the fact that, in different circumstances, the former might become the latter.
At the midpoint of the album, track seven out of fourteen, stands “PRIDE.” In the second verse Lamar dreams of a “perfect world” where he would “choose faith over riches,” remain sexually disciplined, replaces prisons with schools, and “take all the religions and put ’em all in one service / Just to tell ’em we ain’t sh*t, but He’s been perfect, world.” In the context of Kendrick Lamar’s career, there is only one name “He” can refer to: Jesus Christ.
“We ain’t sh*t, but he’s been perfect, world.” It is hard not to see the Christian Gospel, here—that somehow, what matters is not our haphazard attempts, but the orchestrations of a perfect and gracious God who is Real.
This hope seems to motivate the fourth verse of “FEAR.,” as well. “What happens on Earth stays on Earth / and I can’t take these feelings with me / so hopefully they disperse.” The evils within Kendrick’s heart are, he knows, so out of tune with Reality that they cannot survive a full encounter with God’s Reality. What little Lamar sees of God only leaves him condemned. And yet—the system of sin that inhabits his soul may “disperse.” There is hope, even for people who (like all humans) “ain’t sh*t,” in comparison to God: “He been perfect, world.”
There are things in Kendrick’s music—especially his apparent embrace for Black Hebrew Israelite theology and his continual inability to repent of the depths of his sexism—that give me pause. I believe, as many readers of Christ and Pop Culture do, that these errors can be deeply problematic, can warp our ability to see reflections of the Real in people of color or women, and run counter to some of Lamar’s most frequently claimed artistic goals. And yet Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. remains one of the most powerful works of Christian art I have heard: a clear-eyed gaze at the implications of God’s reality for our broken, confusing, and dying world, an unapologetic statement of our wicked ways and our weak inability to even control our own destinies.
This world, as the apostle Paul says, “groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together,” while “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We groan because God seems to be so distant: from the world, from our friends, from our own hearts. It hurts. Kendrick Lamar has, as so few Christian artists can, given voice and beats to this deeply Christian groaning. It is a voice that deserves to be heard.