The New Testament: Kendrick Lamar, Gospel Artist
By Jaylin Paschal
"Every Kendrick album is about God," @ryanalph.
Thinking of contemporary Hip Hop artists and their relation to God usually brings to mind two modern moguls: Kanye West and the relative-rookie Chance the Rapper. Both are thought of for very different reasons and are, despite "Jesus Walks" and "Ultralight Beam," considered to have very different relationships with God; Chance's being the stronger relationship, and Ye's being muddied by Yeezus.
Regardless of where the two stand in God's eyes, for only He knows, they both are very publicly religious and widely revered for their artistry. They're generally accepted for their open, assertive spirituality.
So, why did everyone freak out when Kendrick Lamar told The New York Times his next album would be "about God?"
When Kanye tweeted that So Help Me God/SWISH/Waves/The Life of Pablo was a Gospel album, it generated more excitement--not less. And in further relation to Kanye, Kendrick announced that he got baptized while on tour with Ye. So it's interesting that threads of posts across the internet have reacted so largely (and negatively) to the Kendrick news.
But outside of Kanye and Chance, Kendrick Lamar has been rapping about God. This concept is nothing new to him, and shouldn't be anything new to his fans (or to music critics).
On Section .80, spirituality, morality and mortality are all explored. These three elements are all directly and indirectly tied to God. Religion is referenced and referred to subtly throughout the project. More explicitly, on "Kush and Corinthians," Kendrick expresses his thoughts on right and wrong, and how our code of ethics (or lack thereof) impacts our ideals of Heaven. "Have you ever had known a saint that was taking sinners' advice?" he asks.
Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City is woven together by interluding skits. The opening skit begins the album with a prayer. On "Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst" Kendrick and his friends run into a woman, or an angel (in Kendrick's words), that interrupts their path to sin in an attempt to introduce them to God and offer a new life. In less explicit (but still explicit) religious moments on GKMC, listeners sing along to "I am a sinner/ who's probably gonna sin again/ Lord forgive me/ Lord forgive me/ things I don't understand" like it's a pop hook and not a modern-day Lord's Prayer "forgive us our trespasses" plea.
To Pimp A Butterfly is all about God. Kendrick uses metaphors and imagery to comment on Christianity. America's God complex is represented through "Uncle Sam." Lucifer becomes "Lucy." God becomes a homeless man, asking for a dollar. On "u," Kendrick reflects on his life regretfully, saying "God himself would say you fucking failed/ you ain't try." Kendrick brings God and redemption into the TPAB narrative, and it remains as an important theme throughout the project. The album ends with an interview with Tupac, who has symbolically represented God in several critics' TPAB-thinkpieces.
The most recent Kendrick release, untitled, unmastered, deals with God more directly. It's urgent this time--"Get God on the phone" urgent. The very first track is answering God, who asks, “What have you done for me? I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you, Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you, Say I didn't try for you, say I didn't ride for you, I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you, Who love you like I love you?”
It's no wonder that his fourth LP will be about God. Kendrick Lamar is very much a Gospel artist, wearing his religion on his sleeve. But the fact that he's not viewed as a "Gospel rapper," a damning classification, speaks volumes of his intricate, dynamic rhymes. His music is about God without being divisive, off-putting or obvious. It's spiritual without reminding you so. "Kendrick puts God into characters:," @ryanalph tweeted. "Uncle Sam, a bum, Tupac, etc." It's clear on his relationship with God without literally likening himself to the Savior (Keezus doesn't have a ring to it, anyway). Kendrick tells stories about God by telling stories about life. There's no cliche moral pureness or overbearing condemnation of "worldly influences." He simply address and evaluates these concepts on their own. It's shameless testimony that doesn't shame anyone else. There's no ethical absolutism; no moral snobbiness. He's not better than us, he is us. It's just enough, allowing Kendrick to spread The Word through the musicality of The Gospel and his own testimony further than most contemporary rappers could. He just raps.