600,000 units sold in its first week. A Platinum rating in less than a month. An extended tour attracting rave reviews. It will be no news to anyone that ‘DAMN.’, Kendrick Lamar’s latest offering, has been deemed the most successful album of 2017 so far. The album tour ended on September 2nd at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, after an extra fortnight of shows were added to satisfy the huge demand to see him perform live.
DAMN. has been successful for so many reasons – the lyrics, the beats, Kendrick’s flawless performance, and the complex narrative and themes tracing through its 14 tracks. One such theme is religion, with K-Dot addressing damnation, spirituality and all things biblical.
That’s not to say that religious imagery in rap is anything new. Coolio was referencing Psalm 23 twenty years ago in ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, and most of today’s mainstream rap artists have dabbled in theological references at some point. Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and Yeezus mention various interactions with God, J Cole’s ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (which features Lamar) is drenched in Adam-and-Eve imagery, and Jay Z’s ‘Lucifer’ includes more bible references than Pope Francis’ Twitter account.
Arguably, Kendrick’s albums provide a narrative for his religious attitudes. On ‘Faith’, from his 2009 Kendrick Lamar EP, we hear the lyrics, “I opened my Bible in search to be a Christian / And this from a person that never believed in religion”, before he loses his faith to the harsh realities of life in Compton, where “reality seems stronger than prayer”. His religion seems a product of Pascal’s Wager rather than anything soulful or inspired – he would “rather not live like there isn’t a God / Than die and find out there really is”. So we certainly have the foundations of a complex and hesitant attitude to faith.
One of the most striking results of combining rap and religion is the juxtaposition of the real world (and darker sides of rap culture) with the divine. This is summed up in ‘DUCKWORTH’, from DAMN., where we hear the lyric ‘Hail Mary and marijuana’, but ‘Kush & Corinthians’ from ‘Section 8.0’ can be seen as its forerunner:
As I open this book and then burn up some of this reefer
My plan is to figure out the world and escape all my demons
I’m dying inside, I wonder if Zion inside the heavens
A condom, a Rollie, pain, a fat blunt and a Mac-11
Few artists do as good a job of contrasting vice and virtue, as well as showing that they’re not mutually exclusive (“I’m a loser, I’m a winner / I’m good, I’m bad, I’m a Christian, I’m a sinner”). The whole album describes the struggle to become a ‘winner’ for someone caught in an immoral lifestyle, and documents Kendrick’s efforts to reconcile his religion with his reality.
This is explored further on his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, where he plays the part of a sinner longing for redemption, seeking God as an escape from his circumstances. The first sound of the album is a grainy recitation of a prayer, and the notion of apology is revisited on almost every song. The words “Lord forgive me” echo throughout ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’; it’s as though Kendrick wants to absolve himself despite being ‘a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again’, cursed by human nature and peer pressure.
To Pimp A Butterfly doesn’t quite stick to the same idea of a narrative, however. The tracklist swims through conversations with God, the Devil and everything in between, charting religious awe and a fear of damnation. In December 2015 Kendrick released ‘God Is Gangsta’, a video for two songs from the album: ‘u’ and ‘For Sale?’. The video depicts him battling uncontrollable anger in a display resembling something between possession and a visit from the Holy Spirit. Shot with intense, unsettling movements and lyric delivery, the video imparts a visceral fear that, “God himself will say, “You fuckin’ failed”” and that Kendrick will succumb to ‘Lucy’ (Lucifer) in a parody of Jesus’ desert temptation. Complex stuff, considering that the album was popular enough to reach number one in both the UK and US charts.
The real gem of the album is its eleventh track, ‘How Much A Dollar Cost?’ – cited by Barack Obama as his favourite song of 2015. In a parody of Matthew 25:45, Kendrick is damned for not giving a dollar to a homeless man, who reveals himself to be God: “I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost / The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss.” By the end of the album, he is far from a saint, but this hasn’t necessarily damaged his faith; as he raps on ‘i’, “I done been through a whole lot / Trial, tribulation, but I know God”. It’s almost as if he has handed himself into the hands of the divine with the ultimate belief that, “if God got us, then we gon’ be alright” (‘Alright’).
Kendrick’s music often toys with the idea of divine inspiration. On the first track from untitled unmastered he directs his words to God: “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you”. True to form, in an interview with COMPLEX before the release of To Pimp A Butterfly, he said that “God put something in my heart to get across and that’s what I’m going to focus on, using my voice as an instrument”. Is it blasphemous for godly inspiration to be linked to rap, and for Kendrick Lamar to present himself as a modern prophet? Either way, the idea of a modern-day deity certainly reflects the huge fan bases of Kendrick and his peers, which almost amounts to cultural worship.
Which brings us to DAMN. Like untitled unmastered before it, the album voices a lot of anger, evident even before you press play from the incisive and thematic one-word track titles, often biblical key-words. In a message written soon after the album’s release, Kendrick commented that “it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD… to tell you what will make Him extinguish you”. It’s the fear of revenge and past actions catching up with him that drives ‘DAMN.’ forwards; “ain’t nobody praying for me”, the lyric repeated throughout the album, reveals an anxiety so intense it’s almost pitiable.
Nowhere is that intensity as evident as ‘DNA’. In an insistent and lyrically violent track, the message of condemnation is hard-hitting and inspires reaction – according to Brent Bradley, “the first half of the song could burn down an entire neighbourhood; the second half makes you want to tear it down your damn self”. Kendrick reels between spiritual messages and talk of violence, immorality and hedonism, firstly referring to himself as “Yeshua’s new weapon” and the product of an “immaculate conception”, then showing us the discrepancy between this image and more unfavourable stereotypes of him and his culture. He may describe “sex, money, murder” as both his “faith” and a trait of that culture, but the important thing to remember is that the voice doesn’t always belong to him. As he says in ‘ELEMENT’, “Niggas thought that K-Dot’s real life / Was the same life they see on TV”, drawing attention to the distance between the way people perceive him and reality.
‘ELEMENT’ also helps to bridge the gap between the harshness of ‘DNA’ and the more introspective ‘FEEL’. We see themes of retribution again in the vow to “put the Bible down and go eye for an eye”, which at first seems biblically inspired, and then entirely unholy (since Kendrick is taking his revenge outside the confines of justice set out in the Bible). All in all it seems that he dreads God’s lex talionis much more than American state law, or other people’s ideas of morality. On ‘FEEL’, which sports a sparse beat coupled with a barrage of lyrics, we get apocalyptic imagery and the fear of “demons, monsters, false prophets scheming”. This is preaching from a Saul-turned-Paul figure – morally imperfect but looking at the light.
The chart-topper of the album was ‘HUMBLE’, accompanied by an iconic music video directed by Dave
Meyers. Featuring Kendrick dressed as the Pope (who knew he could pull off a cassock?) and a Last Supper tableau (he’s not the only one – think Stormzy), it shows us why the rich and often ironic imagery of religion is so common in popular culture. There’s something strangely appealing about the incongruity of Christian imagery backed by an insistent beat and sharp, syllabic rapping.
But once again, it’s not a contradiction but a complement. Take the next two tracks, ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’, arguably two opposing sides of the same coin. We drop from a raspy reversed-drum-loop track about desire and God (“I need some water” refers to a need for faith) to an easier, smoother song featuring Zacari’s Bieber-esque vocals.
Social commentary and political observation have long been a strength for Kendrick Lamar, and ‘XXX’ continues that tradition on the theme of police brutality, racism and America’s political situation. Backed by persistent police sirens, we are given rap’s version of an Ave Maria: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph / The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives”, accompanied by a lament about Trump and media discrimination. Maybe we are being desensitised to America’s many current political issues thanks to constant media coverage and pop culture references, but this track is a reminder of the fear and lives lost with every “murder on my street, your street, back streets”. It is a situation more than worthy of prayer.
And prayer we get. The voice of Kendrick’s cousin Carl Duckworth introduces ‘FEAR’, citing Deuteronomy 28.28, which gives the curses of disobedience and consequences for the damned – “madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart”. Hatred of suffering and playing the role of Job becomes the pedal note of the song, with the deep bass of ‘Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?’, sung by Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr., providing a lyrical foundation to the bridge. Kendrick also (somewhat controversially) calls on the notion of minority races doomed to suffer, with a voicemail outro stating that “the so- called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians, are the true children of Israel”. If we didn’t already have enough evidence, here is sure proof that Kendrick is seeking to link the biblical – and often unrelatable – with the issues of the day.
Let’s face it: God is far from a topic of mainstream millennial dialogue. The increasingly common linkage of rap to religion has probably brought Christianity back to the forefront of popular culture, though there’s debate over whether that’s a positive thing or not. California State University’s Dr Ebony Utley’s book Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God discusses the argument at length:
I think [rap songs] help show the ways in which humans are playing around with concepts of God. And how concepts of God change over time, space and place. We can see the types of weights that are given to constructs of God… in rap music, in particular.
In a way, fitting words into a space and firing them with rhythm and weight to send out a message describes preaching almost as well as rap or hiphop. It seems like as good a way as any to show grievances both to God and to the wider congregation of the public.
Back in 2004, Kanye West rapped on ‘Jesus Walks’: “if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”. Thirteen years later, and precisely the opposite is true. Maybe it’s a ploy to sell records. Maybe it’s just a statement – an ironic trend that will die out soon enough, like vinyl players or crushed velvet bodysuits. Or maybe it’s just modern religion.
Words by Annabelle Fuller