Kendrick Lamar: The Conflicted Sometimes-Prophet

Kendrick Lamar

The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable
Preachers touching on boys run for cover, the paranoid
Rapists and murderers hurdle alleys
Valleys and high places turn into dust
Famous screaming in agony
Atheists for suicide, planes falling out the sky
Trains jumping off the track, mothers yelling “he’s alive”
Backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness
Evidence all around us the town is covered in fishes
– Kendrick Lamar, “untitled 01” from the album “untitled unmastered”

In a fascinating review of Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled unmastered,” Josiah Daniels refers to the album as a jeremiad—a long, mournful lamentation. Named after the prophet Jeremiah, Daniels saw Lamar’s work as an angst-y, woeful complaint (often directed at God) about the state of the world. It’s a fitting summary of the tone of Lamar’s work. He’s a man conflicted, immoral, obscene, sorrowful, repentant and angry. Lamar simultaneously sees himself as a poet prophet and as a miserable sinner unworthy of that calling.

On Lamar’s newest album Damn, which has been sitting pretty at the number one spot on the Billboard charts these last few weeks, a friend asks him for spiritual advice after his son has been murdered. Lamar’s response captures his spiritual state:

To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”

Lamar then goes on for several stanzas venting his anger at what he would do to someone who killed one of his loved ones, eventually turning his rage toward America as a country and the injustices that he believes created the inequality around him. This is the work of Kendrick Lamar, the conflicted sometimes-prophet.

It’s also the backdrop for understanding Lamar’s recent critique of the American church. In a recent email conversation with djbooth.net Lamar writes the following:

As a child, I always felt this Sermon had an emptiness about it. Kinda one sided, in what I felt in my heart. Fast forward. After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I’ve finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline. Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that’s close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected.

Conflating this idea with the concept of karma, Lamar suggested pastors don’t want to talk about the concept of sin and judgment because they don’t want to run their congregants off. It’s not difficult to see the correlation between this critique and Lamar’s music: When he looks at the world he sees unrepentant sin. In a way it’s reminiscent of the movie Se7en, which is ultimately about how any good person can exist in a world where “common, everyday sins” go unpunished.

How you feel about Lamar’s critique of the church will probably depend on your pre-existing theological bent; what’s more interesting is how Lamar’s angst at what he sees as a church and world that goes too light on sin stems from a depressive angst in his own soul. At the conclusion of the song starting off this article Lamar writes:

Crucifix, tell me you can fix
Anytime I need, I’mma start jotting everything in my diary
Never would you lie to me
Always camaraderie, I can see, our days been numbered
Revelation greatest as we hearing the last trumpet
All man, child, woman, life completely went in reverse
I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church

The more you listen to Lamar’s music, the more this tortured, guilty restlessness bleeds through. It’s easy to wonder if Lamar actually does need to hear more talk of sin and judgment, or whether he needs to be brought to a Savior who says his yoke is easy, and burden light.

Whatever you make of Lamar and his critical view of the church, you can’t deny his music is resonating with the broader culture that the church is trying to reach. Lamar joins others, like Chance the Rapper who wowed the audience at the Grammys earlier this year, who mix faith, rap and angst to make art that speaks to people.