Kendrick Lamar, Public Theologian

By Reklis, Kathryn | The Christian Century, May 23, 2018 | Go to article overview

Kendrick Lamar, Public Theologian


Reklis, Kathryn, The Christian Century


If you didn't know Kendrick Lamar before, you probably heard the news in April that his most recent album, Damn, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the first hip-hop album--indeed the first album outside the classical and jazz traditions--to win the prize. The Pulitzer committee praised Lamar's virtuosic skills as a composer. His work draws on musical traditions as diverse as jazz, Afro-futurism, soul, classical instrumentalists, and gospel, as well as hip-hop and R&B.

But Lamar's compositional genius can't be separated from the force of his lyrics. Indeed, it is the aesthetic blending of sound and word (not just the voice as sound) that defines rap as a genre. I could live in Lamar's lyrics for a very long time and not exhaust their complexity.

Theological themes permeate all his work, but the full range of his theological power unfolds in his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Over 16 tracks, he tells his story of growing up in poverty, rising to fame, wrestling with the temptations of wealth and power, and trying to use his influence for good.

Lamar opens the album with an indictment of consumer capitalism as a way of crippling real economic power. The character Uncle Sam, who appears throughout the album to stand in for American white supremacy and American capitalism, tempts the protagonist Kendrick: "What you want? A house or a car? / Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar? / Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam on your dollar / Motherfucker you can live at the mall."

In the very next track, "For Free? (Interlude)," Lamar makes it clear that the unpaid labor of enslaved black people created the wealth that is now denied to most ("Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich"). Those who achieve wealth through fame are expected to be grateful and spend their money instead of using it to achieve the kind of power that can build social institutions and politics ("I need forty acres and a mule / Not a forty ounce and a pitbull").

Lamar turns seamlessly from economics to theology as the album progresses. Uncle Sam becomes conflated with the character Lucy in the song "For Sale? (Interlude)." Like Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, Lucy comes to Kendrick with promises of wealth and security in exchange for Kendrick's loyalty and worship ("Lucy gone fill your pockets / Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton / Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised / Lucy just want your trust and loyalty"). Wealth is the key to power in a white supremacist society, but it is also a ruse to enslave Kendrick in empty consumerism and potentially put him on the path to spiritual damnation. The question of whether America can be spiritually redeemed is tied to the question of Kendrick's personal redemption.

Whether or not the redemption he seeks is real or even possible is the issue that shapes Damn (the title is stylized as DAMN, on the album). The title is less an exclamation than a verb. …

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