A funny thing happened to me last month while out in Los Angeles for work: I couldn't listen to the radio during a ten minute commute without hearing a song by Kendrick Lamar. I had heard the name thrown around by fellow hip-hop fans for a while - and suddenly I couldn't avoid hearing his music. When I mentioned the phenomenon to a friend out near Hollywood, he immediately took me on a drive to sample the album, insisting that I buy it as soon as humanly possible.
I came back to the East Coast, and again heard the Cali radio favorite of the young Compton MC - "Poetic Justice" - but this time, from teenagers running past me in the mall. The next day I heard another Lamar track, "Swimming Pools," on Z100; and later, while watching Jimmy Kimmel, Lamar appeared again - this time, on stage, in front of a crowd glowing with iPhones, every person paradoxically one step removed from the event to confirm their presence there. (Walker Percy's essay "The Loss of the Creature" came to mind.)
If Andy Warhol was right that, in this odd future, everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame, then one thing is obvious: this is Kendrick Lamar's time to shine. And after listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city, I don't think the acclaim and fascination is at all unfounded. In fact, Lamar's album has a remarkable cohesion - even in its more calloused, dull moments - grounded in the thirst for righteousness and truth.
Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. I believe you raised him from the dead. I would ask that Jesus come in my life and be my Lord and savior. I receive Jesus to take control of my life, and that I may live for him from this day forth. Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus' name, Amen.
So begins "a short film by Kendrick Lamar" - and given the lasciviousness of the track that follows it, and the comical voicemails that follow that, this audio clip of a group of young men undergoing a conversion experience seems strange. It becomes obvious very quickly that this isn't a prudish Christian album - far from it. So is this prologue an irony, a joke? A mockery of faith? Or a fascination, some kind of sign?
The Karamazov-like oscillation between sensual self-absorption and religious sensibility continues: "I am a sinner," Lamar sings on the second track, "who's probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, things I don't understand." In comes the belittling chorus, which obliterates any piety - "my vibe," a drunkenness of music and spirits, becomes the focus of Kendrick's young mind.
This youthful brashness and auto-pilot auto-affection plays out in predictable (and lyrically and instrumentally less interesting) tracks like "Backseat Freestyle," "Money Trees," and "Compton." But on two stand-out tracks, "The Art of Peer Pressure" and "Good Kid," a transformation happens.
Suddenly - and it's a subtle turn that younger listeners might miss - there's a shift in the center of gravity. The wild aimlessness of these other tracks (the songs kids are more likely to gravitate to and quote) are suddenly embedded on a wider horizon that can only be described as moral. Rolling Stone, in its list of the greatest debut albums of all time, writes that "Lamar sets spiritual yearnings and moral dilemmas against a stark backdrop of gang violence and police brutality." But my experience of the album was the opposite: the gang violence and police brutality are in the foreground, against a stark backdrop of spiritual (I would say religious) yearning and moral questioning which hangs above and beyond it, hazier and smaller but higher, like stars punctuating the night.
The music gets better too - the lyrics and beats both - and I don't think that's any accident. A galvanized and lyrically deft Lamar looks back on his drug-free and non-violent past, and suddenly notices that this is all goes out the window under the influence of friends, who convince him to indulge in "bad intentions" - to drink, smoke, prowl, and scuffle.
Bragging bout the episode we just had
A shot of Hennessy didn't make me feel that bad
I'm usually a true firm believer of bad karma
Consequences from evil will make your past haunt ya
We tryna conquer the city with disobedience...
This is the art of peer pressure
Me and the homies
The stakes get even higher on "Good Kid" (produced by Pharrell), which paints the romanticism of thug life with colors of despair, self-deception, and the loss of innocence:
No better picture to paint than me walking from bible study
And called his homies because he had said he noticed my face
From a function that tooken place
They was wondering if I bang
Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks
I don't mind because one day you respect
The good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Mass hallucination baby
Ill education baby
Want to reconnect with your elations
This is your station baby
This is where an album becomes so important in an age of the downloadable single. As a stand-alone single, the next track "m.A.A.d City" looks one way: straight-forward radio braggadocio. But as the follow-up to "Good Kid," it looks very different, and has that sense of self-destruction hounding it. Its hollow, violent lines, when seen in light of the last track, are just another face of a mass hallucination, of ill education.
Likewise, the radio hit "Swimming Pools" about drinking yourself into oblivion - although dark in tone, and peppered with a high-pitched Kendrick's-conscience voice - is relatively straightforward when taken as a stand-alone song. It's the kind of track that will blast at college keg parties everywhere. But on the next song, Lamar connects the over-abundance of liquor to desert dryness; and it's on "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" that things really get interesting:
I woke up this morning and figured I'd call you
In case I'm not here tomorrow
I'm hoping that I can borrow a piece of mind
I'm behind on what's really important
My mind is really distorted
I find nothing but trouble in my life...
Sometimes I look in a mirror and ask myself
Am I really scared of passing away
If it's today I hope I hear a
Cry out from heaven so loud it can water down a demon
With the holy ghost till it drown in the blood of Jesus...
Tired of running, tired of hunting
My own kind
But retiring nothing...
Dying of thirst...
What are we doing?
Who are we fooling?
Hell is hot, fire is proven
To burn for eternity, return of the student...
It's not just that the cooler jazz track allows Kendrick to shine as the impressive MC he is; the content gets more fascinating too. Reflections on mortality are wrapped up in verbal deaths: a final thought of a 16-bar verse - "and if I die before your album drop, I hope..." - is cut to silence by three quick gun shots; the confidence that this rapper is immortal, that he will "never fade away," is literally faded away; finitude is looming through this track, and a harsh light is shined on the futility of earthly pursuits. The "next crave" is just a "next grave," and the person who desperately craves is revealed to be who he is: someone dying slowly of thirst.
The stunning outro harkens back to the album's prologue:
Young man: I'm tired of this shit, I'm tired of fucking running! I'm tired of this shit...my brother homie...
Older woman: Young man, come talk to me. Is that what I think that is? I know that's not what I think that is. Why are you so angry? See, you young men are dying of thirst. Do you know what that means? That means you need water, holy water. You need to be baptized with the spirit of the Lord. Do you want to receive God as your personal savior?
Then we hear the opening words of the album, repeated here as a call-and-response rather than a monologue.
This was all really interesting to me, and as usual, put me on the search to see what the artist had to say for himself.
In one interview, Lamar puts his religious perspective in this way:
I wouldn't say I'm the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I'm trying to find answers. That's the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I'm] not a person that's putting it in your head — 'believe this, believe this, believe this.' I'm going through something, I'm a sinner and I'm trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who's really confused by what the world has put upon him.
Lamar's take on God is clearly more nuanced and complex than most preachy hip-hop (and maybe even more evangelically effective to his audience). In the article "What Kendrick Lamar Can Teach Christian Hip Hop," Julian Deshazier explains:
It's this clear tension that he's battling with - these voices inside his head, these incoherent gravitational pulls - that make his album both brilliant and beautiful. In the common Soundtracks to Ignorance we hear, "DO THIS" (get drunk, take your clothes off, get money, etc.). In the Soundtracks to Jesus (CHH) we hear…wait for it…"DO THIS" (love God, get saved, don't sin, hang out with other Christians). What Kendrick does is less didactic and more confessional…"I DO THIS." And he's clearly not glorifying what he's doing, nor is he absent from the fact that some of this is plainly WRONG (hear: "The Art of Peer Pressure"). He's just living, and folks who connect with his way of life will love him forever.
What Lamar does is not only less didactic - I would say it's also less dialectical, less "either/or." A dialectical imagination (and there are lots of these in "Christian art") dramatically separates the saved from the sinners, Christianity from other religions, the soul from the body, faith from reason, God from his world, and moral maxims from moral anguish. What Lamar gives us is a more analogical imagination, which draws connections among the diversity of human experience, and is open to the possibility of ordinary things being sacred things.
More than that, the appearance of Christian conversion in Lamar's album - which is definitely of the evangelical, born-again variety - is not like a theological or political entity for dissection, but more like a sign of divine action, operating far above even our best attempts at talking about it. It's not a religious statement, rubbed in our face as something to believe; but it's not dismissed as insignificant either. It's something given, something to see.
Conversion arises in Kendrick's Compton as what the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion calls a "saturated phenomenon" - a unique event that reveals itself and overwhelms us before we can box it in and make it the ego's object, or even make any sense of it at all. The intrusive talk about a God of mercy and peace in a world of street justice and violence is "saturated" with significance; and even though Lamar clearly doesn't buy into the evangelical program it's filtered through, it calls to his mind (and his lyrics) a holy world reaching out and mingling with ours, and moral truths that good kids in mad cities everywhere block out, thirsty for peace.