Kendrick Lamar’s deeply intimate writing communicates both personal and universal elements of faith.
With the 2017 release of his fourth studio album Damn, Kendrick Lamar sent ripples across not only the hip hop community but the entire music sphere. Scores of music blogs and publications dived headfirst into this richly lyricized, darkly complex work that was following one of Lamar’s most acclaimed works, To Pimp a Butterfly. One of these voices was DJBooth.net, where one of its many thought pieces on the provocative album was titled: “Praise & Questions: How Kendrick & Chance Talk to God in Different Ways” (linked here). In it, writer Miguelito analyzed the contrast between two of the industry’s most openly religious artists: how Chance the Rapper adopts a praise-heavy approach to referencing God in Coloring Book while Kendrick travels the path of questioning and doubt in Damn. To the surprise of perhaps everyone at DJBooth.net, Lamar himself responded to the article in a private letter, which he gave the site permission to post, expressing his agreement with the points made and providing some additional context regarding how he sought to express his faith in his music.
In this response (linked here), Kendrick made one very clear point: “So in conclusion, I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”
As Miguelito wrote in his original article, Kendrick and Chance’s approach to God are two sides of the same coin, reflecting the duality of God’s nature. By understanding God’s abhorrence of sin are we able to understand the great love and sacrifice required in His plan for our redemption and the joy found in Him. Kendrick’s fixation on the justice of the Lord combined with the injustice of systemic racism, having been brought into the national spotlight with the Black Lives Matter movement, provides a backdrop to his most recent works. In an interview, Kendrick Lamar said this regarding his two latest albums: “To Pimp a Butterfly would be the idea of, the thought of changing the world…Damn would be the idea, ‘I can‘t change the world until I change myself.’ ”
Released during Barack Obama’s historic presidency, TPAB delves deeply into difficult political issues affecting the African American community, but it maintains a theme of black empowerment through its celebration of black music tradition and extensive involvement of featured black artists. In contrast, Damn was released one year into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, and it adopts a darker theme that begins at the album cover: a seemingly possessed, solitary Kendrick Lamar staring into the camera, a clear distinction from the multitudinous crowd of joyous individuals that join the rapper on the cover of TPAB. With a shift away from community and into introspection, Damn also communicates Kendrick’s feelings of being torn between lives of godliness and of sin. My focus today is on Kendrick’s roots of faith that led him to this point of tension. As you will see, his questioning of God and His plans has been a theme of his music since the very start; the topics he grapples with in Damn are a continuation of a life of doubt, rather than a recent development. I want to highlight two songs as examples of how the rapper has addressed his own faith in his pursuit of sharing both the joy and the fear of God.
Faith Is a Gift
The first song comes from Lamar’s sophomore album, the critically lauded Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a nonlinear narrative primarily told through each song’s outro. It details the rapper’s personal experience living in the system he’d later scrutinize as a whole in TPAB and Damn. One of the last songs on the album, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a two-part tale that spans over twelve minutes. It’s a story that introduces us to the genesis of Kendrick’s faith, which is born out of a dense pool of complex emotions such as guilt, rage, and chaos. Hailed as one of the greatest instances of lyrical self-reflection and storytelling, the song’s first part “Sing About Me” adopts the personas of two of Kendrick’s acquaintances, depicting how their own struggles challenge his identity. The second part, “I’m Dying of Thirst” is a keenly introspective look into the rapper’s sense of self, ultimately leading to a reconciliation with God. Kendrick Lamar commented that this song took over a year to write, and each half utilizes different producers and even features separate music videos. To me, this reinforces the duality of Kendrick’s identity, partly borne by guilt and part by faith.
“Sing About Me” is comprised of three verses delivered from three different perspectives, all delivered in Kendrick’s voice. After opening with the chorus — a request for Kendrick to “sing about me” — the first speaker is introduced. He is the brother of Kendrick’s friend Dave, calling Kendrick the day after Dave was murdered (which is depicted in the outro to the track “Swimming Pools (Drank)”.) He shows a sincere appreciation for how Kendrick was there for Dave when he was killed:
“I know exactly what happened
You ran outside when you heard my brother cry for help
Held him like a newborn baby and made him feel
Like everything was alright in a fight he tried to put up”
Despite this, he has consigned himself to a path of vengeance, telling Kendrick:
“My plan’s rather vindictive
Everybody’s a victim in my eyes
When I ride it’s a murderous rhythm
And outside became pitch black
A demon glued to my back, whispering ‘Get ‘em!’ “
Finally, he briefly ponders the futility of a life dominated by senseless gang violence, where death is as spontaneous as the gunshot sound that cuts of the verse — implying that Dave’s brother has met a similar fate before he could escape the cycle of violence. The chorus returns, and in light of the previous verse we can see that Kendrick feels it is his burden to “sing about” those like Dave and his brother for whom “the lights shut off”.
Verse two is told from another sibling, this time the sister of a girl named Keisha, whom Kendrick rapped about on his debut album Section.80. In “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” Kendrick followed in the footsteps of his inspiration 2Pac to write a track reminiscent of “Brenda’s Got a Baby” detailing the tragic life of Keisha, a young prostitute whose only escape from the cycle comes when she is murdered by a client. In that song, Lamar expressed in the bridge that he wrote the song as something of a cautionary tale for his younger sister. Here, Keisha’s sister lashes out at Kendrick for putting Keisha on blast, criticizing him for judging her. She proudly tells him that she too has become a prostitute, refusing to be treated as a woman lost in the system like how Kendrick portrayed Keisha. Just as Dave’s brother’s verse was cut short by the gunshot symbolizing urban violence, Keisha’s sister’s verse ends with her voice fading away, even as she parrots,
“I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I know my fate.”
Lamar’s inclusion of this scathing indictment is a transparent look into how he wrestles with what he considers his calling: to tell the stories of the inner-city toil in hopes of breaking the cycles of poverty and violence.
It’s this grappling with whether he is doing the right thing or going about it the right way that comprises the third and final verse of this first part, delivered finally from Kendrick’s own perspective. Addressing the two siblings, he raps:
“And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me
And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me
In a direction to speak on somethin’
That’s realer than the TV screen”
Before the final chorus, he looks inward with a final question regarding his vocation:
“I count lives, all on these songs
Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fightin’ for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?”
With those haunting questions on our minds, we pass through the final chorus and into part two: “I’m Dying of Thirst.”
I read an NPR article (linked here) comparing Kendrick to the prophets of the Old Testament, who wrote in allegory to deliver difficult messages of destruction and reconstruction. Lamar also writes in allegory, utilizing here one of the most common biblical illustrations: water and thirst. The prophet Amos, to whom God described Israel’s downfall, describes that day by saying:
“In that day the lovely virgins and the young men shall faint for thirst” (8:13)
The outro of “Sing About Me,” in which Kendrick’s friends try to express themselves directly after Dave’s murder, is emotionally charged with the burning desire for revenge, and it serves as the intro for “Dying of Thirst.” The fire that charges Kendrick and his friends complements the theme of thirst, and it presents the emotional climax for the ongoing narrative that Kendrick has been narrating throughout the album. The thirst described in the song, which takes place as Kendrick and his friends drive around seeking retribution, is both physical and spiritual. In verse three, Kendrick raps:
“The reaper callin’, I’m cottonmouth”
Besides being a double entendre referring to both the farm tool that harvests crops (such as cotton, the icon of American chattel slavery) and the Grim Reaper, this line serves as vivid imagery of the rapper’s own mouth, which has dried up out of fear for the death that lurks around the corner. Regarding the spiritual thirst, he raps:
“How many sins? I’m runnin’ out
How many sins? I lost count”
“What are we doin’? Who are we foolin’?
Hell is hot, fire is proven
To burn for eternity, return of the student
That never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it”
Here, Kendrick reflects the sentiment of Dave’s brother, that there may be futility in the cycle of violence, which places an unwanted timer on the lives of Lamar and his friends. It leaves the listener joining Kendrick in wondering if his own pondering will be cut short like Dave’s brother was, wondering if his time has run out and his sins have surpassed the limit. His desperation peaks in the final verse:
“Too many sins, I’m runnin’ out
Somebody send me a well for the drought”
It’s an allusion to John 4, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, telling her:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (4:10).”
The verse ends with the desperation of the situation pushing Kendrick to remember his mother’s words regarding the living water mentioned by Jesus:
“My momma say ‘See, a pastor give me a promise
What if today was the rapture and you completely tarnished?
The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest
You dyin’ of thirst, you dyin’ of thirst
So hop in that water, and pray that it works.’”
So begins the outro to finish off this intense journey of realization through burning pain. The famed poet Maya Angelou lent her voice to the stranger who notices that Kendrick and his friends are “dying of thirst,” before leading them in a prayer of repentance.
This cathartic tale of how Kendrick discovers healing water amid deep pain and emotional turmoil pairs with part one, “Sing About Me”, to paint a vivid picture of life without Christ. It’s a life that is governed by hopelessness, vindication, and misdirection. It’s characterized by the desperate pursuit of revenge by Dave’s brother and the delusion of Keisha’s sister, all of which have an impact on Kendrick as he determines his own life. The lives of these individuals parallel that of the Samaritan woman at the well, who lives not only a life of sin as a prostitute but also ostracism by her community. Just like with Kendrick, it is in this dark station in life that Jesus extends not a temporary relief but an eternal water that quenches thirst forever. The stories Kendrick tells in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” exemplify a crucial quality of God’s love: that it not only bypasses one’s past sins, but it overcomes and washes them away.
Faith Is a Challenge
Having established the crucible in which Kendrick found God, we explore through this next song one of the most persistent, key characteristics of faith: that it is difficult to keep. Each verse of “Faith” portrays the central struggle in various ways. Rewinding a bit from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, this song comes from Kendrick’s eponymous debut EP in 2011 with Top Dawg Entertainment. In the first verse, Kendrick describes the life-changing moment when he asks God his purpose, to hear him respond:
“He said to live the way he did, that’s all he want from me
Spread the word and witness.”
Filled with faith, Kendrick goes on to say:
“I can’t help but give in
I’m giving testimonies to strangers I never met”
only for the verse to end like this:
“Walked out the church, then got a call that my homie was murdered
Then lost my faith again.”
Without missing a beat, the chorus begins, sung by BJ the Chicago Kid. The abruptness with which the verse ends communicates both the brutal spontaneity of violence that Kendrick grew up around as well as the ever-present danger of losing our faith. In verse two, Kendrick describes a single mother who not only battles an exploitative baby daddy and poverty but also the temptation to commit credit card scams to make ends meet. Like Kendrick at the beginning of the previous verse, she is a faithful mother, praying to God every night hoping that her children’s father would mature, for a better way to escape their daily toil. However, like Kendrick, her faith is lost when life comes too hard:
“Looked to the heavens and asked Him to make a better way
Then got a letter in the mail, lost her Section 8
Then lost her faith again”
Verse three features fellow TDE label-mate Punch rapping about the ruthlessness of the city and how it constantly pulls one away from their faith, utilizing an extended metaphor comparing the city to a jungle filled with vicious predators and scavengers. His final resolution to endeavor in keeping the faith despite everything leads into Kendrick’s last verse, a vulnerable reiteration of the core theme. He directly addresses those who face an assault on their faith because of suffering, first acknowledging how taxing it can be to trust in the invisible while tragedy happens in front of your eyes:
“But whenever there’s pain, that feeling forever remains
We can’t believe what we can’t see and reality seems stronger than prayer
Cause you tried to change your life, and now you live in a wheelchair
And your son was born with cancer and he live in urgent care”
Then, he confesses that he himself often struggles with feelings as though his faith is inadequate, especially when compared to those around him:
“I watched people I know pray and catch the Holy Ghost
And wonder why I ain’t ever caught that feeling before
Maybe they know Him better, or I don’t know no better”
Finally, he offers a final piece of encouragement to his fellow doubters:
“But what I do know, is that He’s real and He lives forever
So the next time you feel like your world’s about to end
I hope you studied because He’s testing your faith again”
The question of why God allows so much suffering in the world is one that has challenged Christians since the beginning. C.S. Lewis addressed it in one of his most well-known works, The Problem of Pain, writing, “When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” While the answer to the question of hardship itself may perpetually elude us, it is the type of acknowledgement and empathy that Kendrick presents in “Faith” that we can tangibly grasp in the chaos of life in a broken society. Far too many Christians have been swindled by the false promise of an easy and painless life, and the first step in reconciling all that unresolved heartache is the admittance that God’s plan can be difficult to discern in how it shapes us. Paul writes in Hebrews:
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (12:11).”
It can sometimes feel like a herculean task to interpret our suffering as fruit-bearing discipline, but it is a process rather than a single decision. Part of that process is being vulnerable in expressing our moments of doubt, with trust that our brothers and sisters, and ultimately God Himself, will lift us up in that toil. In the Gospel of Mark, the father of an epileptic son first approaches the disciples for healing before Jesus himself. When he finally approaches Jesus, this is what Mark writes:
“‘But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ 23 And Jesus said to him, ‘ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”’
To conclude, we observe two qualities Kendrick Lamar’s faith through these two songs: that faith is a free yet priceless gift for all, regardless of their previous life, and that faith is something we must endeavor to maintain. While the music of Lamar will likely never be heard during a Sunday Service, I believe it’s crucial for Christians to be reminded of the points that he makes. Where typical worship music rightly focuses on subjects like God’s boundless providence, His unpassable power, and the invaluable sacrifice of His Son, we just as much need to be reminded of how Christ daily extends grace to us in our darkest, most sinful hours. We cannot be allowed to forget that this Christian life is one that expects suffering, with full knowledge that we have been promised an infinitely greater inheritance in heaven. By acknowledging these truths, we grasp just two steps in this lifelong journey of faith.