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“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again”

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough album, good kid m.A.A.d. city, is a conversion narrative, tracing the moral journey of a young Kendrick through vice, violence, and grace. I don’t mean that the album is just redemptive or that one can interpret it as a conversion narrative if one tries hard enough. It is simply and unapologetically a conversion narrative. The album begins and ends with a recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer in this completely unironic voice. The main character of the concept album listens to the reprimand of an older black woman who tells him that he needs “living water.” Living water isn’t some metaphor for self-confidence or education or the right kind of political activism. She’s talking about the life-and-existence changing baptismal waters of Christ and His finished work on the cross. Interrupting the anger and frustration of a young black man bent on getting revenge for the earlier murder of his friend, her voice represents generations of African Americans living under white supremacy, generational poverty, cycles of violence and hopelessness that have survived because of their faith. She’s an avatar of the black church stepping in where no one else dares to. The protagonist listens, laying down his gun and the promise of vengeance in order to find holy water in Christ. Subverting listeners’ expectations, this 2012, platinum-selling, critically acclaimed rap album is about the power of the gospel to save. That is the kind of artist Kendrick Lamar is.

GKMC as a whole is the story of a fateful but typical day in the life of a kid (“K.Dot”) in Compton California. Born and raised in Compton, Kendrick Lamar used to go by the stage name K.Dot, but as his career began to take off he reverted to his given name because he wanted to present himself as a real person rather than rap image. ‘The subtitle of the album is “A short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and it begins with the sound of a reel-to-reel projector warming up and ends with it winding down. Some of the songs are events narrated by K.Dot (“Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”); others are thematically related to the album’s plot, but do not directly extend the story (“Swimming Pools”); still others are performed by the protagonist during the story (“Backseat Freestyle”). This has made interpreting individual songs on GKMC difficult, particularly the singles pulled from the context of the rest of the album.

Take the popular single, “Backseat Freestyle.” A repetitive but hype beat plays while Kendrick raps in a pseudo-braggadocio style. It’s hard not to love this song and to memorize its chorus: “All my life I want money and power. / Respect my mind or die from lead shower. / I pray my d*** get big as the Eiffel Tower, so I can f*** the world for seventy-two hours.” Even Taylor Swift has the song memorized and uses it to build confidence. I don’t blame her. It’s a fun song. But it’s also subversive. What listeners might take as Kendrick Lamar freestyling is actually Kendrick Lamar playing the part of “K.Dot” freestyling. It both is and isn’t Kendrick Lamar, in that sense. The lyrics and voices Lamar uses tip off careful listeners that this is a parody of sorts. For example, the chorus is an absurdist juxtaposition of directly stated desires (“I want money and power”) and grotesquely exaggerated imagery (the Eiffel Tower).

Kendrick isn’t exactly parodying the worst excesses of rap in “Backseat Freestyle.” It’s a bit more complicated than that, because he’s really parodying a younger version of himself. Imagine finding a picture of yourself from high school or a poem you wrote years ago. You feel embarrassed by your immaturity, but you can’t quite reject that version of yourself. There’s still something endearing about it.

That conflicted feeling describes “Backseat Freestyle” and a lot of GKMC. Kendrick reveals tensions within his community with a critical but loving vision, without objectifying or distancing himself from these tensions. The song begins and ends with the words, “Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream. Kendrick have a dream,” emphasizing the distance between the model of character and racial harmony promoted by MLK Jr and the materialist ego-dream of the young Kendrick. The comparison invites a sympathetic criticism of K.Dot’s values.

“Swimming Pool (Drank)” is another easily misunderstood song that displays the way Kendrick lovingly subverts his subjects. It is a fun party anthem featuring a catchy chorus sung by Lamar. It’s not hard to imagine the song playing well in a club, except that the song is about the seductive, destructive power of alcohol—hardly a popular theme in the club. As with “Backseat Freestyle,” a literal/absurdist juxtaposition in the chorus hints at Kendrick’s criticism: “Why you babysitting only two or three shots? I’mma show you how to turn it up a notch. First you hit a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in it, pool full of liquor then you dive in it.” Kendrick describes a desire not just for sex and alcohol, but for a kind of transcendent transgression through them—Sex and alcohol of vast proportions. Yet Kendrick will move on to an even greater transcendence.

The culmination of GKMC comes during an interlude at the end of the hit single, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” in which one of K.Dot’s friends is shot. Most remarkable about this death is its banality. His friend is shot while they try to get revenge for an episode in which K.Dot was beat up. The purposelessness of the cycle of revenge is brought home by the trivial, youthful dialogue between K.Dot and his friends as they drive around the City of Compton before the shooting. In the “skits” that bumper the songs on GKMC, the friends tease each other, freestyle, drink, and laugh. It all feels very normal. Kendrick draws us into the playful, personal world of these teens and shows us both how tragic and how common the violence they witness is.

The focus on the senseless tragedy of gang violence on GKMC gives lie to the conservative canard that the black community doesn’t care about “black on black violence.” The crisis at the heart of one of the most critically and popularly acclaimed hip-hop albums of this decade is black on black violence, so to criticize the black community for not caring about violence committed by blacks betrays a profound ignorance of and unwillingness to understand the black community. Maybe one way to correct this ignorance is to listen to one of the community’s greatest contemporary artists.

This album isn’t poverty tourism set to beats, however. Kendrick quite simply isn’t concerned about enlightening white folks about the plight of black America. That’s not his job. Instead, he is doing what any good artist does. He is accurately, suggestively, and beautifully depicting the world he knows in such a way as to draw the listener into the world, giving listeners an opportunity to learn and empathize, if we choose to have ears to hear.

“King Kendrick Lamar”

Kendrick is not a safe artist, not by a long shot. He’s profane and coarse. But he is good.

A rapper’s signature is his or her voice, and all the greats have distinct voices: Biggie Smalls’s low, booming, voice and lazy delivery; Jay-Z’s thick voice; Eminem’s thin, high, voice and rapid delivery. But Kendrick’s music is multi-vocal. In some songs it’s thin and raspy, in others he sounds drunk, in still others it is smooth and laidback. If you listen to him enough, you’ll recognize his “normal” voice, but it’s not iconic in the way other rap greats’ voices are. What makes his voice distinct is the way he manipulates it to fit the tone and narrative of a song. This has sparked some criticism by those who wish Kendrick would just rap “normal,” especially on his latest album, but really that’s a basic misunderstanding of what Kendrick is doing. Kendrick isn’t concerned with building a brand around a monolithic image of Kendrick Lamar, with signature vocal stylings, fashion, and public relationships with famous women (he has worked hard to keep his fiancée out of the spotlight). His priorities are elsewhere. He wants to preach.

In an insightful New York Times interview, Kendrick explained the motive for his music: “For many fans, I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have,” Mr. Lamar, 27, said from the couch of a Santa Monica studio where he recorded much of the new album. “I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music.” However, he added: “My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.”

The conversion narrative which frames GKMC is based on his own conversion, when he was “saved as a teenager in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less . . . when the grandmother of a friend approached him after a tragedy, asking if he had accepted God.” And recently, Lamar was baptized by his bishop in California. Aside from these clues to his religious practice, we know very little about Kendrick’s theology or denomination, which isn’t particularly surprising, given his reticence to speak about his personal life outside of his lyrics.

At 5’6”, Kendrick is not an imposing figure. He’s the kind of introvert you can spot right away, and I get the impression that he’d be perfectly happy not talking to people, at least interviewers. He has a round, youthful face and dresses simply. Plain t-shirts, jeans, and a clean pair of Reeboks. Whenever he is directly asked about the meaning of his lyrics, Lamar hedges, offering only vague, fairly obvious interpretations, followed by a warning that there’s clearly more layers of meaning, but he won’t explain those. You can tell he’s a little uncomfortable being the focus of people’s attention when he’s not performing. He sits there slouched, hunched over, usually wearing a curved ball cap pulled low, as if to cover his eyes.

Performing Kendrick Lamar is a different man entirely. He electrified SNL last year with a performance of “i,” the first single off To Pimp a Butterfly. His delivery is fiery and absorbing, the kind of passionate rapping that is less of a performance than an instancing of a song. The best musical performances are the ones where the artists lose their self-consciousness in creating the music. The posturing and branding gives way to an overwhelming desire to communicate so that someone understands and learns. Kendrick’s enthusiastic performance comes out of his devotion to the artistry of music, which he repeatedly cites as one of the reasons he was able to survive the violent streets of Compton. Rapping became the positive outlet for Kendrick. And when he goes on stage, he becomes rapping.

“Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar”

One way or another, stardom destroys most of the people who achieve it. This is a cliché, one that is as old as Hollywood and the music industry, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Imagine the disorientation that comes with becoming the one thing our whole culture looks at as the ideal. In the 21st century, self-actualization validated by widespread affirmation is the closest thing we have to divinity. Fame makes the same offer as the serpent, “you will become like gods.” Only, no one can bear the weight of godhood. It gets to you. Even if no one else catches on, you know that you are a fraud. At some point you have to buy into your own superiority or you’ll crack. Kendrick’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly is all about this choice. He oscillates between an identity crisis and the seduction of fame. In the end Kendrick chooses to embrace his status as a role model, but he does so by grounding himself in God, his family, and his community.

To Pimp a Butterfly is not just the story of a star learning to accept his newfound fame without losing his roots. Kendrick uses this sophomore album trope to explore a much larger and more subversive narrative. It is the story of black labor and capital and the ideals of success and wealth fostered by an American culture that preys on black people.

The first track is a funky but relatively tame song called “Wesley’s Theory.” Rap Genius claims that the title is a reference to Wesley Snipe’s imprisonment over tax evasion, which the actor blamed on the fact that no one taught him how to take care of money. The song sets the theme of the album: the relationship between black labor and white American control of that labor as seen through the specific relationship between rappers and the music industry. A chant serves as the song’s chorus, and even though I heard it correctly the first time, I initially worried that I was hearing wrong because it was so alarming: “We should never gave, we should never gave n****** money, go back home, money go back home.” As Rap Genius notes, this line is a reference to a Dave Chappelle skit on his short-lived Comedy Central show. The line echoes the racist belief that black people were better off under slavery. Given freedom, black people will only embarrass themselves and those who empowered them. Slavery, on the other hand, provided the security and guidance of white people. This same racist belief appears today when we judge black kids for having expensive shoes while living in poverty. Or when we begrudge people on food stamps for buying nice food. It’s this nagging feeling that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let these black people achieve these things, because they only make a fool of themselves and waste our good will. Questioning black people’s use of money, and therefore their freedom, is one of America’s favorite pastimes, and Kendrick won’t let us forget it.

The second song on TPAB, “For Free? (Interlude),” begins with a black woman’s voice dissing Kendrick for being broke while acting big, for being as she calls it “an off-brand n*****.” Kendrick opens with a refrain, “This d*** aint freeeeee.” At first listen, this line seems to confirm that the song is about greedy black women taking advantage of Kendrick, but it quickly becomes clear that this sexual relationship is an allegory for the rapper’s relationship to the music industry: “You looking at me like it ain’t a receipt / like I never made end’s meet, eatin’ your left overs and raw meat.” Kendrick plays with a standard hip-hop analogy between hip-hop and women, but he goes further: “I need forty acres and a mule / Not a forty ounce and a pit bull.” What he needs is the mythical reparations of “forty acres and a mule” that slaves were promised after emancipation, not the negative stereotype of a thug rapper drinking a forty-ounce of malt liquor and holding a pit bull on a leash. This point is driven home abruptly in the final line: “Oh, America, you bad b***. I picked the cotton and made you rich. Now my d*** ain’t free.”

The stereotype of the angry and entitled black woman from the introduction turns out to represent “America,” and the narrator is not Kendrick, but black Americans. Chillingly, the song gives “America,” the “bad b*tch,” the last word, “I’mma get my Uncle Sam to f*** you up. You ain’t no king.” The very stereotypes used against black people, and particularly black women, are ascribed to an America, so that the country is guilty of being arrogant, loud, foul-mouthed, entitled, and gold-digging in its treatment of black people.

But “You ain’t no king” isn’t the final word, because the next song is “King Kunta,” a deep funk groove over which Lamar proclaims himself King Kunta, a reference to Kunta Kinte, a character in the 1970s miniseries Roots who has his foot cut off for trying to escape slavery. Lamar raps, “King Kunta, everyone wanna cut the legs off him. Kunta, black man taking no losses, oh yeah.” He sees himself as a different Kunta Kinte, one who is able to accept his kingship, to take control over his own labor and its profits, even though there are those who still want to cripple and regain dominion over him. It is mistaken to interpret “King Kunta” as prideful boasting. Rather, like the rest of TPAB, it is a proclamation that he will take on the mantle of personhood, demanding his rights, and earning his success—a celebration of black excellence.

“This is more than confession”

Along with this confidence and celebration of blackness comes a self-critical edge to TPAB. A defining feature of Kendrick’s music is its confessional quality. At the literal level, some of his songs involve the confession of sins. But they are also confessional in the sense that they are honest depictions of his failures and fears. Kendrick gives us access to his experience of making sense of the world, and in that experience, he is often convicted by what he discovers. If he is polemical about justice in his music, it is only after he is confessional.

In “How Much a Dollar Cost” Kendrick pulls into a gas station and gets accosted by a drunk beggar who asks for a dollar. Kendrick gives many excuses for denying the old man, most of which fall along the lines of standard conservative critiques of the poor: I earned this money. I don’t owe you anything. You’re a drunk and probably just want to buy more alcohol. In short, the beggar does not merit a handout and would undoubtedly misuse it if given the chance.

Earlier in the album, we were inclined to sympathize with Kendrick’s confidence in himself because through hard work and determination he has achieved greatness. And yet, that same logic of self-sufficiency and independence reappears in “How Much a Dollar Cost” as callousness. And the paternalistic belief that “we should never gave n****** money” has returned as well, but here instead of coming from the voice of white America, it comes from Kendrick Lamar: “Contributin’ money for his pipe? I couldn’t see it.” In response, the beggar challenges Kendrick, “Have you ever opened Exodus 14? A humble man is all that we ever need.”

At first Kendrick doubles-down on his stinginess, pointing out that selfishness, not humility, was the very virtue that brought him success. The beggar replies that Kendrick’s “potential is bitter sweet,” suggesting that his talent and worldly success are not enough. Then comes the theophany:

Know the truth. It will set you free.

You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah,

. . . .

And I’ll tell you how much a dollar cost:

The price of having a spot in heaven. Embrace your loss. I am God.

A humbled Kendrick has to recognize that his money is not his own. That he is not in fact the center of the universe. That his achievements, however great, are not the center of his life. Far from modeling the lifestyle of a rap mogul building his personal empire, Kendrick narrates an experience of being humbled by an encounter with God’s Word spoken from a homeless drunk.

The conclusion of TPAB is uncomfortably personal rather than a structural response to injustice. It is not that he doesn’t acknowledge systemic racism, he does. But his vision is personal, local, and communal. Many critics accused him of respectability politics for his confession at the end of “The Blacker the Berry.” By focusing on his “hypocrisy” in contributing to black violence, some critics felt he was agreeing with those who blame the black community for the injustices they face. Kendrick’s response was that he needed to convey his experiences in his community and his own complicity in the destruction of that community: “I did a lot to tear down my own community.” This is not a judgment on the black community; it is a public confession. But the nature of public confessions is to invite self-reflection. Kendrick allows the listener to consider their own complicity: have I loved my neighbor? Have I harbored feelings of hatred toward those “blacker than me”?

“The day I came back home”

The conclusion of both GKMC and TPAB emphasizes community as the space of primary duty for Kendrick, and the family as the center of the community. At the end of GKMC, his mother and father ask him to take care of his family and his community, to do something to give the kids of Compton a positive example. TPAB narrates Kendrick’s experience of following that advice. He returns home, is humbled by an old beggar, and learns the need for mutual respect. Kendrick has sought to embody this duty towards family and community, choosing to live in Compton, dedicating his BET award to the kids in community centers, donating and raising funds for Compton school district. For Kendrick Lamar, growth and healing begins within communities, between neighbors, born out of mutual respect and personal sacrifice. None of this denies the importance of systemic change, but prioritizes the work that needs to be done here and now.

Kendrick’s message does not deny the criticisms of systemic injustice noted in the #blacklivesmatter movement, it just seeks answers closer to home. The release of TPAB during the height of this movement is significant because it taps into so many of the same deep concerns about the abuse and commodification of black bodies, the plundering of black labor, and violence against black people. The exuberant blackness of the album, incorporating a history of great black musical genres (soul, funk, jazz) and celebrating the beauty of black bodies (“Complexion”) and black achievement (“King Kunta”), makes it an ideal representation of the renewed civil rights movement. And yet it’s not exactly an embodiment of the ideals of #blacklivesmatter. It’s bigger than that, and Kendrick draws different conclusions about how we should respond to systemic injustice.

But this is all part of Kendrick Lamar’s subversive genius. He draws upon our expectations, our desires, our unspoken stereotypes and ideologies, and he reveals them to us, naked and raw, intimate and experiential, confessional and polemic. The resulting music is a spiritual exhortation to love our neighbors, to give sacrificially to those in need, to understand the history of oppression in our country and its myriad present manifestations, and to drink of the Living Water. No one is safe from this exhortation, not even Kendrick.

Alan Noble is editor-in-chief at Christ and Pop Culture and assistant professor of english at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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