How do the songs of rapper Kendrick Lamar help me on my journey as a Christian man?
Throughout the portfolios of two hip-hop legends, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, we find values shared by both: family, loyalty, aspiration. They also share grievances: financial struggle, racism, and social issues. But one area which has consistently preoccupied both artists is that of love and sexuality. Peppered throughout the work of both are lyrics which seem to objectify women or celebrate sexual conquests; such lyrics cause apprehension for many potential listeners, who would quite rightly prefer not to engage with artists who seem to blatantly express such deplorable ideas. But on examining the full portfolio of each of these two artists, I find the picture which emerges to be far more nuanced, and I daresay relatable, than the stereotype of brazen misogyny typically associated with rap music. I hear them struggling with an issue which, in my experience, is all too familiar to any man who identifies as a Christian: the problem of lust, and the devastation it can cause when allowed to take control. Kanye and Kendrick’s continuous grappling with this issue in their music should come as no surprise, then, given that both these men identify as Christians (as confirmed by their own admission, both publicly and in their music). In this first article, I’ll look exclusively at Kendrick Lamar’s portfolio and some of the insights I find it offers into his battle with lust and the source of his respite from it.
In “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”, the opening track of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed album good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012), Kendrick offers a frank account of his infatuation as a teenager with a girl called Sherane. This is not a romanticised tale of young love: Kendrick reflects on his attraction to Sherane and decides, “my motive was rather sinful.” It is sexual lust which drives the young Kendrick to take his mother’s van and rush across town to Sherane’s house, nearly causing an accident on the way. On this journey Kendrick and the van will end up at the centre of a gang fight, drug use, and even a robbery, as the young man’s “sinful” choice seems to spiral out of control. These events are chronicled throughout the rest of the album; by the tenth track, Kendrick and his friends find themselves confessing their sins in prayer and giving their lives to Jesus. Kendrick’s lust brought him nothing but chaos and fear. Turning to God is the only thing which saves him from his predicament, while everything else was only making it worse.
Kendrick refers to Sherane again on his next album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), in the song “For Sale?”, in which he comes into direct contact with the devil, personified in the metaphor of a woman called “Lucy” (Lucifer). Kendrick wrestles with his attraction to Lucy and the things she offers him, feeling the pull of some kind of lust, just as it was sexual lust which drove him in pursuing Sherane. Kendrick cries, “You said, Sherane ain’t got nothing on Lucy, I said, you crazy? / Roses are red, violets are blue, but you and I both push up daisies if I / Want you…”. Lucy tries to persuade Kendrick that she can offer him more than Sherane ever could; given how strongly Kendrick was attracted to Sherane, this seems like an invitation he may not be able to resist. But Kendrick has now learnt the consequences of pursuing lust; he knows that in this case, the consequences would literally be deadly, leaving him pushing up daisies.
In the song “Money Trees”, Kendrick presents a clear choice in a sung refrain: “It go, Halle Berry, or hallelujah…”. In this dichotomy, choosing actress and sex symbol Halle Berry means choosing lust, whether it’s lust for the woman herself or for fame and celebrity such as she enjoys; the other option is to worship God (“hallelujah”). Kendrick seems to be mindful here of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” A teenage Kendrick has to face this decision in good kid, m.A.A.d city, and though he begins by heading down the path of lust, he ultimately turns to Christ and is saved from the mess into which the false promises of lust were dragging him.
Kendrick addresses sex and relationships on countless occasions throughout his work. In the haunting “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”, Kendrick tells the story of a young woman becoming a prostitute and the very grim realities of her experience: “And Lord knows she’s beautiful / Lord knows the usuals leaving her body sore.” The lust of her regular clients has a physical effect on Keisha quite apart from the emotional and psychological ramifications. Towards the end of this song, Kendrick tells us, “Sometimes she wonder if she can do it like nuns do it / But she never heard of Catholic religion or sinner’s redemption.” Kendrick suggests that Keisha could be saved from her horrible, painful lifestyle if only she knew she was redeemed by Jesus – just as he and his friends are saved in good kid, m.A.A.d city. As Paul writes in Ephesians 1: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
Kendrick’s most recent album, DAMN. (2017), is the least helpful for finding evidence of any faith in Jesus to save him from the grip of lust, as it seems to present an attitude towards God and salvation that is very different to the previous albums. The voice that comes through DAMN. is very much that of a man feeling condemned, afraid, and resigned to life in a dark world. However, when one understands the intention of DAMN. as a concept album, this discrepancy is quickly resolved. Kendrick has explained the meaning of the last track, “DUCKWORTH.”, in which a story about his father almost being killed is followed by the sound of a tape rewinding and excerpts from all the previous songs on the album right back to the first track: “It never happened.” DAMN. presents a hypothetical reality which, thankfully, Kendrick was able to avoid. Therefore this album, while being no less valid, is not in the same autobiographical vein as the previous few and in particular good kid, m.A.A.d. city – so I feel it cannot provide the same insights about Kendrick’s own journey of faith and his personal experiences with lust, being rather a vivid picture of how someone might feel in a certain hypothetical situation.
The consistent story that I find in Kendrick’s work overall is one of lust tempting and distracting him away from what he truly believes is better: relationship with God. This is an experience surely shared by most, if not all, of the men who seek to follow Jesus today. It is God, through Jesus, who ultimately provides Kendrick with a means of salvation from the grip of lust. This phenomenon too is something that as Christians we place our faith in and are blessed to experience. The struggle continues, and yet, as Kendrick chants in the chorus of “Alright”, “If God got us, then we gonna be alright.” This is a mantra with which I could not agree more.