There’s been a lot of buzz in entertainment circles, the web, and friends of mine about the new Kendrick Lamar record, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Released two weeks ago, this album is considered a prolific genre milestone for hip-hop. Some say this puts Kendric Lamar in line to join the ranks of rap demigods like Tupac with its flagrant social consciousness, diverse sonic influences, and contrast against a generation of mainstream hip-hop.
Kendrick Lamar’s presence as a rapper has sparked conversation among religious circles concerning his music, message, and faith.
Given the controversy, I think this is worth sharing as a way to open to floor to discuss how people express their faith, the art of storytelling, and my thoughts on the debate over his authenticity.
To understand this conversation better, let me provide some context.
Kendrick Lamar is a hip-hop artist native to the rough and tumble concrete jungle of Compton, California. Festooned with drugs, gangs, violence, and economic inequality, Compton is showcased as an example of a place that underpins a myriad of negative influences for young men. Good Kid m.A.A.d. City is an album that paints a vulgar portrait of Lamar’s upbringing. Being raised around gang life, feeding into promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol, the dialogue on this album demonstrates the pull he feels between wanting to fit in and not getting caught up in the negativity. The end of the album marks Kendrick Lamar’s turning point when he publicly professed his faith and was recently baptized while on tour. Throughout GKMC, you hear dispersed voice mail interludes from other family members of Lamar who express their concern and provide silver lining for the sexually provocative, violent, and suggestive imagery. There’s obvious conflict being dramatized. This is where people unsheathe the criticism.
Statistics from David Kinnaman and the Barna research group reveal that millennials are disenchanted with the brand of Christianity that our parents and grandparents were raised by. They’re in search of something that raw, authentic, non-politicized, and accessible. With that comes pastors and modern theologians who raise questions otherwise not questioned by American predecessors. I think people like Kendrick Lamar are the lightning rod for discussion concerning authenticity of newer Christianity.
I’m 22 years old. My age and experiences in the church make me part of this conversation of how do we as Christians openly communicate our doubts, concerns, fears, and shortcomings with dignity and honesty. It’s a hard but necessary discussion to have in house. It’s messy, but is a catalyst for creating tight-knit organic community, growth, and moving forward.
Kendrick is not only conscious of the criticism he receives for the verbiage in his rhymes, but is conscious about the pull he feels between his environment, the temptations of stardom, and his new found faith. I mean, Swimming Pools from GKMC is a perfect example. Underneath the grimy west coast instrumental hypnotism lies a narrative about Kendrick living around alcoholism and his friends tempting him to take part. While it might seem that Kendrick promotes the lifestyle, it’s an undisguised story about peer pressure and how he deals with a very human phenomenon…temptation.
There’s honesty to songs like this in ways that hit me in waves. Tyler Huckabee said it best in an article written for Relevant Magazine… “That might lead some people to call him a hypocrite but then, he’s already beat them to that particular punch.”
It’s a bummer for me to read a sea of Facebook commentary and see people putting Kendrick Lamar and their fellow believers in front of a social media firing squad. People are putting Kendrick Lamar’s character into question and going so far as to saying he’s not really a believer because of his language. Someone did say in this mammoth thread that his story is worth telling, even if he’s not as squeaky clean as Lecrae.
I don’t call out Lecrae to set him as the bar for all others, nor do I encourage Kendrick Lamar to be so vulgar. What I’m saying is that guys like Kendrick Lamar are sharing a testimony in the same language, but in a different dialect.
Kendrick Lamar deserves grace, guidance, and encouragement just like the rest of us do. Our lives aren’t pristine trophies of triumph, joy, and pervasive delight in the Lord. We deal with temptation from the vices of our past and will sometimes feel the pull. It’s how we deal with those temptations and tell that story that matters.
Personally, I can relate to Kendrick Lamar. Not because I grew up around gangs, in an impoverished neighborhood, or was exposed to a lot of violence, but I understand the acute conflict between temptation and searching for God in the midst of coping with my past. It’s not an easy balance and is stressful. When I tell my story it’s not meant to be polished and refined to appeal to a marketable audience. I would rather sit down and be real with someone.
This reminds me a lot of Romans 7:15 where Paul writes, “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” That feeling of being caught up in something self-destructive but trying to continue finding meaning in what God has for us.
Loud and clear, I don’t endorse Christians cutting rap albums festooned with explicit imagery and vulgar language, but I don’t think we need to immediately go after Lamar for doing so either, especially because he’s new to the faith. I don’t expect people who have newly accepted this life in Christ to be sterile and unaffected by a life they have lived for so long. I didn’t. I still don’t.
Now that I think of it, all of us as Christians are Kendrick Lamar in a way. We are all in this narrow walk towards Christ, taking the bumps as they come along – sometimes with ease, sometimes with hardship, always with grace. We are all telling a story of restoration that is sometimes painful and is also partially unwritten. We have growth ahead of us, joy to look forward to, rough times to tackle, lessons to learn, and are always striving to be more honest with each other, our neighbors, ourselves, and God.