As a self-proclaimed music snob, there isn’t much commercial rap music that I find worth the precious space in my iPhone these days. I do, however, enjoy finding new, unheralded rappers via internet mixtapes. I’ve been exposed to many new artists in this way, including Kendrick Lamar, whose debut album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard Charts last month. The 25 year-old hails from Compton, CA, the Los Angeles Suburb made infamous by NWA when Lamar was still in the womb. Coming from that pedigree, one might assume that his music would be largely based on gritty tales of street experiences, ergo fellow Comptonite and Dr. Dre protégée The Game. But there is also the story of a kid struggling to reconcile the potential pitfalls of his surroundings with his sense of morality, which is reinforced by his mother and some concerned church folk. The album has received critical praise from dozens of sources, received nearly 3 million streams on Spotify and sold over 240,000 copies its first week. What stands out for me about the album is Lamar’s liberal use of religious rituals and symbols. And not in a tongue-in-cheek, borderline-heretical Watch The Throne-kinda way. Not only that, he actually name-drops “Jesus” at least five times. His 12 minute opus “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a shining example of what I like to call, The New God Rap.
Money, pussy and greed; what’s my next crave/Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave/Tired of running, tired of running/Tired of tumbling, tired of running/Tired of tumbling/Back once 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 dying of thirst/You dying of thirst/So hop in that water, and pray that it works.”
“The world’s coming to an end/So my nose is in my Bible/They call it lame, but that’s the source of my survival/Say what you want/Bet I’ll be the last man standing/I spit that gospel/Nigga word to Fred Hammond.”
For someone like me who grew up in church, but also loves hip-hop, it’s huge to see someone acknowledge the conflict between the secular and the spiritual and receive mainstream success. It kind of reminds me of the feeling I got when I first heard Kanye West’s
Jesus Walks. It was the first rap song I could actually play in front of my mother. Though these days when I hear a song like New God Flow, I’m confused as to whether I should like it or dive for the nearest crucifix. Though it was the only type of rap music I was allowed to listen to growing up, Gospel Rap never really connected with me. Perhaps that’s because its intention is to preach, and preachy hip-hop has a tendency to wear itself out after a few tracks.
To be fair, I don’t think you’ll be hearing any verses by these artists quoted in pulpits by theologians. Still, as someone who continues to reconcile the desires of this world with my belief in the supreme higher power, I hope Lamar’s success will inspire others to explore their spirituality through their art.
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