Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” spent a good six months spinning inside the CD player of my old school Toyota Corolla. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to learn of it myself: I first heard about it from the blogger Ta-Nehesi Coates who proclaimed it “not simply one of the best hip hop albums I’ve ever heard, but one of the most moving pieces of art I’ve seen/heard in a long, long, long time.” I quickly came to agree.
More than literary, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” qualifies as deeply theological. At times, “Good Kid” even seems to sing a contemporary “Confessions.” Lamar differs from Augustine in many respects (Lamar offers no apology for torture, and he leaves much more room for sexual love.) But like Augustine, Lamar crafts a narrative of sin, grace, friendship, and conversion in a particular time and place. Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure” works like Augustine’s incident of the stolen pears, for example.
In some ways, I think Lamar even surpasses Augustine: in addition to confessing his own sins, Lamar also offers a structural critique. All throughout, Lamar confesses his sins–for example, in “Swimming Pools,” he explores the perils, pleasures, and pathos of the human appetite for alcohol. In another track, he laments, “I am a sinner who’s probably going to sin again; Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me.” While confessing his personal sins, Lamar demonstrates that, for young black girls and boys, adolescent folly is no child’s play. When they make mistakes, they are much more likely to get not slapped on the wrist but killed or sent to prison.
Sometimes, as depicted in his video for the love song “Poetic Justice,” they are cut down for no reason at all.
But he cares about more than just the sins of individuals. Young black boys and girls living in impoverished places also often pay for the sins of an entire society with their lives: in the haunting title track, “MAAD City,” Lamar calls himself “Kendrick Lamar aka Compton’s human sacrifice.” Lamenting the toll that structural sin takes on a teenaged boy, he raps, “I live inside the belly of the rough; Compton, USA made me an angel on angel dust.” In so doing, Lamar serves as not the exception to the tradition of rap but its heir.
Baptismal imagery and allusions permeate the album. He seems to celebrate baptism while also questioning it. Lamar’s story of sin and grace reaches its apex in the masterful two part-track entitled, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” There’s nothing I need to say for these songs: they speak for themselves.
Despite the theological depth of Lamar’s album, mainstream music fans do not perceive it as theological. But this is not because Lamar makes music instead of sermons. Nor can it be simply because he makes rap music. The U.S. American music-listening population has had a much less difficult time recognizing the white rapper Macklemore as a theologian of sorts. To them, Macklemore’s music seems self-evidently theological. Some even call Macklemore “prophetic” and laud him for doing something you don’t ordinarily see done in hip hop. But Lamar’s album contains much more theological depth than Macklemore’s, yet we think only Macklemore is preaching. Why?
If you doubt it, give Lamar’s album a listen. I would love to know what you think.