“From a distance don’t know which one is a Christian, damn.” —Kendrick Lamar on “Hol’ Up”
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I attended family counseling for reasons that aren’t really any of your business. But at some point during our first and only session, the therapist asked if we had religion. My dad proffered that “My wife is religious.” Though she grew up in the church, and they both raised four children to attend every week, my mom was quick to correct him: “not religious—spiritual.” What my mom understood, and in turn taught me, was that there’s a manifest difference between being “religious” and being “spiritual.”
At the risk of being overly cynical, religion — in this case Christianity — is a system that can be gamed. Think of it as a paper course. The rubric is simple: Make your attendance felt over a satisfactory number of Sundays with the sine qua non “Good morning brother/sister ___, God bless you.” Additionally, know that Luke comes after Matthew and Mark as well as at least two verses of “Amazing Grace” by heart, and turn up in your best suit for the exams, which, in this case, would be Christmas Eve and Easter. You’ll pass for a “Christian,” if in name only. (I would not; I have not been to church in some time. Sorry, Mom.) It follows that organized religion is pliable, and can be easily bent toward a cause, or used as an excuse.
On the other hand — much like how the mind is what the brain does — spirituality, or “faith,” is a living, breathing, intensely personal thing that can blossom from “religion.” In the Christian context, it’s your relationship with the man upstairs, and yours alone, that dictates faith. And, like in any other relationship, there will be disappointments and doubts. Discussing his debut studio album, Section.80, with MTV News in 2011, Kendrick Lamar spoke candidly about those disconnects:
But just because you don’t necessarily need church doesn’t mean you don’t need (or want) help unpacking these ecclesiastical questions. And in the absence of a pastor, Kendrick has — perhaps unfairly, but all the same — become an unexpected, imperfect spiritual guide for many people.
“Runnin’ in place tryna make it to church” —Kendrick Lamar on “untitled 01”
Kendrick’s March announcement in an interview with The New York Times’s T Magazine that his then-forthcoming fourth studio album (released Friday and titled Damn.) would center around God was met with derision and trembling. The response was at once irrational—because Kendrick contains multitudes — and understandable.
Received wisdom—like never trust a “leaked” track list or follow your favorite rapper on Twitter at your own risk—dictates that finding God comes before falling off (for rappers, anyway). See Malice, see Nas, see Ma$e, see DMX, the list goes on. But in his T interview, Kendrick leaned back in his proverbial chair with an approachable edginess. It was distinctly youth group minister–like:
To be fair, Prodigal Son Returning To The Church is a wave many a consensus-great rapper has ridden within the past year, so perhaps “Nobody speaks on it” isn’t quite accurate. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was a gasping, sprawling, megachurch album, with all the well-meaning but ill-informed religiosity of a “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirt; Chance the Rapper’s more jubilant Coloring Book, which, like Pablo, featured Kirk Franklin, included a glittering interpolation of “How Great Is Our God”; one of a few Hail Marys on the back half of Drake’s Views was the penultimate track’s sample of gospel legends the Winans’ “The Question Is.”
But Kendrick isn’t paddling out like Kanye, gliding through the tube like Chance, or watching from the beach like Drake. Kendrick is holding his breath while being tossed about in the undertow, flailing for the air that must be on the surface. It has to be. He’s been there, swirling about in translucent darkness, struggling to tell hand from foot, since at least 2009.
From his self-titled EP, “Faith” is about the crises it lives through — those times when belief creaks beneath the crushing weight of reality. On the song, reality intrudes as the real-life murder of a friend, an open wound he would revisit eight years later on a song called “u” whereupon Kendrick, evidently drunk and still drinking, curses everything, including himself (“God himself will say, ‘you fuckin’ failed’”).
“I am a sinner who’s prolly gonna sin again” —Kendrick Lamar on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Ahead of the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, Buzzfeed News reporter Reggie Ugwu described Kendrick’s Christianity as radical, and it is—as much could and should be made of introducing such spirituality into commercial rap. Kendrick’s faith functions astride the spiritual and the secular, leaving ample room for doubt; I’ve always thought of it as plainspoken. Or pragmatic. It’s his way of parsing the knottier, more trying questions you hope to never need ask or answer: What happens when life is too much? When you’re too angry or saddened to believe that prayer will be enough to cover it? Kendrick appreciates that prayer isn’t a solution, but also values it as a way of putting one foot in front of the other, though the mystery of where you’re going and what’s waiting for you there endures.
That confusion is par for the course. None of us explicitly asked for life, most of us don’t know what to do with it, and almost all of us are at a loss for why it’s so hard. Some of us resolve that God must know because He’s all-knowing, and so we seek Him out to let us in on, well, everything. That journey from bewilderment toward everlasting peace is an arduous one that can make you feel small and alone. It’s scary, and doubly so because like every step along the way, the destination itself is uncertain. MTV News writer Tirhakah Love ably described untitled unmastered’s opening track as Kendrick grappling with his path in “a metaphysical garden of Gethsemane,” trying earnestly to remonstrate his way past the Pearly Gates.
With a reader’s remove, this is less about being “damned” as an insufficient Christian than it is about being condemned as a young black man. Good people—“good” here meaning innocent—still suffer and die, more often than not without reason. And appropriately, it’s “Fear.” on Kendrick’s newest album that best illustrates his developed approach to addressing this cruel uncertainty. Though it’s not my current favorite (that would be “DNA.” because whew), and “Feel.” better articulates the static friction between faith and politics, “Fear.” is the song I’m going to think most about. Over languid and grainy, but beautifully dewy production, a hefty voice trudges along with audibly heavy legs—“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?” Kendrick tries to tease out an answer by coming at the problem from four different angles, and still comes up short.
The first verse of “Fear.” is told from the perspective of overbearing parents trying to scrape out a meager existence and steer their kids in a vaguely forward-facing direction via the only means they know—the belt. The second comes from the perspective of a teenaged Kendrick for whom life has become larger and more real than before he began finding his independence. Given that freedom, he’s paralyzed by all the many, stupid ways his life could end: with him wearing the wrong colors on the wrong side of the tracks, in the back of a police van, walking home from the convenience store. The third finds Kendrick tangled in established fame, choked by the nameless dread you start to feel only once you start making your own money. The fourth and most bald exposes his deepest fears: of losing his creativity, of not being enough, of dying alone, that greatness and goodness is an either/or, that life has no meaning.
This painful confusion and the all-consuming fear it breeds remain somewhat Delphic to him, just as they remain opaque to me. And that’s inescapable; some things about life are irretrievably fucked up. But reasoning goes only so far, and where it fails comes the trust that one fine day you’ll be made to understand. That’s what faith is.