If he loses, it would be disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his album’s deserving excellence. Spiritual content is having a bit of a moment in hip-hop, with everyone from Chance the Rapper’s tender jubilation to Lecrae’s social justice-tinged message. Even Kanye West has gotten in on it. This is a God dream.
Lamar’s exploration of God is thornier than that of other artists and, for that reason, more compelling. “DAMN.” is about a lot of things. It’s about the unique stratosphere of influence in which Lamar finds himself. It’s about his relationship with his home in Compton, Calif., and how to keep that relationship alive even as his career pushes him toward the stars. It is about his prodigious, once-in-a-generation gift.
Woven throughout Lamar’s work is the question of God, whose divine presence has haunted each of Lamar’s efforts. Mark 10 tells the story of a man identified as a “rich young ruler” who asks Jesus: “What must I do to be saved?” That question seems to plague Lamar as well, and if “DAMN.” wins Album of the Year at the Grammys, it’ll be the most explicitly theological album to do so in recent memory.
Lamar asks the sorts of questions you’re not supposed to ask in church, and although that makes the Christian beliefs he espouses difficult to categorize, it, in turn, makes them more important. How many honest beliefs about God fit neatly into a box?
Take the “DAMN.” standout track “PRIDE,” in which Lamar raps, “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches/I’ll choose work over b——, I’ll make schools out of prison/I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service/Just to tell ’em we ain’t s—, but He’s been perfect.”
This is where Lamar tends to find himself in his lyrics — well aware of his position on Earth, but unsure of what that means for the world to come. “I know He walks the Earth, but there’s money to get, b—— to hit, zeroes to flip” Lamar says in the song “YAH.” “Temptation is first on my list.”
In this regard, “DAMN.” feels related to the likes of Shusaku Endo’s book “Silence” or even the works of Flannery O’Connor where art that sees faith and doubt as related, complex, containing mutually eternal significance.
Lamar opened up about his faith to the website DJ Booth last year in an email that was posted in full. The letter is worth reading, but he made one particularly illuminating observation while ruminating about why he finds sermons in church to have so much “emptiness”:
“After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I’ve finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline. Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that’s close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected.”
Lamar’s thoughts here sound as though they come out of a different Testament than most contemporary religious music, which, if it shakes its fist at God at all, tends to be via the old questions about why an all-powerful God would allow evil in the world. Lamar’s questions are more intimate: Why does an all-powerful God allow evil in our own hearts? And, more to the point, what will He do when He decides enough is enough? “All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?” he asks on the song “FEAR.” “Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?”
“My newfound life made all of me magnified,” he muses on the same song. “How many accolades do I need to block denial?” That’s a question that may pop up again at the Grammys, in which Lamar could very well walk away with the biggest, shiniest accolade the American music industry has to offer. But Lamar is wise enough to know that a record number of Grammys won’t stave off the fear of the Lord, which is well enough. That is, after all, the beginning of wisdom.
Follow Tyler Huckabee on Twitter @tylerhuckabee.