Kendrick Lamar's new album, "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City", is brilliant, period. If for nothing else, it fully encapsulates the sound of an emerging (here!) Cali - artists who grew up with (but not as) the bangers, and possess the acumen to convey without glorifying that life through the music. With Dre's help, I'm listening again to a Cali I grew up wishing I knew better. I'm listening again to sounds that only could come out of Cali.
Okay, that may be a bit too romantic…you get my point.
Lyrically, dude is a beast and if you hear people talking about the "new Nas" it's for a reason. This guy did SOMETHING right to make Lupe Fiasco stand up (get defensive?) for the "O.G's" at a recent Kendrick concert in Chicago. It's because when dude raps, you forget about other people who rap. He brings you in, and does it better than the (insert favorite guilty pleasure rapper) of the world who, even when brilliant, seem to be so at one level, or within a very specific range of topics.
We could say the same for Christian Hip Hop, not just the obvious soundtracks to ignorance. CHH, for the most part, is very good at describing the intricacies of salvation and the realities of God, even if the theology is sometimes a bit too conservative and alienating for me (and I'm a CHH artist!). CHH is so good at it that the core fanbase of the genre is mostly "churched" folks - I think because they actually understand what is being talked about. For the record, I appreciate artists who are able to convey complex theological themes within verses so that a different generation can have access to the Gospel. I think it's ill that people can preach on the record, and I'm sure a lot of folks find God and are edified by this type of music. I mean, look at Lecrae.
I've always thought CHH could do more than catechism though. I've always dreamed there was a certain reality that could be conveyed - about trying and failing, or not even trying - that could make a good religion more accessible to folks who aren't "churched up." I mean, when people say that Christians are hypocritical and want nothing to do with the church, I always imagined there would be an artist to say, "Yeah, you're right. I can't really defend that; all I can tell you is what believing in God has done for me." All I hoped for was a few artists who would convey the reality of trying to be a Christian, not HOW to be a Christian, or how awesome God is. ("Great! But we struggling over here…") At it's core, KL's album is about someone trying to escape his surroundings and do better. That's a message worth hearing, no?
The first voices you hear on "Good Kid, M.A.A.d City" are of some teenagers getting "saved." Then a lot about Sharane, and you can tell his moments with her meant way more than his moments confessing Christ. Then Kendrick tells us plainly, "I'm a sinner, and I'm probably gonna sin again." In fact, the first 3 songs make direct reference to religious themes in some way…in his way. It's this clear tension that he's battling with - these voices inside his head, these incoherent gravitational pulls - that make his album both brilliant and beautiful. In the common Soundtracks to Ignorance we hear, "DO THIS" (get drunk, take your clothes off, get money, etc.). In the Soundtracks to Jesus (CHH) we hear…wait for it…"DO THIS" (love God, get saved, don't sin, hang out with other Christians). What Kendrick does is less didactic and more confessional…"I DO THIS." And he's clearly not glorifying what he's doing, nor is he absent from the fact that some of this is plainly WRONG (hear: "The Art of Peer Pressure"). He's just living, and folks who connect with his way of life will love him forever.
At it's best CHH has the same potential: to convey not the writings of John Wesley but the actual realities of living today. To say: I DO THIS. This is how I live. I'm not perfect. This is how I'm trying. These are some creative ways to tell you how it's going for me. Not another sermon! Just one boy's story of trying to do better. The Truth is: "Good Kid" and "Real" (both KL songs) are both more creative and spirit-filled than most of what I've heard from CHH this year. I bet a lot of artists won't even hear it because it's "secular" or "Illuminati"…somehow…
Chicago is 2nd only to Rome in "churches per capita" in the city: there is one literally on every corner. Yet we remain the murder capital: "CHIraq". I'd venture to say churches are failing, and it's because we aren't able to connect with the many competing voices inside young heads. All we talk is Christianity; what they wanna know is what it really means to KNOW God. I didn't hear the word "Grace" once on Kendrick's album, but I know from "Black Boy" that he knows about it. That song is what it means to yearn, to be jealous, and to overcome both. That's not spiritual? I can connect with that. We'll get to salvation (someone will): Let's you and I connect first. Lord knows we need more of that in 2012.
We have to do better at connecting theology with reality. We have to make the voice of God as tantalizing as the others swimming in the heads of little Kendrick Lamars everywhere. Cause they know better, but there's poverty, and there's Sharane. There's "Swimming Pools" and there's "Poetic Justice." Good kids…mad city. The truth is, all of those voices are always inside our head, competing for our attention. The best artists put us in touch with our experiences.
Christian Hip Hop better learn that, or they'll always be competing for the attention of the people.