Get God on the Phone: How Kendrick Lamar Quietly Became Music's Biggest Christian Rapper

Kendrick wears his Christianity on his sleeve but we almost never think about him as a religious rapper.
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Kendrick wears his Christianity on his sleeve but we almost never think about him as a religious rapper.

It never really occurred to me that a prayer is what starts off good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Unlike DMX, who would pray on his albums with a pain-dripping bark that engulfed ears, the boys Kendrick chose to pray on his opening track seem like an insignificant detail once the infamous van begins to roll underneath the Compton street lights. Bible study isn’t what has Kendrick Lamar out late with his foot pressed to the pedal; the church is far from his mind as he races to Master Splinter's Daughter.

He’s driving through a city where the sinners outnumber the saints, more horns than halos, more darkness than light, through a series of events he plunges listeners into the madness. At the very end of the album, after the rising action has climaxed, right before an act of revenge is carried out, a woman appears standing between a bunch of boys prepared to sin again. Kendrick would later call this woman an angel, for she offered an alternative, a way to battle their hate with love of the Lord. Presenting baptism as an option, having them recite the same Sinner’s Prayer from the beginning. Remember this day she said, “The start of a new life, the start of your real life.”

In the parking lot of a Food 4 Less, Kendrick was unconventionally baptized by the grandmother of a friend who came across him after a murder. As told on the album, he was saved that day, possibly in more ways than one. It’s hard to imagine a man who saw his first murder at five and second murder at eight being able to believe in a heaven when hell is all around him. To be a flower buried on the top of a Volcano never knowing when the lava will spill instead of the safe soil can be a heavy burden on the spiritual soul. He raps on the song “Faith,” “I opened my Bible in search to be a better Christian. And this from a person that never believed in religion. But shit, my life is so fucked up, man; I can't help but give in.” 

As the first verse progresses, he’s filled with the spirit, but when the Sunday service ends a phone call of another friend’s murder snatches whatever faith was found just moments before. Reality and the circumstances can break any man. The song continues to highlight the difficulties of keeping faith when life doesn’t get easier but applies more pressure while you’re down. The song may seem more pessimistic than hopeful but in the final verse he states, “But what I do know, is that He's real and He lives forever / So the next time you feel like your world's about to end / I hope you studied because He's testing your faith again.

“Faith” dates back to 2009, when Kendrick first changed his name from K-Dot and released the Kendrick Lamar EP. It was a fresh start and an adaptation of a more personal approach to his music and introducing the concept of the good kid. With each album, as he grew into a notable name in the industry, Kendrick’s faith has only grown with his acclaim. Overly Dedicated has “Heaven & Hell,” a brilliant but incomplete perspective of the good and bad based on Kendrick’s perspective. It fades away before completing his visions of Heaven.

After Section.80, he spoke with MTV who asked about his religious upbringing due to the song “Kush & Corinthians.” His response was what you'd expect from someone rather young, who is still in the religious stage of asking questions. He goes on to say that he’s a sinner who's trying to figure it all out, a mindset that could easily have inspired the hook for “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” It’s not obvious, but “I am a sinner, that’s probably going to sin again” is one of the most religious hooks that isn’t outwardly Christian to hit the mainstream in some time. You don’t even notice when singing along.

I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I’m trying to find answers. That’s the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I’m] not a person that’s putting it in your head — “believe this, believe this, believe this.” I’m going through something, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who’s really confused by what the world has put upon him. - MTV 2011

Kendrick is jokingly baptized by Mike Epps in what appears to be a traditional church pool in the “Don’t Kill My Vibe” music video except it’s a pool full a liquor, a nod to “Swimming Pools.” While the mock baptism was good for a chuckle, Kendrick made headlines during the L.A stop on the Yeezus tour when he announced that he was recently baptized while shouting out his Bishop. There’s something humorous about Kendrick being on the Yeezus tour with the man that went from singing “Jesus Walks” to bringing him out on stage and deciding that now it’s a good time to be saved again. Where was his mind at? To do it while on tour makes the action seem urgent as if he couldn’t wait another day.

Three days before the release of GKMC Kendrick recorded "The Heart Pt 3," a song where he confronts the pressures of his position, someone not only looked upon as Tupac’s successor but a shining beacon of hope for hip-hop’s future. “Enough pressure to make you just open the Book of David,” he raps toward the end of his first verse, indicating that he sought comfort in the Bible and not worldly vices to deal with all the stress and strains of his upcoming album debut.

Life didn’t get easier after the album release, while on the road with Kanye, Kendrick got calls from home that Chad, Braze and Pup were all murdered. Childhood friends that he grew up with, killed in the same mad city that put him on that tour bus, that brought him success in music, that ultimately took him away from them. He mentions them by name on YG’s “Really Be,” it’s an emotional verse with torment and demons suffocating his vocal chords, like it’s painful for him to even let the words out. On Fredo Santana's “Jealous,” Kendrick goes from boasting about taking private jets for Harold's Chicken and being unable to speak because there’s a woman sitting on his face to “I got worry on my brain, I been gone all summer / Just to fly back home and found out y'all done killed my little brother.” 

In his 2013 GQ Rapper Of The Year profile, journalist Steve Marsh begins the article by mentioning how he’s unable to locate Kendrick. No one from the either label, TDE and Interscope, knew where he was. He was coping with the death of Chad, the friend he would later mention in the song “u,” who was shot and wounded but held on for a month before passing. Kendrick was overseas at the time, the last time they spoke was on Skype. Imagine this burden while in-route to New York City’s fall Fashion Week.

Chad Keaton’s memorial service was held just before Labor Day weekend; Kendrick attended, then flew straight to a show in Alaska. Next it was on to Vegas to perform at a pool party. He only made it "back to the set" to grieve for a single day, the day we were scheduled to talk. "It can be complicated and confusing," Kendrick says of his life right now, funerals for murdered friends one day, private jets to fashion parties the next. - GQ 2013

It takes you back to “Faith,” the juxtaposition of feeling near heaven but reality reminds you of the hell that awaits back at home. You can see how these events sparked the survivor's guilt that would be a huge topic on To Pimp A Butterfly. His life had changed, he was facing new pressures from inching closer to super-stardom, but bad news was never far, it could’ve easily pushed him toward a darker solution, but these trials likely brought him closer to God. Which is why his faith plays such a crucial role in TPAB. Kendrick reached a mindset through his beliefs that are soaked into his music but unlike Kanye, he doesn’t have a “Jesus Walks” single that commercially and openly displays his beliefs. Kanye was worried about God taking away from his spins, Kendrick doesn’t seem to have that kind of doubt, God is the one who brings the spins. Instead of centering his faith into one single, he spread it across the album, wrapped in metaphors and allegories, even without a prayer it’s obvious that TPAB was made by a Christian man.

On Halloween, Lamar dressed as Jesus Christ. "If I want to idolize somebody, I'm not going to do a scary monster, I'm not gonna do another artist or a human being – I'm gonna idolize the master, who I feel is the master, and try to walk in his light," he explained. "It's hard, it's something I probably could never do, but I'm gonna try. Not just with the outfit but with everyday life. The outfit is just the imagery, but what's inside me will display longer." - Fader 2014/Kendrick as Jesus

It’s done subtly, details so small that they can easily go unnoticed. Instead of saying that Lucifer, the devil that fell from heaven, is the one that’s trying court him, he creates the character Lucy, a woman that has the same purpose but doesn’t have the same harsh imagery. You can’t make jokes about I Love Lucy with Lucifer but they are one and the same. Instead of making God into an omnipresent deity that brings him to salvation, Kendrick uses a homeless man to be the figure for the big man that lives beyond the clouds. “How Much Does A Dollar Cost” is done masterfully, the way he transitions from placing judgment on a man he assumes is panhandling for money to being judged by his father in heaven. It’s incredible storytelling and artistry and also very Christian. God finds ways to speak to you through others, like the lady from GKMC, or the homie from “Average Joe” that kicked Kendrick out the car when he was prepared to ride on the bangers that shot at him. His life has been full of angels but he chose a homeless man, someone we see every day to play the role of God.

“It’s a true story… These are moments in my life deeper than just handing somebody a dollar. These are actually moments of integrity, actually being able to talk to somebody. Me talking to him was simply a thank you from God. And I felt God speaking through him to get at me.” - MTV 2015

The many interviews that came before and after TPAB showed Kendrick speaking more openly about his relationship with God. When he spoke with the New York Times he considers himself the closest thing that some fans have to a preacher, a realization that came while being on the world tour. He explained that he’s a vessel for God’s work, two very strong statements. Many have cited the music industry as an evil place where souls are lost due to green, fame, and worshiping the material over the spiritual. In Kendrick's case, he underwent a spiritual awakening, an enlightenment that was always there but dormant.  

Billboard has listed 17 biblical references that can be found on untitled unmastered. The first song is Kendrick’s illustration of judgment day, The Book of Revelation in rap form, he even walks us through what he’s prepared to reply when God asks, “What have you done for me? I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you, Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you, Say I didn't try for you, say I didn't ride for you, I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you, Who love you like I love you?”

Whether we was inside a church or not, my mother always kept that faith inside of us. The more I started going through my own things in life, my faith got put to the test, and I had to believe that God is real in my heart, my lord and savior Jesus Christ, and I can’t run from that. I’ll always put that in my music or it just wouldn’t be right. People can take it or leave it, I really don’t care, because it’s for me to put it on records. And I will continue to put more of a spiritual nature in my music. - Ebony Interview 2015

Reading the lyrics, it’s a surprise Kendrick hasn’t been labeled a Christian rapper. Like all genre labels there's only one rule that applies to everyone, but neglecting the temptation of radio and club success because you'd rather use your voice to speak for the Lord should be on the list. He basically admits that TPAB was an album he made for God, which connects with the mentality of being a preacher for the fans. When Kanye announced his TLOP as a Gospel album no one knew what to expect. With “Ultralight Beam” as the intro—soulful, choir, Kirk Franklin feature—you assumed that it was the album’s blueprint until you hear him rapping about bleached assholes. It’s one gospel song, not a gospel album, but that’s Kanye, he has to make a big statement.

Kendrick doesn’t have to scream at us so we realize his faith in God. You see it in Chance The Rapper’s music as well, many references to the church and God fills songs like “Sunday Candy,” “Israel,” “Angels,” “Warm Enough” and “Heaven Only Knows,” but he has never been labeled as a Christian rapper. Very few rappers are giving the glory to God on the same scale as Cornrow Kenny and Lil Chano From the 79th.

I was 19, walking through Atlanta’s Lenox Mall, window shopping like 50 Cent in 2005. A man approached me, well dressed and seemingly rather harmless. He asked me what I knew about Jay Z. I answered as if I been studying Jigga for Black History Month throughout grade school, I know Jay Z better than I know myself. I finish, expecting to get free concert tickets or maybe an invitation to a trivia rap game show. Imagine my surprise when he followed up my response with, “So what do you know about Jesus Christ?” I could talk about the Church of Hov all day but the Church of God was a different story, there’s a reason why I’m not a gospel music journalist.

If he would’ve started the conversation about Jesus, I probably would’ve searched for an immediate way out, but Jay was different, it was a rap discussion, not a religious confrontation. That’s what Kendrick does. He just raps and we love it. He doesn’t worry about labeling himself or announcing that this album is gangster rap and this album is gospel, that would put him in a box, allow people to make judgments before pressing play. It’s actually genius—not every artist is able to maneuver without labeling but Kendrick continues to evolve and transform so that it’s impossible to know what he will do next. Even if he isn’t considered a Christian rapper, Kendrick has become one of the biggest rappers of our age. The man of the people but also a man of God.

God's emcee, not the God emcee.


By Yoh, aka Yohzus, aka @Yoh31.

Art CreditSlobodan Medarevic a.k.a. BokkaBoom