“Everyone wants to write about god / but no one wants to imagine their god // as the finger trembling inside a grenade / pin’s ring or the red vine of blood coughed into a child’s palm” —Hanif Abdurraqib, “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die”
Spirituality blooms in the wake of tragedy—as does cynicism. There’s something to be said for the brooding internal conflict between maintaining faith and interrogating your belief system. Plenty of literature exists to urge you to keep believing in something. Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commentadore, is a 700-page tour-de-keeping-faith lest you give yourself up to the neurosis of plainspoken life. The novel tracks two psyches, one of a man who accepts a fabulist reality, though with an air of skepticism and gentle prodding, and one of a man who would rather live in the ambiguity of his life’s Big Question. By book’s end, one man is far more fulfilled than the other. I’m sure you can guess whom of the two men came out feeling whole.
So, the value of belief is self-evident, but the act of believing is not innate. “Everyone wants to write about god,” remarks poet and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib. As in, everyone wants to write about their absolving belief system, about a grand entity that lifts their woes and smooths their lives. Yet, as Abdurraqib continues in his poem, “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die,” few people wish to contend with God as mistake-maker, wrongdoer, and the like.
And why not? This is a conflict native to the most curious and pensive people, artists especially. Certainly, hip-hop interrogates God and godliness. Rappers mention God often; “speak to God in public,” as Chance The Rapper says. Though we praise the blunt, there is something to be said about the tool of indirectness.
While the fleeting and leaden mentions of God consequently go understated, they are often the most forceful flicks at our understanding of the holy. Of course, there is an art to asking questions, but there is an even finer art to examining godliness wherein the statement is the question. When Chance The Rapper notes the absence of God, when Travis Scott demands godliness be stricken from the record, when Mac Miller suggest God’s desires are less ephemeral than we imagine, when Kendrick Lamar nearly parodies our conception of God, and when Noname ascends to heaven, we are left to wonder how ever could spirituality have been cradled in our palms without contest.
Simply put, this is the art of the challenge. Hip-hop has the unique ability to force us to prod at ourselves in earnest. When our belief systems double as the thick chords of our characters, these artists’ non-questions of God and godliness are deeply cutting.
Looking at select lyrics from the above artists, we have to conclude that there must be an opportunity for our beliefs to go slack. That is, perhaps a convoluted spirituality is more amenable than a rigid and potentially antiquated one. Perhaps not—spirituality is a very personal and sacred thing. At the least, these artists’ fleeting interrogations of God make the tangible realm a more livable place. Is that not the motivating factor for belief in the first?
“Now I don't need nobody / I would love somebody though / Don't you ever get it fucked up / Everybody wanna be God / Beside God, he wanna be like us” —Mac Miller, “Inside Outside”
Mac Miller’s 2014 opus Faces opens on a crumbling precipice: “Shoulda died already.” When we find ourselves cheating mortality, allusions to God are second nature. Addressing his fragile state of sobriety for the first handful of bars, Miller then suggests that he does not need a belief system, but he would love to believe in something. The audacity of “Don’t you ever get it fucked up” then transitions into him urging listeners to understand that neither he nor anyone else is above faith. Thus his final observations on God take on two meanings.
Firstly, we have the notion that everybody reaches a manic moment of invincibility. Perhaps not to the point of saving themselves, but to the point of having an overstated sense of self. By contrast, in Mac Miller’s view, God tires of overstatement. God would rather be worldly than other. It is a comment on our propensity to be ungrateful at all times. That is not to say that faith poses as a distraction, but rather that it can be spun into a series of obfuscating and obsessive thoughts.
Then there is the second take, wherein Mac Miller simply wants us to understand that, conceptually, God is an imperfect thing like the rest of us. How else could God be the “finger trembling inside a grenade pin’s ring” if not by way of tawdry imperfection? Yet, Miller never concludes the thought; his non-sequitur writing takes us to another theme and the listener is left to wonder if they can accept this image of God. They are left to wonder if they must accept it, or if Mac Miller is actually full of shit. Regardless of the subsequent thought, there is an act of conjecture, and that means Miller has done his job. That is the art in action.
“And I still be asking God to show his face / And I still be asking God to show his face” —Chance The Rapper, “Acid Rain”
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Ever jolly on 2013’s Acid Rap, seeing Chance The Rapper in a state of demand and desperation is nothing if not rare. Yet on “Acid Rain,” Chance is scorned to the point of nearly uncharacteristic irreverence. The repetition of the bar says it all: Chance The Rapper feels betrayed by God. With so much of Acid Rap quietly dealing with death and dismay, these calls to God have an immense gravity. For them to go unanswered summons an unimaginably bitter sense of abandonment. No wonder Chance delivers these lines in a near whisper, sounding like he has just been kicked in his gut’s gut. Perhaps a younger Chance would have benefitted from the approach of Mac and Hanif. That is, perhaps there is more solace to be found imaging God as desperate as a mortal, or as the finger in the ring. If Acid Rap Chance cannot summon and struggles to believe in God, perhaps it is time he adjusts his expectations.
On that end of the spectrum, then, we have Travis Scott’s “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD.” Between Kid Cudi hums, we get the imperative: “Hmm-hmm (Stop tryna be God) / Hmm-hmm (That's not who you are) / Hmm-hmm (Stop tryna be God) / Hmm-hmm (That's just not your job).” In the same vein as Miller’s declaring “Everybody wanna be God,” Travis' ASTROWORLD standout dabbles in the sense of futility it seems Chance The Rapper is fighting against. His larger point is that no one is invincible, meant to be saved or savior. We simply are—and that is enough.
On “Acid Rain,” Chance rejects the simplicity of being, and rightfully so considering the loss that has marked his coming of age. Consequently, the art of “Acid Rain,” and of “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” is not one of mistrust, but one of reality. A reality informed by Mac, but also by the constant permeance and prevalence of tragedy. We have to wonder, and so we do.
“This what God feel like, huh, he-yeah / Laughin' to the bank like, 'A-ha!' Huh, he-yeah” —Kendrick Lamar, “GOD.”
Stepping away from the dramatic for a moment, Kendrick Lamar triggers our questioning gaze by way of parody. Beveled and bubbly to the point of being sardonic, DAMN.'s “GOD.” works because of the grand irony here: God is not typically seen as a prideful and greedy entity and yet these bars roll off the tongue. Thus, Kendrick’s laughter here is twofold. He’s rich and that’s great, sure, but there has to be some self-awareness at play. Kendrick Lamar must be laughing at himself and consequently at the rigid portrayals of spirituality.
Much like Mac Miller’s opening on “Inside Outside,” “GOD.” erupts from a moment of “FEAR.” The track is a moment of overcompensation, wherein the final moments of “FEAR.” feature Kendrick Lamar worried that his faith has been destroyed by his success. As a result, the jockish nature of “GOD.” is his vision of his godless self. Lamar’s interrogation of godliness across these two tracks forces us to question the quality of godliness itself in an ontological fashion. That is, at what point do you stop qualifying as faithful? What is the statute of limitations on belief and the holy, and does God have to abide by the same rules? These are the questions Lamar implants by way of his cartoonish wheezing and ad-libbing.
“Make my wrong turn right, make my fists turn heaven / May the lord be with me, make me look like reverend / Make me look like regal, Southside abandon / I swear I look so regal, I swear I look so regal” —Noname, “Regal”
Where answers to questions of godliness derive from self, Noname takes heaven into her own hands. For one, “Regal,” found on the Chicago native's newly-released album Room 25, sounds heavenly and ascendant. The arrangement boasts an apt storytelling element, coming in after the trials of “Don’t Forget About Me,” which deal with death, remembrance, and eternity. With that, it’s safe to conclude “Regal” is set in Noname’s rendition of heaven. And though she yearns for a holy presence, there is no startling power differential as was the case with “Acid Rain.” In writing, Noname arrives at her heavenly state with or without God’s presence. Her regality is as natural as her faith, and thus she has found the balance and understanding we have been looking for across these five songs.
And so the art of godliness in hip-hop is an outgrowth of the art of delivering Big Questions in sheep’s clothing. Rather than be ravaged, artists interrogate their belief systems in snapping moments that command our attention but do not shatter us. We are led to larger questions from easy and often wounded statements. Somewhere along the path of challenging our own beliefs, too, we find that faith can be a malleable thing if only to the point of making life bearable.
Between these five songs is the promise that you can craft a spirituality that brings you peace, and only peace. That’s the artful nature of the rap game.
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