Lucifer. Satan. Beelzebub. The devil has taken on many names and manifestations throughout history but has come to represent something similar to everyone. In Christianity, he’s believed by many to be a fallen angel—one of God’s most beautiful creations—who defied the Almighty and became his top adversary. In Judaism, Satan is a verb in a more abstract sense, typically to describe the act of temptation or difficulty. And in Buddhism, Mara (a.k.a the demon or the Lord of Death) is the cursed creature who attempted to steer Buddha off his path toward enlightenment.
In all three cases, the devil represents sin and temptation in their purest form; an evil attempting to misguide and trick all those who live an honest and happy life.
The devil has been a constant theme in the works of Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Jay Electronica, and Earl Sweatshirt, daring these rap stalwarts to take a bite of the poisoned apple and acting as an oppressive force awaiting their downfall. The devil, in this sense, is like music: a personal incarnation, taking on different shapes and interpretations based on the individual’s philosophies, experiences, and mind-state.
Kendrick Lamar details the devil on his universally acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly, telling the all-too-tragic story of a young Black man with talent who is promised money, fame, and unknowing power, only to be tricked by Uncle Sam and Lucy—Kendrick’s similar, yet differing personifications of the American devil. Both Sam and Lucy promise Kendrick everything he dreamt of while growing up in poverty. In reality, they’re masquerading poachers who view Kendrick as an animal in a land that’s not theirs. Their only desire is to skin him of chart-topping singles and money, making him lose sight of his ultimate purpose.
On standout selection “Wesley’s Theory,” Uncle Sam offers Kendrick a house, a car, and many other vapid purchases. These showy and expensive items make him feel like he’s made it to the top, causing his ego to boast on “King Kunta” and commit an act of retribution by using his fame to have sex with the girlfriend of his friend’s murderer on “These Walls.” As he raps on “Momma,” “I know everything, I know cars, clothes, hoes, and money / I know loyalty, I know respect, I know those that's ornery.” Kendrick has seen and experienced everything, and the fame he’s achieved through rap—which is the masked devil—has gifted this superiority to him.
Yet, on the last verse of “Momma,” as is the case on “How Much a Dollar Cost?” Kendrick shows he knows much less than he previously believed. As the young African boy on “Momma” states, “I know your life is full of turmoil / Spoiled by fantasies of who you are, I feel bad for you.” It takes a visit to Africa, complete with an existential epiphany, for Kendrick to realize the only way he can fight the devil is through harboring self-love and using his platform as a universally embraced entertainer to spread a positive message and an accurate depiction of his experiences.
Kendrick brings the album’s theme full circle on the album's final two tracks, “i” and “Mortal Man,” coming to understand that only through faith in himself and his people will he be able to fight the devil successfully. “i” is an anthem of self-love (“I love myself / When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see? / I love myself”), but it is also an embrace of his African heritage.
For the live version of “i,” we hear Kendrick stop his concert mid-song when a fight breaks out in the crowd. He begins rapping a cappella, explaining why Black men and women need not tear each other down, and how those of Black lineage must reclaim their royal heritage, which he spells out by rapping “N-E-G-U-S description: black emperor, king, ruler, now let me finish / The history books overlook the word and hide it.”
On “Mortal Man,” Kendrick reclaims the act of warding off the devil for both himself and his people when he states, “Let these words be your earth and moon / You consume every message / As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression.”
By the end of To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick can see through the cubic zirconium of lies—lies that inflated Kendrick’s self-worth into something flashy, yet flimsy—Uncle Sam and Lucy have been feeding him, and can fight them off by keeping faith in his ultimate purpose.
Like Kendrick Lamar, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. also watched the devil attempt to hijack his life on his 2017 double album 4eva is a Mighty Long Time.
For Big K.R.I.T., the devil appears relatively unobscured, doused in fame, expensive gold jewelry, and nameless, hopeless ego. Across three songs—“Price of Fame,” “Drinking Sessions,” and “Bury Me in Gold”—K.R.I.T. recognizes the devil’s temptations and contemplates how much his seductive allure has caused him to embrace his newfound status as a wealthy rapper and forget his home and those who built him.
In an intricately woven verse, K.R.I.T. sums up much of his perspective on the devil on “Make My,” from The Roots’ 2011 album UNDUN.:
“Addicted to the green, if I don't ball I'll get the shakes / I'd give it all for peace of mind, for Heaven's sake / My heart's so heavy that the ropes that hold my casket breaks / Cause everything that wasn't for me, I had to chase”—Big K.R.I.T., “Make My”
K.R.I.T.’s “Make My” guest verse is the first sign of his desiring gold in his music, which continues on 4eva is a Mighty Long Time. On album closer “Bury Me in Gold,” he says, “All I ever wanted was a gold chain with that gold ring.” Despite this constant pull of luxury and excess, though, K.R.I.T. comes full circle by the track’s conclusion, confessing how desiring money can lead those astray, and that he would trade it all in for eternal salvation.
“Big houses, nice cars, all that stuff cool / But it's materialistic things that we strive so hard for / As human beings, and it's not fulfillin' / It doesn’t take away the pain, it doesn’t take away the loss / You have to search higher, you have to go higher for that” —Big K.R.I.T., “Bury Me in Gold”
K.R.I.T.’s belief in religion and a higher power helps him fight Satan and keep away sin. For K.R.I.T., the devil is representative of money, fame, and the temporary amnesia both can cause, which is why he digs his teeth into the religion he was raised on as to not forget his core principles (“Keep the Devil Off”) and his hometown (“Miss Georgia Fornia”).
Jay Electronica’s music and his interpretation of the devil are far different from Big K.R.I.T., but the pair share the same values (religion, faith) that are inherent in fighting the evil that lurks around every corner.
From the beginning of his exceedingly-enigmatic career, Jay Electronica has been running from the devil. From trying to blind his light on “Dear Moleskin” to accusing and jailing him on “better in tune w the infinite,” to keeping he and the rest of the Five-Percent Nation in darkness and ignorant to the world’s truths, Jay sees the devil existing both within himself and in the society that envelops him.
On his collaboration with British singer The Bullitts, “Run and Hide,” America is a form of the devil when he raps, “The Western World is just a hive of scum and villainy / That's why superheroes wear disguises in trilogies,” and those only perpetuating these phony Western World ways are equally responsible: “And the wizard is just a man inside the booth behind the curtain / Behaving like a serpent / With a bag full of everything / Except your home.”
Like K.R.I.T., Jay sees those who are trying to make him forget his home as Satanic, observing how they attempt to disillusion him with “a bag full of everything,” just as Uncle Sam and Lucy do to Kendrick.
Los Angeles rapper Earl Sweatshirt also recognizes the evil American devil, one who appears as “Crackers pilin’ in to rape the land,” as he says on “The Mint,” and as an authoritative figure that he avoids at all costs (“I'm watching out for the mark of the beast / The badge on the policeman”) on “E. Coli.”
While Earl’s devil appears more often within himself—in the form of depression, self-doubt, and despondency—he and Jay Electronica share several common threads, as both artists interpret the world in a prophetic, surreal way, opting for heavy doses of introspection to fight the forces outside of themselves which cause their depressive emotions.
Jay pours faith into his religion, which he speaks on at great lengths in his music, but Earl, through most of his discography, relies on substances as a coping mechanism. The devil manifests in relatively similar ways for Jay and Earl, but how they choose to confront his startling incarnations are distinctly disparate. Like Kendrick Lamar, Earl opts to drop his faith into varying buckets—from drugs to plots of revenge—but also within themselves and their close confidantes.
Unlike Kendrick Lamar, who creates anthems about loving himself (“i”) and his black heritage (“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”), Earl focuses on crafting understated moments of self-confidence laced beneath a threatening tide of apathy. Take 2014’s “Quest/Power” and 2018’s “Azucar,” two songs where Earl confronts his depression but also pays homage to the flotation device that saved him when the devil was most potent: Black women.
On “Azucar,” Earl raps one of the most empowering lines of his career, “My cushion was a bosom on bad days / There’s not a black woman I can’t thank,” recognition that keeping faith in himself and the women around him allows him to run from his demons to solace.
Earl Sweatshirt self-medicates and reciprocates the love he receives from Black women. Big K.R.I.T. prays and loves his granny. Jay Electronica educates the 85 percent and lets his brain pour water out of his tear ducts to heal himself. And Kendrick Lamar double downs on delivering a message of truth and honesty to the masses after seeing the evils of Lucy and realizing how beautiful both he and his Black heritage are.
Four artists. Four different routes. The fight continues.