This is entry six in our micro-series, The Rapper’s Prayer. To read the first five entries in the series, click here.
“Lead us not into temptation.”
Temptation hisses like a hydra. You win one battle, sever one head, but it just comes back twofold. Temptation wears you down. Temptation abuses your deepest desires and most vulnerable weaknesses. It’s no wonder the Rapper’s Prayer longs for another way, an escape route toward security. But temptation is unrelenting, unavoidable. The Rapper’s Prayer, then, is a prayer for the strength, wisdom, and self-control to overcome temptation’s invitation.
As a topic, temptation has been well-examined by some of hip-hop’s greatest and most well-respected practitioners. 2Pac does little to fight his sexual desires on 1995’s “Temptations,” telling God it’s hard to keep from falling. In his 2017 song “TEMPTATION,” Joey Bada$$ asks for an escape from his young and restless ways. Future looks to his pastor for help with temptation in 2019’s “St. Lucia,” but finds he’s “doin’ the same thing.” Nobody is safe from the allure. And nobody dissects the struggle and prays against temptation more thoroughly than Kendrick Lamar.
Across his major label trilogy—good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and DAMN. (2017)—Kendrick offers us insight into his fight against temptation, a fight that has evolved throughout his career and life’s journey from clout-seeking homie to the fame-grappling king to the fearful human being. At each step in his journey, prayer has proved an essential piece of Kendrick’s music and fight against temptation.
Kendrick opens the narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city as an impressionable, young K. Dot, longing to fit in with his homies and have sex with Sherane. Temptation darkens Kendrick’s journey across the album, leading him down roads he didn’t imagine for himself. “Smokin’ on the finest dope, ay-ay-ay-ah / Drank until I can’t no mo’, ay-ay-ay-ah / Really I’m a sober soul / But I’m with the homies right now,” he sings on “The Art of Peer Pressure.” As the song progresses, Kendrick follows his homies into a robbery and violence, despite his assertion, “Really, I’m a peacemaker.”
Again, Kendrick faces the temptation of alcoholism on “Swimming Pools (Drank),” where somebody asks him, “N***a, why you babysittin’ only two or three shots? / I’mma show you how to turn it up a notch.” Kendrick tries over and over to fit in, thinking camaraderie would give him an identity. However, this decision only leads to the tragic death of his friend, guilt, and shame.
Through all these events, Kendrick hints at prayer. He recognizes early on his need for it, praying on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “I am a sinner who’s prolly gonna sin again / Lord, forgive / Lord, forgive me / Things I don’t understand.” On “Backseat Freestyle,” mixed in with Maserati bars and dick jokes, is the earnest realization, “Jesus Christ, if I live life on my knees, ain’t no need to do this.” Kendrick, faced with the peer-influenced classic trifecta of temptations (sex, drugs, alcohol), recognizes the need for prayer—the need for someone to lead him out of temptation when everything else encourages him to embrace it.
Overcome with grief after the death of his friend Dave, Kendrick is driven to an encounter with God on “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst.” A woman, voiced by Maya Angelou, explains his need for holy water, for something to quench the thirst, he tried filling on his terms to no avail. She leads Kendrick and his friends in the sinner’s prayer:
“Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. I believe you raised Him from the dead. I would ask that Jesus come into my life and be my Lord and Savior. I receive Jesus to take control of my life and that I may live for Him from this day forward. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
The woman tells Kendrick this is the beginning of his new life. Tired of running from temptation, Kendrick embraces the belief in someone with saving power, with the power to forgive sins. The Rapper’s Prayer against temptation depends on this relationship, on the hope that we can overcome temptation. Following this prayer, Kendrick is full of vibrant energy, realizing none of the temptations he faced across the album defined or controlled him. Now, he feels free, energized, real. However, defeating the temptation of physical desires often leads to a more profound temptation—the desires of the ego.
On To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick explores his fight against ego and materialism following his rise to fame. “Two coupes, two chains, two C-notes / Too much ain’t enough, both we know / Christmas, tell ‘em what’s on your wish list / Get it all, you deserve it, Kendrick,” Uncle Sam bids him on opening track “Wesley’s Theory.” Immediately, we see Kendrick’s temptations evolve from his previous album. Where he was once tempted by fitting in, he now faces the desire to flaunt his success, to separate himself from those around him, to indulge in all the pleasures he deserves.
This temptation of entitlement continues on the following tracks, “For Free” and “King Kunta,” where Kendrick lords his journey “from a peasant to a prince to a motherfucking king” over his Compton community. As the album continues, Kendrick recognizes his arrogance and desire for status as a misuse of influence, an evil temptation of the devil to which Kendrick has fallen prey. Following this revelation, Kendrick finds himself at the preacher’s door on “Alright.”
Depressed, Kendrick cries out to God (Yah) for an escape from temptation and an assurance that things will, indeed, be alright. Even as the devil (Lucy) comes to tempt him in the second verse, Kendrick sticks to prayer, admitting, “I can see the evil, I can tell it, I know it’s illegal.” Through dark nights in his prayers, Kendrick seeks to be “right with God,” to overcome the evils of Lucy and be a better man than he was the day before.
Through the Rapper’s Prayer, Kendrick again sheds the temptations facing him as he draws closer to God and his true self. But Kendrick recognizes the fight never ends. The need to pray against temptation is constant, and the temptation is a master of evolution.
Having defeated the enemies of peer pressure and egotistic materialism, Kendrick prays against his most sinister foe: fear. Or at least, he tries. Fear leaves Kendrick demoralized, crippled even to the point of not crying out as he has throughout his career. He doesn’t pray because he’s afraid of God. He’s afraid his shortcomings are a result of internal wickedness, instead of human weakness. He’s worried his success has been part of a cautionary tale, as he raps on “FEAR.”:
“All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me? / Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? / Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?” –Kendrick Lamar, “FEAR.”
Afraid to confront this possibility, Kendrick pleads with others to pray for him but fears no one does. The temptation of fear has sent Kendrick into a spiral of prayerless self-doubt, paranoia, anger, and even pride as he attempts to hold tightly to his top-dog status on “HUMBLE.” On the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced single, Kendrick indulges in self-exaltation as he brazenly puffs his chest and tells everyone else to sit down. Though it may all sound like bravado, Kendrick’s motive on “HUMBLE.” is very different than “King Kunta.” While “King Kunta” was born from a place of entitlement and misuse of power, “HUMBLE.” is a depressingly hollow look at what happens when fear convinces you that you must fend for yourself. Ain’t nobody praying for Kendrick, he believes, so he makes himself untouchable.
This spiral from fear to doubt to proud egoism is dark and dangerous, tempting and luring the rapper deeper into a black hole. It pushes Kendrick into irrationality, a place he rarely allows his mind to go. Encounters with God came at opportune moments in Kendrick’s last records, breaking in when things were bleakest. No such divine intervention happens on DAMN.. Kendrick, it seems, has forgotten how to pray against temptation. However, blessing still comes.
Kendrick’s cry for prayer is answered by his cousin Carl, who, after a questionable conversation on God’s punishment of minorities in America, closes his voicemail, “I love you, family, and I pray for you. God bless you. Shalom.” Prayer breaks through and alleviates Kendrick’s fears, which plague him throughout DAMN.
After realizing somebody is praying for him, Kendrick remembers the freedom from temptation he’s always felt through God. “This what God feel like, huh, yeah / Laughin’ to the bank like, ‘A-ha!’, huh, yeah / Flex on swole like, ‘A-ha!’, huh, yeah,” Kendrick laughs on “GOD.” The Rapper’s Prayer reminds Kendrick that financial needs dissipate in light of God’s power. Temptation has no power when true peace sets in, a peace rooted in Kendrick’s history of overcoming and receiving blessing through prayer.
Time and time again, Kendrick Lamar shows us, in gritty detail, what a fight with temptation looks like. It’s not a sign of wickedness, as Kendrick wonders on DAMN.. It’s an inevitable reality of being human. As we mature, the fight only grows more profound and more difficult as temptation mines the darkest parts of our souls for exploitation. The Rapper’s Prayer against temptation, then, reminds us to stay constantly vigilant, to recognize it for the master of disguise it is, and to rely on the power of prayer to lead us away from it at every turn. The Rapper’s Prayer offers peace in the face of temptation, an opportunity to laugh to the bank, and know life will be alright.