I’ll Write Til I’m Right With God
“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again”
Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough album, good kid m.A.A.d. city, is a conversion narrative, tracing the moral journey of a young Kendrick through vice, violence, and grace. I don’t mean that the album is just redemptive or that one can interpret it as a conversion narrative if one tries hard enough. It is simply and unapologetically a conversion narrative. The album begins and ends with a recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer in this completely unironic voice. The main character of the concept album listens to the reprimand of an older black woman who tells him that he needs “living water.” Living water isn’t some metaphor for self-confidence or education or the right kind of political activism. She’s talking about the life-and-existence changing baptismal waters of Christ and His finished work on the cross. Interrupting the anger and frustration of a young black man bent on getting revenge for the earlier murder of his friend, her voice represents generations of African Americans living under white supremacy, generational poverty, cycles of violence and hopelessness that have survived because of their faith. She’s an avatar of the black church stepping in where no one else dares to. The protagonist listens, laying down his gun and the promise of vengeance in order to find holy water in Christ. Subverting listeners’ expectations, this 2012, platinum-selling, critically acclaimed rap album is about the power of the gospel to save. That is the kind of artist Kendrick Lamar is.