Stellar music mediates a sense of God. It reminds us that there are values more important than networking, making money, and the transactional exchanges that comprise most of our lives. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly accomplishes this kind of work. Its achievement, in some respects, resists analysis. Nevertheless, in gratitude, I'd like to share what the work has evoked within me.
As a Christian preacher, I appreciate Lamar's deft use of symbols and images. The word pictures on TPAB are effective and risky. Inadvertently or intentionally, Lamar allegorizes Matthew 25:31-46, bringing Jesus to his listeners in the form of a homeless person. On "u," we are reminded of the beauty and agony of self-love; we are cajoled with the recognition that dealing gently with ourselves is a complicated affair. All of this top-shelf musing, mind you, occurs over a soundscape arranged by some of the best producers in music. If you haven't purchased the album, open another tab in your browser. Purchase it now. Thank me later, thank God immediately following your first listen to the full album. Thank God for what? For a twenty-seven year old poet who approaches artistry as ministry. Like pastor and parishioner in the preaching moment, there is a brokenness and wholeness to Lamar's work for the artist and the audience.
The rhythms are dexterous, the breath control breathtaking, the technical execution varied and virtuosic. TPAB is a clinic on oratorical excellence. The classical criteria of rhetorical brilliance are inarguably present: Lamar says something substantive -- on tracks, on interludes, and a spoken word terrace that builds into a sweet crescendo to conclude the album -- with a highly stylized, well-sequenced, and memorable delivery. What preacher, lawyer, teacher, radio host, or anyone who earns wages with words, wouldn't benefit from studying Lamar's rhetoric closely?
Somehow within this act of commodification Lamar manages to commune with God, with self, with an ever-expanding public. For 79 minutes, Lamar unveils his insides: we hear the disorientation of stardom and living in a new tax bracket and social strata than most of his beloved Compton residents. It's audacious. It's disarming. It's also a noteworthy risk by the artist and the label. I'm not sure if the album will sell. If it does, wonderful. If not, I celebrate Lamar, Interscope Records, DJs, street teams, and everyone else supporting the project with verbal affirmation, purchasing power, and the irreplaceable sweat of promotion. Pricing and packaging art, when done this way, models a principled engagement with market forces. It disrupts the canard that one must sell out to gain a broad audience. Preachers, take note: we can reach the masses without reducing the Gospel to advice on autonomy and the inspiration industry of individualism. At root, TPAB is a suite of songs that reflects K.Dot's deepest vision of music, his experiences, and his sense of what the world and an ideal Kendrick Lamar might look like. I'm grateful for the journey. Grateful for the art. Grateful for the institutional risk takers known and unknown that fought for this album.
As theologians and rhetorical theorists maintain, words are speech-acts. In the Bible, God speaks and stuff happens. Life and death and therefore resurrection -- precisely because we die everyday -- are still in the power of the tongue. Forgive us all Lord, especially those of us who use words to evoke worship, for mismanaging the treasure you entrusted to us. After listening to TPAB, I feel stirred into good works. I feel compelled to apologize for all of the unedited sermons, uninspired exhortations, and unthoughtful utterances I've shared in over fifteen years of ministry with words. Kendrick, keep rapping. The Church, of which you are a part, is listening and learning from you.
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