Last week, rapper Kendrick Lamar released his highly anticipated third major label album, DAMN. As with all his past releases, critics and fans have been buzzing about Kendrick’s lyrical deftness, musical prowess, and pointed social commentary. Increasingly, however, these conversations have also been centered on the interweaving of his Christian faith into his complex musical narratives. While his first two albums (2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly) explore Kendrick’s experience of God’s grace through justification and sanctification, all 14 tracks of DAMN. wrestle with anxiety over salvation’s assurance, exploring Kendrick’s fears of condemnation in this life and damnation in the next.

As part of a wave of high-profile, religiously influenced rappers that includes such artists as Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, Kendrick’s not alone in exploring faith-based themes. (Indeed, even modern artists are participating in a long tradition of religious sincerity in mainstream hip hop that includes artists like Tupac, DMX, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Mase, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others.) These artists’ approaches to theme and content vary widely; Kanye, for example, spoke of his The Life of Pablo as “a gospel album with a lot of cussing,” while Chance filled his Coloring Book with the sounds of Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, and Chris Tomlin to encapsulate his story of coming to faith.

Kendrick, meanwhile, consistently envelopes his narratives of hope and despair within overtly Christian language and theology. Good kid, m.A.A.d city, for instance, dealt with his salvation experience from the temptations of the streets of Compton (gang violence, ...

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