Uncertainty is a phenomenon that plagues every conscious being and 2016 gave us a healthy dose of it. Staring down the barrel of the next several years, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the anxiety of uncertainty. It’s the natural result of a finite existence. Once uncertainty begins to plague your mind, it starts to seep into every aspect of your thinking.
There’s comfort in hearing other people express their uncertainty, though. It gives you a sense of solidarity and makes you see them as authentic. For some reason, it seems that the labelmates at Top Dawg Entertainment felt the need to express their uncertainty with the social climate of 2016 and did so in religious terms.
Religion is an aspect of American life that is embedded in our social DNA at this point, for better or worse. Anyone raised in the United States with an at least vaguely Judeo-Christian worldview can identify with the personal crises these rappers are describing. Though most of them spark more questions instead of providing neat answers, it may be beneficial to approach these songs as ongoing conversations between ourselves and these artists. Plato said that “truth looks to reveal itself in conversation”, so maybe we should sit back and listen.
“Forbidden Fruit” by Lance Skiiiwalker
I think it’s safe to say that many feel betrayed in some manner after the 2016 election, whether by your political party, corporate media, fake news sites, or the increasingly archaic way in which our political machines operate.
“Forbidden Fruit” shows Lance Skiiiwalker dealing with the same type of betrayal, but rather in biblical terms. The opening track to Skiiiwalker’s debut album, “Introverted Intuition,” begins with calming paradisal noises and ends with a drum sequence that mimics the uproar of a jungle, showing how quickly betrayal can reveal itself.
“So I love her, / damn near trust her, / got me hypnotized” are Skiiiwalker’s words just before the drums signal the dive into uncertainty. Is this the same way we’ve approached our politics? Have we been hypnotized by a system that’s marketed as the “best for all” only to be let down “forever and ever”? I’m not sure, but Lance’s exploration of betrayal gives us an image to compare with our current political climate, and this might be a warning we can’t afford to ignore.
“Lord Have Mercy” by ScHoolboy Q
Having a moral code that’s informed by religious doctrine can be stressful. Setting aside all questions about the legitimacy of such a code, if you have a religious ethic then you’ve probably broken it a few times.
Breaking this code doesn’t just carry the weight of knowing you did something wrong, it’s also accompanied by the caveat that your actions have eternal significance. If you don’t follow “God’s will”, punishment will eventually catch up to your soul. Even though this might be qualified by saying “God will forgive you,” if you truly believe your actions have eternal consequences, how can you not be anxious?
ScHoolboy Q’s collaboration with Swizz Beatz, from his highly underrated sophomore album, “Blank Face LP,” is his appeal to mercy from a higher power for his failure to live up to the will of the divine. Q’s bars discussing his quote-on-quote dirty habits and Swizz’s sampling of “Cristo Redentor”(translated to Christ the Redeemer) by Donald Byrd sets up a tension between the redemption Q hopes for and the reality of himself.
Q doesn’t think he’s worthy of the reconciliation he seeks, but still he raises his voice at the end of his verse to exclaim “Lord have mercy!” Swizz drops the heaviest part of the beat at that time, indicating the fogginess of the outcome. ScHoolboy Q is only putting words to a fear we all experience. For everyone’s sake, let’s pray there’s hope for Q.
“untitled 01” by Kendrick Lamar
Similar to Q’s cry for grace on “Lord Have Mercy,” Kendrick has a discussion with God in “untitled 01,” but this one is much more in depth.
He’s motivated to speak with his maker because the “signs of the Apocalypse” are happening all around him. Setting aside a discussion of the Book of Revelation, a person of any faith can understand his warning that humans are destroying themselves.
Maybe the world has always been in such a chaotic state and the advent of practically universal news coverage simply reveals what hides behind the curtain. Regardless, the anxiety it causes is real.
In response to this anxiety, like many, Kendrick seeks reassurance from God that he will ultimately be spared the woes of existence for heavenly peace. His eternal status is uncertain and we can hear him plead with God and list his earthly achievements:
“I was valedictorian, I was fearful of judgment, /
But confident I had glory in all my past endeavors”
“I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you. /
Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you.”
“I tithed for you, /
I pushed the club to the side for you. /
Who love you like I love you?”
We never get an answer from God before the song’s outro begins. In the same way, seeking absolute reassurance in the afterlife will leave you without an answer. Until you knock on the door of eternity, how will you know?
“Wat’s Wrong (feat. Zacari & Kendrick Lamar)” by Isaiah Rashad
By far the most upbeat song on this list, “Wat’s Wrong” is also the least direct in it’s discussion of religious uncertainty. He opens and closes his first verse with religious elements, discussing his “running on sin” in the beginning and finishing with the claim that he “lost his God.” So what led to this?
Between these two thoughts, Rashad tells us about the drastic changes that happened in his life after moving to L.A. to be closer to T.D.E. headquarters. He discusses chasing women, his addiction to Xanax, and his increasing status as a celebrity. He claims that his new life choices go against the religious upbringing, but he doesn’t see the absolute bleakness that his former religious authorities warned.
While he hasn’t completely given up his religious belief (but thankfully has given up the Xanax), he is adjusting that belief in light of his personal experience. He now “love’s life above a reason,” meaning he cannot put his worldview into a neat definition. In that way, he has “lost his (former) God,” but replaced his dated concepts with an openness that he believes will lead to growth.
“Threatening Nature” by Ab-Soul
I could write an entire list of Ab-Soul songs that deal with religious uncertainty, and many would be taken from his latest album, “Do What Thou Wilt.” I chose “Threatening Nature” above Soul’s other songs because of the unique spin the rapper puts on common theological issues.
Soul approaches his discussion of God by tackling the very idea of believing in a deity. He compares the uncertainty of marrying a woman you’ve just met, or have barely seen or barely understand with believing in an other-worldly deity you have also never encountered:
“You get on your knees every night /
To pray to a man that you barely understand /
Or have even seen with your eyes closed, /
Then turn around and do the same thing, /
Get on your knees, then put a ring /
On the woman that you wanna call your wife”
These lines also connect back to previous lyrics about Adam and Eve, as Soul illuminates the hypocrisy of marriage being considered a sacred honor, whereas Adam following his heart to Eve – and therefore giving into sin – is the opposite. Ab-Soul enjoys attacking the philosophical underpinnings of commonly held assumptions and “Threatening Nature” is no different. Whether or not his comments will be taken seriously is another issue.
We’re all vulnerable, they’re just the first to admit it
The honesty of T.D.E. artists is something they’ve been praised for since they started to gain attention as a collective. There’s a self-induced vulnerability that naturally comes from putting your anxiety about beliefs that are supposed to be rock-solid into songs that the world will hear.
If the unexamined life is truly not worth living, the voices of T.D.E.’s roster are necessary forces that push us to the boundaries of what we think is true and leave us facing the unknown. We can be certain that these questions won’t go away, but there’s also comfort in the fact that we’re not alone on this journey.