The Spirit of Prophecy
“Why are you so angry?
See, you young men are dying of thirst
Do you know what that means?
That means you need water, holy water
You need to be baptized, with the Spirit of the Lord”
- from “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
In our last post, we talked about how Kendrick used the first half of the track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” to introduce us to the idea of demons. In particular, Kendrick illustrated how these evil spirits influence individuals and entire societies. The references to spirits actually continue into the second half of the track when the anonymous woman tells Kendrick and his friends that they need to be baptized in the Spirit of the Lord.
This latter reference to the Spirit of the Lord plays a pivotal role within the literary design of Kendrick’s work. Most importantly, it reveals that while there are evil spirits that lead humanity to death and slavery, there is also a good spirit that frees humans from being enslaved to feelings of anger and other feelings that would otherwise lead to an endless cycle of death. This choice between good and evil spirits that we first heard in one track from good kid m.A.A.d city would then go on to inform the entire narrative of To Pimp a Butterfly. This is most clearly seen in Kendrick’s choice between the devil in the form of a woman named Luci(fer) and God in the form of a homeless man. This growing focus on spirits suggests that in order to understand Kendrick’s view of the world, we need to understand what Kendrick means when he talks about spirits.
To understand what the word “spirit” means, we are well-served by examining how the word is used throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word “spirit” is a translation of the Hebrew word ruakh (רוּחַ). Interestingly, the word ruakh can also be translated as “wind” or “breath” depending on the context. The commonality between all of these words is that they have to do with the invisible energy that animates visible changes in the world. Wind is invisible but can cause trees to sway. Breath is invisible but causes animals to live and move. Similarly, spirits are invisible but cause humans to speak and act in ways that they otherwise would not. In this sense, a spirit is essentially a shared pattern of thoughts and emotions which influence humans either for good or for evil.
“Sometimes I can like, get behind a mic
And I don’t know what type of energy I’ma push out
Or where it comes from, trip me out sometimes”
“Because it’s spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’
We just letting our dead homies tell stories for us”
- from “Mortal Man”
During the interview between Kendrick and 2Pac, Kendrick talked about the mysterious energy that he experiences when rapping. 2Pac explained that this energy is, in fact, the spirits of dead friends, who want Kendrick to tell their stories.
“Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big
And if I die before your album drop, I hope — [Gunshots]
Promise that you will sing about me”
- from “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
2Pac’s claim that Kendrick’s dead homies want Kendrick to tell their stories is an idea that works on at least three levels. Most obviously, the dead homies refer to Kendrick’s peers from Compton — such as the one from “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” — who want Kendrick to tell their stories when Kendrick becomes a famous rapper. On a deeper level, the statement about dead homies refers to 2Pac himself, Kendrick’s rap predecessor, who has come to talk with Kendrick from beyond the grave and encourage Kendrick to carry on the tradition of hip hop. Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — the statement about dead homies refers to Jesus who — according to the track “Faith” — has informed Kendrick that his purpose is to tell Jesus’s story all across the world.
Kendrick is by no means the first person to be filled with God’s spirit and commissioned to tell Jesus’s story. After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples so that they could witness his resurrected life. The Gospel according to John recounts an important detail about this encounter.
“Jesus breathed on the disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
- from John 20:22
In addition, we should note that when Jesus left the disciples and ascended into heaven, he gave the disciples final instructions by saying:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you”
- Matthew 28:19
Jesus’s disciples would then go to nations throughout the world, telling the story of their friend who died but then came back to life through the power of the Holy Spirit. In spreading this divinely inspired message that pointed to Jesus, the disciples believed that they were carrying on the tradition of an even more ancient group of people referred to as “the prophets.”
“You tell me my song is more than a song
It’s surely a blessing
But a prophet ain’t a prophet til they ask you this question:
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
- from “Mortal Man”
In the ancient world, the word prophet originally meant “one who speaks for a god”. Within the biblical tradition, the prophet’s journey typically begins when the prophet has a mysterious and awe-inspiring encounter with God, similar to Kendrick’s encounter with God in the form of a homeless man. After this awe-inspiring encounter, the prophet then comes under the influence of God’s Spirit and is instructed to deliver a message to a group of humans at a pivotal moment in their history. In some cases, this message may be about the future. However, at its core, biblical prophecy is about a choice that God’s people must make in the present. If God’s people make the right choice it will lead them to live in freedom. If they make the wrong choice, it will lead them to die in slavery. This pattern of prophets presenting a choice between freedom and slavery goes all the way back to the first and greatest Israelite prophet: Moses.
“Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need”
- from “How Much a Dollar Cost?”
Exodus chapter 14 tells the story of how God used Moses to part the Red Sea and lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. Soon after this dramatic emancipation, God spoke through Moses to give the Israelites a set of commandments which were meant to lead them to life. However, while Moses was humble enough to receive God’s commandments, the people on numerous occasions rebelled against Moses and abandoned God’s commandments. The Israelites’ opposition sought to undermine Moses’s role as leader, but Moses nonetheless prayed for God to forgive the very people who had abandoned him. In doing so, Moses proved to be “more humble than any human on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
Much like the Bible’s treatment of Moses, To Pimp a Butterfly presents Kendrick as someone who has blessed his people with a divinely inspired message that could lead them to life and freedom. However, the negative response that To Pimp a Butterfly garnered from several of Kendrick’s peers in the rap game, revealed that like Moses, Kendrick would have to face rejection and abandonment. The question then is how will Kendrick respond in the face of such opposition. Will Kendrick humble himself like Moses and pray for those who have opposed him? Or will Kendrick hold on to his pride and seek the downfall those who have wronged him? As we will soon see, the narrative of DAMN will be centered around this choice of humility or pride, of forgiveness or resentment, of the prayerful lifting up of enemies or vengeful self-exaltation.
- “Holy Spirit” video from The Bible Project
- “The Prophets” video from The Bible Project
- The iconographic murals “The Baptism of Christ” and “The Crossing of the Red Sea” were written by nuns from the Panachrantouat Monastery in Andros, Greece. The murals are installed in Saint Antonios Antiochian Orthodox Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.