Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Prayer’ is a Critique of How Society Values Art

It’s been well over 3 and a half years since Kendrick Lamar’s last studio album Damn came out. Since then, the Black Panther soundtrack has been his only major release – and even that feels like it came out what feels like forever ago – back in early 2018. Kendrick’s appearances in the last couple years have been few and far between, mainly limited to just a handful of guest verses. The biggest standout during this time was his co-starring role on Lil Wayne’s Mona Lisa, where he gave his best Broadway audition by means of a dual role lyrical performance.

But this year has been particularly quiet for the Pulitzer winner, with the exception of 3 leaked songs and the cryptic announcement of pgLang: a new services brand for artists co-founded by Dave Free that’s been promoted through a website and a visual mission statement. In their current forms, pgLang and the leaked songs are both promises of exciting things to come rather than finalized products ready for the public. However, conversely, the best of the leaked songs, The Prayer**, feels like a reckoning the public might not be quite ready for. 

Of the three songs leaked on September 5th, The Prayer is the closest to album-grade Kendrick in terms of sound mastering and depth of concept. In exploring the concept of dualism between art vs. artist on the track, Lamar questions why the legacy of an artistic creation must depend on the reputation of the artist’s personal character. With this dilemma front and center, he asks listeners some hard questions that often get overlooked or oversimplified in the era of social media-induced-hysteria and cancel culture. He boils down this current dilemma masterfully, providing explicit examples that can be appreciated across generations and cultures.

In the first two verses of The Prayer, Kendrick raps from the first-person perspective of two iconic pieces of American art: The Jackson 5’s ABC and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech. Yes, Kendrick literally personifies the art itself; he raps in first-person from the perspective of both the song (ABC) and the speech (I Have a Dream). (Check out I Gave You Power by Nas for another example of elite personification in rap). Kendrick intentionally picks two different mediums as his subjects (song and speech) to illustrate that his point is not constrained to any one realm of art. Through these examples, he illustrates how the complex relationship between art and artist transcends medium, without having to explicitly say it.

In the first verse, Kendrick raps from the perspective of one of the most classic pop songs of all time: ABC by The Jackson 5. The lyrics and melody of ABC are firmly cemented in the canon of 1970’s pop and American pop culture. The song itself jump-started the golden era of pop music. ABC is fun, simple, good-natured, and family friendly… it’s positive and it appeals to everyone. To describe the tangible, real effects of the song, Kendrick raps: “I made you laugh, I made you dance, I made you sing.’ Then he makes the connection between the song and the artist: ‘rivers of people surely united, just to see our bond.” The bond, of course, refers to lead singer Michael Jackson and the ABC. Then the verse takes a turn, as Kendrick delves into the problems that the song’s ‘father’ (MJ) has, such as the infamous and disturbing pedophilia accusations. And from the perspective of ABC, once Michael Jackson’s reputation was ruined, so was the song: “They crucified my affiliation for points to prove… my total existence was for making a smile move.” In the end, ABC died along with Michael Jackson’s public reputation, despite the innocent origin and positive impact of the song itself.

In the second verse, Kendrick takes on the perspective of MLK Jr.’s iconic I Have A Dream speech. He begins by reimagining the day when MLK Jr. preached to the nation about dreams of a unified, equal country; he spoke through God to inspire hope and show a future worth fighting for. Then, like in the first verse, the narrative shifts to highlight the creator’s tragic flaw, which exposes his imperfections. MLK Jr.s infidelity to his wife damaged his reputation, and revealed a far from perfect personal life. Kendrick raps from the speech’s perspective, “I prayed that I survived in the midst of the controversy; how many lives will fall on deaf ears if I’m not worthy?” In other words, even if MLK Jr.’s character is less than impeccable, surely the I Have A Dream speech should continue to inspire, and serve as a beacon of progress in the fight for civil rights. Whatever opinions one might have on the creator, don’t let it soil the inherent value of their creation.

In the last verse of The Prayer, Kendrick brings everything full circle by applying the themes of the first 2 verses to himself and the artistic community. Kendrick revisits questions about his own legacy, and then asks questions about the legacies of art. He had previously explored similar questions in depth on To Pimp A Butterfly’s final track Mortal Man. Mortal Man is a deeply personal song about legacy; it’s grounded in reflections about his own relationship with his friends, family, and fans. In the song, he repeatedly asks ‘‘if shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?” The question is largely rhetorical: Kendrick is hoping that his music’s legacy – or message – will transcend his human. (To further draw comparisons between Mortal Man and The Prayer, Kendrick connects Michael Jackson’s personal life to his music’s legacy Mortal Man as well). But whereas Mortal Man is a personal reflection, The Prayer is a broader meditation on how society treats art.

Ultimately, on The Prayer, we get Kendrick’s own opinion on how he thinks society should treat art: as a subject entirely separate from its creator. No doubt there have been (too many) examples in just the last couple of years of popular artists who have been rightfully condemned for bad, or in some cases criminal, behavior. It’s progress, of course, that they’re being held accountable on multiple dimensions. It’s inarguably positive for society. Kendrick’s point in the song is not whether or not people should be held accountable for their actions. It’s a much more nuanced, and philosophical, question to about how the condemned person’s art should be held accountable. This song addresses that question head on. (As a side note, we touched upon this subject briefly last year in an article about Kanye West’s ‘ye’ album… you can read that here). There’s not an easy answer, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Every case will be different, and people will interpret each case uniquely.

The philosophical questions asked in The Prayer apply beyond art. A key phrase in the song’s third verse summarizes its thesis, as Kendrick implores society to: ‘prosecute my crimes and not the thoughts I employ.’ This philosophical approach to separating creator from creation applies well beyond the traditional artistic realm of music, literature, and film – it is actually a discipline agnostic idea. (The same theory can apply to our relationship with great creations by morally imperfect engineers, doctors, or politicians). But sticking with art here: art is beautiful in and of itself (or at least it maintains its beauty in isolation from its creator), and for that reason it can make sense to isolate the evaluation of its beauty from its creator. By subjecting art to a moral purity test, we are applying a human code of ethics onto something that is not human. We live in a flawed world, and after all, a message or idea can be perfect, but a human cannot.

That being said, the degree to which an individual holds a given work of art accountable for its artist’s personal transgressions is entirely personal preference. And of course, the spectrum of offenses committed by an artist can range from the objectively unforgivable to the moderately annoying. The objectively unforgivable is one thing. But it’s easy to see how taking it to the other end of the extreme becomes problematic: boycotting each other for having slightly different opinions. There seems to be more direct route to a thoroughly divide society.

The bottom line is that hip hop, the art world, and society will continue to benefit from artists like Kendrick Lamar challenging their listeners to think critically and independently. We’re looking forward to Kung Fu Kenny’s next album to do exactly that.

*Freezepeach does not condone any unlawful or discriminatory acts; we stand in solidarity with victims of unlawful or discriminatory acts; we do not condone ‘art’ as a defense for any unlawful or discriminatory acts; we stand in solidarity with the #MeToo movement

**We’re not sharing a link to The Prayer because the song wasn’t supposed to be leaked. Kendrick’s team is actively working to remove the leaks from sites like YouTube, and we want to respect that. Based on how protective TDE has been over the song’s distribution, and the overall impressiveness of the track itself, we’re assuming it will be released officially sooner or later – maybe even on his upcoming album. For now, the lyrics can be found on Genius here

***Image by Joe Pugliese

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