“Listen to this,” Jess* squealed, jamming iPod earbuds into my hears. They were a new invention at the time, and I still was dazzled by the idea of song after song after song stuffed onto them. We were in college, and new music was to us what Kelloggs is to Cornflakes.
The music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I was still emerging from the throes of my late high school music: Brand New, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters and the like. College had acquainted me with Death Cab for Cutie, the Smiths, Arcade Fire and a growing understanding of Radiohead’s bristling post-OK Computer work.
But I’d never heard anything like what Jess was playing for me.
It soared and warbled, arcing skyward towards a rapturous zenith and then, impossibly, growing even more beautiful. It would burst into some lovely resolution and then drop into an eerie minor key, like a mermaid beckoning love-struck sailors towards the rocks. And his voice! Just shy of alien, whispering nonsensical phrases like barely remembered secrets, infusing hollered gibberish with deep meaning.
It was Sigur Ros, of course.
I do not remember who first suggested to me that it sounded like Heaven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I came up with it myself. It’s an easy enough idea to conjure and, I’ve heard it many times since. Through their many albums, traversing many strange landscapes, the general consensus is that this is the music of the angels. You leave their concerts dumbstruck and panting for breath, swearing you’ve never worshiped the Almighty like that in your life.
Or, I should say, maybe you will.
Maybe you won’t. I’ve been thinking lately about how closely my idea of Heaven matches my idea of beauty. Sigur Ros music. The Rocky Mountains. Ornate halls with DaVinci paintings lining them. The angels might as well be decked out in Anthropologie robes. It looks beautiful and familiar to me. It would look cold and alienating to a hefty 90 percent of the world’s population.
Here’s an interesting story that still confounds me. I was listening to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid. m.A.A.d city three days ago. It’s worth noting that I don’t know much about hip-hop. I was raised in a small town in the midwest, one where mainstream rap was generally painted in broad strokes of being a megaphone for “negative values.” I’ve since listened to the rappers we all listen to: Outkast, Tupac, Kanye, Jay Z. I love them.
But no rap album has ever caught me the way good kid. m.A.A.d city has. Each song on the album tells another chapter in Lamar’s life growing up on Compton’s streets, wrestling between the faith his mother is calling him to follow and the gang life his block demands he join. The album is marked by voicemails from Lamar’s mother, asking him to come home, asking him to grow up—the desperation in her voice as riveting as any melody Sigur Ros ever crafted. “Why are you so angry?” she pleads. “I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man… Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton… When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement. And that’s the best way to give back to your city. And I love you, Kendrick.”
As Pitchfork has it: “good kid, m.A.A.d city is partly a love letter to the grounding power of family. In this album’s world, family and faith are not abstract concepts: They are the fraying tethers holding Lamar back from the chasm of gang violence that threatens to consume him.”
The faith element adds something I recognize here, and serves as a sort of guide. I can relate to it in a way I can’t to, say, Dr. Dre or Biggie. Which isn’t to say Kendrick is better than either of them, only that a small part of me relates to this album, which ultimately climaxes with Kendrick parroting his mother’s prayer of salvation. It’s as good an album as has been released in America in the past few years, and a line on “Dyin of Thirst” hit me.
Money, pussy and greed; what’s my next crave
Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave
Tired of running, tired of running
Tired of tumbling, tired of running
Tired of tumbling
Back once my momma say
“See a pastor, give me a promise
What if today was the rapture, and you completely tarnished
The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest
You dying of thirst, you dying of thirst
So hop in that water, and pray that it works”
Something about that last line. The blind exhaustion in his voice. The confused sob of a boy being torn between what he has to do and what he ought to do. Reader, I wept.
Mark this. Sigur Ros’ lovely nonsense may inspire me with feelings of heavenly beauty, but on the face of it, Kendrick Lamar sounds more in line with the things Jesus said. There is room for both in the Kingdom of God. I wonder, will I make room for both in my idea of Heaven?
Not that rap will be played in Heaven. Not that any sort of music I’d recognize will. Just that I shouldn’t be surprised if it is. And that I might as well invite it into the Church.
And what of the world’s other music? The twingeing, hesitant melodies of the Far East. The primal rhythms of African tribal circles. The throbbing club music of Berlin. The bleating horns of Mexico. And, yes Iceland’s stratospheric anthems and the ear rattling beats of Compton.
As I write this, a Florida man named Michael Dunn is being tried for firing on four unarmed black teens, killing a 17-year-old named Jordan Davis. Dunn was outside a gas station with his fiancee when the four of them pulled up, their music blaring. Dunn called it “thug music.” The teenagers argued back. One thing led to another, and Davis ended up dead. Dunn went to a hotel and ordered a pizza.
It’s dragged the usual arguments about race and guns back into the spotlight, and I certainly hope justice will be served, though our track record in such cases is not exactly inspiring.
But for everyone who calls it “thug music,” I might suggest they take a step back and consider the same question I’m asking myself: is there room for it in my picture of Heaven?
*Barely related: Jess introduced me to Sigur Ros, and also one other event that will stick with me forever: her walking up to me in the cafeteria and saying, “Have you heard of this new thing: Facebook?” Her influence on my life just can’t be overstated. Thanks, Jess.