Kendrick Lamar's DAMN (a year later)
"What happens on Earth stays on Earth."
written by: Forrest Bloom
A Supreme Storyteller
Kendrick Lamar is extremely adept at weaving a cohesive story into the undercurrent of each album. In many ways, good kid, M.A.A.D. city is a coming of age story freeing Kendrick from the shackles of his environment, while To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has Kendrick trapped in his cocoon dealing with the price of fame, negative stereotypes, and hypocrisy in America. The story concludes with i, perhaps the only “happy” song on the album, where Kendrick symbolically emerges from the cocoon as a free butterfly.
DAMN, the follow-up to TPAB, was mostly well-received but left many fans literally waiting for more. Indeed, the sound of DAMN is different—sharp, fed-up, matter-of-fact, dark, and sometimes indulgent. It's confusing, and on a first listen it can seem contradictory. But, at a basic level, DAMN is an album rooted in God. The temptation of material items and worldly pleasures is a theme present through the entire album. A curse. While TPAB focuses on the institutional racism promulgated by our government and leaders, DAMN is an internal reflection on the role that our own vices play in systemic racism and America.
DAMN is just as creative, developed, and necessary as good kid, M.A.A.D. city and To Pimp a Butterfly.
"Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide.”
The concept of Karma and the importance of your own decisions are present in each track. How can you be a good kid in a maad city where you’re born into a curse to be damned? In TPAB we're introduced to Lucy—a romanticized version of Lucifer—symbolizing greed, America's obsession with power, and the temptations of becoming a superstar. It's not easy to ignore Lucy, especially when her roots run so deep that they're artificially—at the hands of mainstream conservative America—in your DNA.
“This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” - Geraldo Rivera
Thus, in many ways, DNA (the second track on DAMN) is a satirical play on the flawed and deeply racist underpinnings of America. It's an angry song ripe with frustration where Kendrick responds to any and all of the propagandist criticism that so causally undermines the impact of systemic racism. In his reflection, Kendrick confronts a sensitive awareness that rap is a cure for the symptoms of oppression, but does little to end the cycle of greed and influence that ultimately leads to disenfranchisement. In the end, the only thing powerful enough to provide freedom from this curse is your own free will.
"I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine's
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man
Maybe I’m just another nigga”
- Kendrick Lamar, Mortal Man
DAMN is a painfully honest analysis of our inner demons; a necessary chapter in the book of Kendrick Lamar. Our individual decisions are important, and we can't expect societal change or personal salvation if we live like complacent bystanders. In Lust, Kendrick explores the danger of complacency and how the mundanity of daily life awaits us with open arms after passion fades. We predictably revert to our pre-programming, lost in the lust.
"We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin' for confirmation, hopin' election wasn't true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feelings deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor 'bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin', things change
Revertin' back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways
- Kendrick Lamar, LUST
Kendrick Lamar's Message
A feeling of pending failure and darkness is present throughout the album, but what is the ultimate message? Interestingly, DAMN can also be listened to in reverse-track order. The story begins with DUCKWORTH, a summary of the seemingly coincidental beginnings of Kendrick's career, where he examines a chance encounter between his Dad and a TDE executive that dictated the rest of his life. It's an interesting nod to the power of fate. Is Kendrick cursed or blessed? GOD, track 13, is presented as the proof and validation to confirm that all of Kendrick's struggles and individual choices were worth it; he's free from the curse and the shackles of his cocoon.
It's easy to pray for forgiveness but much harder to accept the punishment for your actions. Karma is real. Don't blame God when the only one responsible is yourself. God is forgiving, but he should also be feared. Go ahead and listen to DAMN again. When you're done, listen to it in reverse-order. Then, comment below and share your opinion.
It was always me vs. the world until I found it's me vs. me