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God Damn Us All: The Fallen World of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn

There is a central duality that permeates nearly every aspect of Kendrick Lamar’s new album DAMN..  Throughout the work Lamar wrestles with the immense success he has achieved from his previous albums Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, alternating between boastful celebrations of his prodigious talents and depressive meditations on the pitfalls of fame and self-aggrandizement.

The first track of the work, “BLOOD.,” presents this foundational dichotomy and serves as a key for understanding much of the album.  In a mostly spoken word story, Lamar describes his attempts to help a struggling blind woman before he is shot by her in repayment for his generosity.  Before this brief narrative, a haunting voice delivers the first lines of the album, presenting two choices to the audience, asking, “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness? / You decide / Are we going to live or die?”

These options are useful in understanding the two general categories of songs on DAMN.: the “wicked,” pop-rap songs – like “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” – which brilliantly and viciously declare Lamar’s dominance as an artist; and the “weak,” melancholy tracks – like “PRIDE.” and “FEAR.” – more reminiscent of Lamar’s earlier, classic work which reflect on the ethical issues of these boasts and fame in general.  This is not an ironclad dichotomy – “XXX.” undergoes a drastic sonic pivot midway through and combines principles of both categories – but it is a useful heuristic for evaluating many of the tracks on DAMN.

This bipolar character of Lamar and the album is no better exemplified than in the decision to make “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” adjacent tracks.  “HUMBLE.,” which was released before the rest of DAMN. burst onto the cultural landscape as a fiery declaration  of Lamar’s supremacy in rap as he preached to all of his rivals to “sit down” and “be humble” before his messianic image.  In the full context of DAMN., however, Lamar’s confidence takes on a perverse, complicated appearance, especially compared with the preceding track, “PRIDE.”

In “PRIDE.,” Lamar raps over a somber, slow beat with a guitar strumming in the background that seems alien when compared to the booming notes and biting lyricism that helped make “HUMBLE.” a viral sensation.  Like “HUMBLE.,” he declares his supremacy, stating, “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause your ass is insecure,” but this line is not meant to be a boast.  Instead, it is intended a reflection of a cold-hearted nature he has developed as a successful artist.  He later raps, “Now in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive” but later undercuts this notion that he, and others, could ever overcome their cruel sense of pride, stating, “Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride / A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.”  A haunting refrain sung by Lamar and Anna Wise further highlights this distance from humanity as they repeat together, perhaps indicating that Lamar’s feelings are not unique to himself, “Maybe I wasn’t there.”

DAMN. lacks the strong narrative of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, or even the vague story of To Pimp a Butterfly, but this is done for a clear reason.  The album is not focused on progression, but on inevitable regression.  The album deftly uses its structure and content to portray a fundamentally corrupted world that Lamar sees as a root of his persistent inequities and which manages to seep it’s toxins into the characters of every man and woman on it.  As in all of his prior albums, Lamar returns his imagination to his hometown of Compton and the violence endemic to it, most vividly in “DNA.” and “FEAR.”  He describes his perspective as a teenager in the city in “FEAR.”, stating, “I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house / I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin out.”  In “DNA.,” he describes how this violence manages to become a central part of his character expressed through his immensely successful songs, rapping, “I got / Realness, I just kill shit ‘ cause it’s in my DNA / I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA.”

Lamar, crucially, does not limit his depiction of a corrupt world to Compton, though, and expands his cruel portrayal to the United States as a whole, and moves the album from primarily introspection to clear social criticism. In “XXX.,” as in “FEAR.” and “DNA.” he presents the crimes of Compton, but explicitly shows how this evil is mirrored in the supposedly refined areas of the country, stating, “It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets / Wall Street, corporate offices / Banks, employees, and bosses with / Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office.”

The theme of repetitive sin is widespread throughout DAMN., and gives the album a bleaker tone than its dark, but ultimately somewhat hopeful, predecessors, as Lamar consistently fails to change his ways despite speaking at length about the evils of his actions.  In the penultimate track “GOD.,” Lamar returns to a pop-rap sound and boasts about how he feels like God, stating, “This what God feel like, huh, yeah / Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-ha!”, huh, yeah.”  The track feels empty and vapid in comparison to the preceding “FEAR.” and furthers the painful sense that Lamar cannot help but knowingly indulge in his vices. Similarly, in the cyclical “LUST.,” Lamar explicitly describes the troubles of changing one’s routine even after a traumatic event like the election of Donald Trump, stating, “Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in / our ways; Lust.”

In “DUCKWORTH.”, as well as the uplifting description of his relationship with his fiancée in “LOVE.,” Lamar does seem to offer some sort of solace to this troubled world.  He raps in “DUCKWORTH.,” “Life is one funny mothafucka / A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta / trust him” before describing the improbable relationship between his father and his producer, Top Dawg, that helped lead to his current success.

Much of this is undercut, though, by the ending of the song.  At the signal of a gunshot, the entire album is rewound to the beginning of “BLOOD.” signaling that Lamar’s internal divisions will continue indefinitely into the future.  The only truly lasting sense of hope Lamar provides in the album is a messiah for himself and his fellow cursed “Israelites” – a position Lamar seems to take on in the immodest “DNA.” but then renounce in “XXX.” –  to permanently deliver them from their evils, but there is no sense that the appearance of this figure is on the horizon.  A mournful voice articulates this prevailing despair in “FEAR.,” singing, “God damn you / God damn me / God damn us / God damn we / God damn us all.”

 
There are so many more rich threads of DAMN. that are hard to discuss without becoming stuck in a tangled morass of symbolism and motifs.  In addition to the themes already mentioned, Lamar presents his complicated attitudes toward criticism (most notably from Fox News), a litany of powerful religious allusions, and the ambiguity of the “wicked” and “weak” distinctions. In short, DAMN. is a wonderfully layered work of introspection which should and will earn Lamar as much adoration as his earlier, classic albums.  However, one has to wonder if continuing to appropriately celebrate Lamar’s work is not a form of sadism, making the artist’s struggles increasingly impossible to even tenuously manage.