Album Review: "DAMN." by Kendrick Lamar
Listen to the podcast episode here ↓
Want to skip the intro/album news? Start at 5:08
Is DAMN Pulitzer-Worthy?
In this deeply reflective concept album, Lamar, a self-proclaimed Christian, looks at the current-day context of the Black experience in America through the lens of the Old Testament. He explores theological questions such as why does God allow innocent people to suffer, what does it mean to be God's chosen people, and how do those who are cursed return to God's good graces?
Host Bobby Waller will guide you through this musical exploration of this fascinating theodicy and answer the questions: Is this serious art? - and - Is this particular album worthy of the Pulitzer Prize that it recently received?
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Learn more about Kendrick Lamar, listen to DAMN., and read additional reviews.
Listen to DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.
A Black Theodicy
This is a partial transcript of Ep. 24 of the What's This Album About? podcast published May 8, 2018
- BEST SELLERS (April 20 - May 4)
ARTIST BIO: About Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar was born and raised at the intersection of thug life and music. His father, Kenny Duckworth, a.k.a. Ducky, had been involved in a gang called the Gangster Disciples, and his mother, Paula Oliver, named him Kendrick after Eddie Kendricks, singer for the Temptations.
Lamar was born in Compton, California, in 1987, just as it was becoming internationally known as the capital for a new kind of rap called gangsta rap.
Proponents of gangsta rap were unapologetic about the unprecedented profanity and violence in their lyrics, often pointing out that these were authentic expressions of lives lived on the mean streets of America’s ghettos. No group epitomized the budding new genre more than N.W.A, who we’re hearing right now and who, right around the time of Lamar’s birth, were mere blocks away recording what would soon become gangsta rap’s breakthrough album, Straight Outta Compton.
At age 8, Lamar witnessed another gangsta rapper, Tupac Shakur, accompanied by Dr. Dre as they filmed the video for their hit single “California Love” in Compton. Lamar decided right then and there that he wanted to be a rapper, and, by age sixteen, in 2004 he cut his first full-length mixtape.
2011 saw the release of his first studio album, Section.80, released by Top Dawg Records, which has released all subsequent Kendrick Lamar albums to date, including 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which featured the unofficial Black Lives Matter anthem, “Alright,” , and 2017’s DAMN.
DAMN. was almost unquestionably the most highly regarded album of 2017. Its distinctions include 2017’s highest score from critics at metacritic.com as well as a BET Hip Hop Award for Album of the Year, an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Album, a Juno Award for International Album of the Year, and a Grammy for Best Rap Album. But the most surprising award came three weeks ago when the traditionally conservative Pulitzer Prize Board awarded DAMN. it’s annual prize for music.
Since then, journalists and bloggers all over the world have been addressing the question of whether or not DAMN. is Pulitzer material. And so, without ado, we’d like to throw our hat in the ring as we answer the question we always answer: What’s this album about?
LYRICAL ANALYSIS: DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN. made fresh headlines three weeks ago when, to the world’s surprise, it won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The album’s best-selling single, “Humble,” has the B-word in it… a lot. It’s also got the N-word, the F-word, unbridled braggadocio, sick beats and many of the other hallmarks of contemporary hip hop.
These, by the way, are not the hallmarks that Pulitzer selection committees have tended to look for over the years.
“Procession” from Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, fits pretty firmly in the category of classical music. In fact, from 1943 (when the award was created) to 1996, the Pulitzer Prize in Music was bestowed exclusively on classical artists. And from 1997 to 2017, it was awarded exclusively to classical and jazz artists—because only classical and jazz music were considered important enough to earn such a prestigious distinction.
So it was a shock to many when the Board announced on April 16, 2018 that the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music is the hip-hop masterpiece DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar.
Predictably, detractors all over the internet criticized the choice, implying or even declaring explicitly that the Pulitzer Prize Board is supposed to be the vanguard of serious art and, at least according to the more volatile detractors, hip hop isn’t even art at all.
But I think DAMN. does qualify as serious art—because DAMN. finds Lamar grappling with many of the same theological issues that have occupied the minds of such indisputably serious thinkers as Epicurus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and countless others. Specifically, DAMN. is centrally concerned with what philosophers call the problem of evil.
How can we reconcile the belief in an omnipotent and all-loving God with the seemingly contradictory fact that innocent people suffer for no apparent reason?
Our first clue that Lamar may be up to something pretty serious on this album is the title he gave it. Before we even hear the album’s first note, we see that Lamar named this album DAMN., visually signifying that it is an exploration of the nature of damnation—an inquiry into the sources and implications of losing God’s favor.
The next clue we get regarding the serious nature of DAMN. is its opening lines from Track 1: "BLOOD."
♪ Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
This track features the voice of Daniel Tannenbaum, credited as Bekon, evoking the question of why certain people fall out of favor with God. Is it because they’re wicked? Is it because they’re weak? Did they do something to deserve the misfortune they suffer? And just in case we don’t catch the implication, the next voice we hear is that of Lamar himself, laying down the album’s theme in the form of a parable. He voices a narrator who is moved by empathy to help a blind stranger.
♪ So, I was takin’ a walk the other day
And I seen a woman, a blind woman
Pacin’ up and down the sidewalk
It seems to me you have lost something
I would like to help you find it
But as the narrator approaches to offer assistance, the blind woman responds in an unexpected way.
♪ She replied, ‘Oh, yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost… your life.’
She shoots him at close range, even though all he wanted was to help her. As the song draws to an end, we hear Bekon’s opening questions once again…
♪ Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
In effect, Lamar is asking us, where was the wickedness or weakness in this narrator’s actions? He seemed to have nothing but the purest of intentions, and yet he suffered a pointless and violent death.
♪ [spoken] Lamar states his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote,
‘And we hate the popo. Wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho.’
Oh, please. Ugh. I don’t like it.
Here Lamar foreshadows the assertion he repeats throughout this album—that black lives matter in contemporary theological discourse because black people in the United States represent a particularly poignant case study in undeserved suffering.
On Track 3, “YAH.,” Lamar equates contemporary African-Americans to the Israelites of the Old Testament.
♪ I’m a Israelite
Don’t call me black no more
One of the great ironies of the Old Testament is that, while the Israelites were God’s chosen people, God seems to have chosen them to endure exceptional hardship. Like African-Americans, they suffered centuries of slavery, displacement from their homeland, institutionalized racism, and lethal mob violence.
Allusions to the Old Testament continue on Track 4, “ELEMENT.,” which opens with one of DAMN.’s repeated catch phrases,…
♪ Y’all know what happens on Earth stays on Earth
…which I take to mean something like, “You can’t take it with you.” Your earthly riches and accomplishments don’t carry over when you die. Or, as Ecclesiastes 1:3 puts it, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” In other words, nothing we do here matters much in the grand scheme of things. Or, as we read in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “All is vanity.”
Vanity, by the way, is a preeminent concern for Lamar on DAMN. He sees it as a tragic flaw—one that could very well bring about his own damnation—and repeatedly references his ongoing struggles to remain humble—most notably in the smash hit, Track 8, "HUMBLE."
“HUMBLE.” begins like a typical hip-hop song with Lamar boasting about his accomplishments in the first verse.
♪ My left stroke just went viral
As I mentioned earlier, braggadocio is a hallmark of hip hop. Lamar knows he has to brag to stay true to his art form, but he puts an interesting spin on boastfulness because, at the same time that he’s bragging about his accomplishments, he’s advocating humility. In Verse 2, he voices his disgust for human vanity, particularly in the form of beauty treatments.
♪ I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of Photoshop
Show me something natural, like afro on Richard Pryor
Show me something natural, like ass with some stretch marks
So when we hear him give the command to “sit down” and “be humble” in the chorus…
♪ Sit down. Be humble.
…we could hear that as him putting his haters in their place, but we could also hear it as Lamar advising everyone—including himself—to be humble because pride famously comes before the fall.
This latter possibility—that Lamar includes himself in the admonition to be humble--seems more plausible in light of Track 12, “FEAR.,” where Lamar explicitly states he fears a lack of humility might drive him from God’s graces.
♪ I’m talkin’ fear—fear of losin’ loyalty from pride
‘Cause my DNA won’t let me evolve in the light of God
I’m talkin’ fear—fear that my humbleness is gone
I’m talkin’ fear—fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more
I’m talkin’ fear—fear that it’s wickedness or weakness
Whatever it is, both is distinctive
“FEAR.,” by the way, is possibly the most theologically significant track on DAMN. Not only is it the album’s longest track, it’s also the track where Lamar is the most insistent and explicit in laying out his thoughts on the problem of undeserved suffering. Fearing his own fall from good fortune, he wonders if he will turn out to be like the figure Job from the Old Testament.
♪ The shock value of my success put bolts in me
All this money! Is God playin’ a joke on me?
Is it for the moment? And will he see me as Job
Take it from me and leave me worse than before?
In the Old Testament, Job is described as a consummately righteous man who God blessed with a beloved family and tremendous wealth. But when Satan bets God that Job will curse his maker if stripped of his good fortune, God allows the killing of Job’s entire family, the theft of Job’s entire estate, and the covering of Job’s body from head to toe in painful sores. This leads Job to question God’s benevolence in often angry and accusatory tones. How could a truly loving God allow such atrocities to happen to an innocent and righteous man? It’s a question echoed on “FEAR.” when Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr. asks,…
♪ Why God? Why do I gotta suffer?
Pain in my heart, carry burdens, full of struggle
Why God? Why do I gotta bleed?
Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet
Why God? Why do I gotta suffer
Earth is no more
Won’t you burn this mutha fucker?
As you can hear, Lamar is not pulling any punches. He’s not afraid to ask some pretty tough questions. But he’s also not afraid to consider some pretty tough answers—like the one he received in the form of a phone message from his cousin, Carl Duckworth, which we hear toward the beginning of “FEAR.”
♪ [spoken] What’s up, family? Yeah, it’s your cousin, Carl, man.
Carl expresses concern for Kendricks’ recent spiritual malaise and offers an explanation of its roots.
♪ [spoken] We are a cursed people.
Deuteronomy 28:28 says,
‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and astonishment of heart.’
See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel—like you got a chip on your shoulder.
Cousin Carl’s voice returns at the very end of “FEAR.” where he is explicit about who he’s referring to when he says “We are a cursed people.”
♪ [spoken] The so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are the true Children of Israel.
We are the Israelites, according to the Bible—the children of Israel.
He’s gonna punish us for our iniquities, for our disobedience, because we chose to follow other gods.
So for Cousin Carl, the suffering of seemingly innocent African-Americans, like the good Samaritan who tried to help the blind woman on Track 1, isn’t entirely undeserved. Despite his pure intentions, that good Samaritan was cursed for through sins of his distant ancestors.
But things aren’t all bad, according to Carl, because god’s punishment of African-Americans is like the tough love of responsible father; it shows he cares. And there is at least some hope that individuals may transcend the curse by obeying God’s commandments.
♪ [spoken] Until we come back to these laws, statutes,
and commandments and do what the Lord says,
these curses is gonna be upon us.
We gonna be at a lower state in this life
that we live here today in United States of America.
I love you, family, and I pray for you.
God bless you. Shalom.
So is Cousin Carl right? Can the curse be reversed one person at a time through strict adherence to God’s commandments? Lamar never fully agrees with Cousin Carl’s solution to the problem of seemingly undeserved suffering, but he does offer us a resolution that seems influenced by Carl’s thinking. That resolution appears on DAMN.’s final track, Track 14, “DUCKWORTH,” which begins, as Track 1 began, with the voice of Bekon.
♪ It was always me versus the world
until I found out it was me versus me.
Lamar proceeds to tell a story about two men—his dad, Kenny Duckworth, a.k.a. Ducky, and a young thug named Anthony. As a young man, Ducky worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant that Anthony had once held up. Concerned that Anthony would rob the KFC again, Ducky was gracious with Anthony.
♪ Free chicken every time Anthony posted in line.
Two extra biscuits. Anthony liked him and then let him slide.
Eventually, Anthony did rob the KFC at gunpoint again. And Ducky was on duty at the time. But Anthony remembered Ducky’s kindness and spared Ducky’s life.
Years later, Lamar brought his dad into the studio to meet his producer Top Dawg. To his surprise, his dad and Top Dawg knew each other from years before. Because, unbeknownst to Ducky, this Top Dawg that his son had been talking about was none other than Anthony Tiffith—the same Anthony who had held up the KFC years before.
The moral Lamar derives from this bizarre coincidence is that the events of our lives are not as inconsequential as they may seem. Our actions really do matter.
♪ Because if Anthony killed Ducky
Top Dawg could be servin’ life
While I grew up without a father
And die in a gunfight
Lamar never explicitly agrees with Cousin Carl about the need to follow God’s commandments, but, in the end, he does assert the importance of living right. Because if damnation can be reversed, if we are ever to break the cycle of undue suffering, then this is how we do it—one small act of decency at a time.
Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About? If you’d like to hear more about Kendrick Lamar, don’t forget to check out Season 1 of the Castie-Award winning podcast, Dissect. Each episode is covers a separate song from Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, and it is fascinating from start to finish. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you that our actions really do matter.
So keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love.