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Kendrick Lamar's Duel with Damnation
Last week, rapper Kendrick Lamar released his highly anticipated third major label album, DAMN. As with all his past releases, critics and fans have been buzzing about Kendrick’s lyrical deftness, musical prowess, and pointed social commentary. Increasingly, however, these conversations have also been centered on the interweaving of his Christian faith into his complex musical narratives. While his first two albums (2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly) explore Kendrick’s experience of God’s grace through justification and sanctification, all 14 tracks of DAMN. wrestle with anxiety over salvation’s assurance, exploring Kendrick’s fears of condemnation in this life and damnation in the next.
As part of a wave of high-profile, religiously influenced rappers that includes such artists as Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, Kendrick’s not alone in exploring faith-based themes. (Indeed, even modern artists are participating in a long tradition of religious sincerity in mainstream hip hop that includes artists like Tupac, DMX, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Mase, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others.) These artists’ approaches to theme and content vary widely; Kanye, for example, spoke of his The Life of Pablo as “a gospel album with a lot of cussing,” while Chance filled his Coloring Book with the sounds of Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, and Chris Tomlin to encapsulate his story of coming to faith.
Kendrick, meanwhile, consistently envelopes his narratives of hope and despair within overtly Christian language and theology. Good kid, m.A.A.d city, for instance, dealt with his salvation experience from the temptations of the streets of Compton (gang violence, drugs, money, and sex) to faith in Christ, and To Pimp a Butterfly’s funk, soul, and jazz-vibed moods outlined Kendrick’s working through self-doubt, anxiety, guilt, and his personal failure to find hope and identity in God. 2016’s untitled unmastered, too, contained a flurry of tracks that act as Old Testament jeremiads and laments on the black experience in the United States.
Admittedly, though, both the themes and language of Kendrick’s body of work pose particular challenges to Christian listeners. As hip-hop theologian Daniel White Hodge writes in Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel, Kendrick “combines the sacred, profane, and secular in a tightly woven social knot which creates a type of nitty-gritty hermeneutic in which his audience members are able to relate and engage.” This holding-in-tension of religion, sex, violence, money, and drugs (which Hodge calls the “neo-secular sacred”) appears in much rap music. As hip-hop and religion scholar Monica Miller notes, however, “It’s not a contradiction, it’s life. Hip-hop is OK with complexity. It doesn’t have to be either/or.”
With Kendrick, such tensions typically serve greater narrative purposes, dramatizing his move from depravity to salvation while also presenting opportunities to speak in truth and grace and address the more problematic aspects of Kendrick’s music—for example, his apparently unapologetic misogyny, which unfortunately continues on DAMN. Despite such missteps, however, the album remains a thoughtful exploration of what it means to wrestle as a Christian with the fear of condemnation and damnation.
DAMN.’s thematic shift from hope to despair is anticipated by its stylistic departures from Kendrick’s previous albums. Moving away from the maximalized celebration of African American musical styles in his previous work, DAMN. utilizes the minimalism of trap beats to provide the space needed to communicate Kendrick’s fears with all the fire and brimstone of a megaphone-wielding street preacher. These fears include ones that are common to all people, but are also specific to anxieties he has as a celebrity, a black man in the United States—and ultimately, the dread that he may be eternally damned to hell. That sense of unease can be felt in the manipulated rising and falling of his vocals on “PRIDE,” the polyrhythmic percussion and vocals of the second half of “DNA,” the waffling guitar, reversed boom bap of 808s, and Prince-like falsetto on “LUST,” and the backmasking on “FEAR” and “DUCKWORTH” — all symbolic musical gestures tied in to damnation.
Kendrick’s state of fear is further heightened by the oft-repeated cry throughout the album, “Nobody prays for me,” which expresses his longing for the assurances of praying saints to come alongside him in his doubts and fears. A prayer eventually comes on “FEAR”—spoken by Kendrick’s cousin Carl—but, tellingly, it is a prayer centered on the condemnation of God’s law, and not the consoling assuredness of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection that Kendrick clung to on previous albums.
Carl’s use of deuteronomical language and passages that refer to elements of Black Hebrew Israelite spirituality here shouldn’t necessarily be taken as Kendrick’s tacit acceptance of urban religious syncretism. Rather, these gestures communicate a claustrophobic encasing of Kendrick’s fears, driving him deeper into feeling that his suffering is due to divine retribution or chastening. The track “FEAR” brings those central themes of DAMN. into especially high relief: The single-note bass groove tethers Kendrick to fears that include the ways in which black men die in the US, the insecurity of fame and riches, and the very human concerns that propel everyone’s anxieties.
Unfortunately, although Kendrick seeks to find resolutions to his fears on the 14 tracks of DAMN., by the album’s end there’s little comfort—only, apparently, death. While another repeated statement on the album, “What happens on earth stays on earth,” counteracts the doubt of “Nobody prays for me,” this presents only a slim hope that his sins and suffering will not follow him into eternity. There are other glimmers of hope on DAMN.—most notably on “PRIDE,” whose lyrics capture the spirit of the Pauline consolation of Philippians 3:8— but the thick hope of the “perfect love” that “casts out fear” found on good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly is acutely lacking.
In many ways, though, the suffocating, oppressive weight of fear on DAMN. captures the anxieties many of Kendrick’s listeners live through every day. The rapper’s sense of urgency in releasing this album was guided by his determination to help his listeners in “Learning to accept it [fear], and not run away from it.” DAMN., then, isn’t a record that excludes God so much as one whose dark contours explore how a world that produces suffering, fear, and doubt isn’t easily resolved. Fears like Kendrick’s, it reminds us, can’t be assuaged by Bible verse memes posted on social media. Instead, they require an overwhelming flood of living water that contends profoundly with his lament, “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?”
[DAMN. contains a high amount of explicit language; however, a clean-lyrics version of the album is also available.]
Matthew Linder is a writer, co-host of Musicale Imperatives, and professor of music at National University who lives in Northern California.