"I got so many theories and suspicions" — Kendrick Lamar "YAH"
Some may call him god MC, but on his latest album DAMN., Kendrick Lamar proves he really is God's MC.
REVOLT has already delivered a First Thoughts on the album, but as we've learned by now, Kendrick's records take a while to unpack. On DAMN., this notion is made clear yet again as the Compton lyricist delivers another weighty vault of treasure. Light in its sonic presentation, but heavy in the weight behind its content, the new album is filled with nuances, references and an overarching theme that falls in line with our very own Book of K. Dot.
Released on Good Friday, DAMN. spawned a string of theories in the hours after its arrival, including one that pointed to a possible second chapter arriving on Easter Sunday. Given the themes of damnation, contemplation and salvation that are covered in this album, the thought isn't farfetched. Plus, when you dig into the theories we unpacked after more listens, you'll discover not only the calculated genius of Kendrick Lamar, but also the gravity behind his most powerful statement yet.
The return of Lucy (?)
The opening seconds of the DAMN. begin with yet another perfect Kendrick Lamar-ian account. For his latest anecdote, we hear a story about a frustrated blind woman “pacing up and down the sidewalk” who looked as though “she had dropped something and [was] having a hard time finding it.” When Kendrick approaches her to help, he hears the words “You’ve lost your life” followed by a gunshot. Immediately after, we hear a term that is associated with the seven deadly sins: “wickedness.”
Like AZ’s famous line on Nas’ “Affirmative Action,” in which he notes “Niggas don’t understand the four devils: lust, envy, hate, jealousy — wicked niggas,” the term “wickedness” is used in association with the biblical seven deadly sins. As the scripture goes, the seven things that are considered the worst to do are: greed, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth, wrath, and pride. In the case of this intro, the “wickedness” is a stem from “wrath,” or having vindictive anger.
Now, 2 Corinthians verse 11:14 goes as follows: “No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” For Kendrick, someone who details the juxtaposition between the vices and the bible in “Kush & Corinthians” on 2011’s Section.80, he is introduced to this disguised figure the same as when he encountered “Lucy” (short for Lucifer) on To Pimp A Butterfly, who at one point came to him in the form of a dog (“Anything, see my name is Lucy, I’m your dog”). The latter meeting is a nod to the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe narrative “Faust,” which is narrative that finds the devil taking on the form of a dog in an attempt to turn over one of the Lord’s servants to sin and evil.
On “YAH,” Kendrick also references this scenario, paraphrasing Job 1:7, which states “The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan later answered, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” All of that said, considering the biblical examples tucked in his past work, “BLOOD.” may very well reintroduce the devilish figure of Lucy, who, following a gunshot, sends Kendrick down a spiral of emotions.
14 tracks = 14 Stations of the Cross
In the Catholic tradition, Good Friday, the day in which Jesus Christ was crucified and nailed to a cross, is celebrated with the Stations of the Cross. This Catholic devotion commemorates Jesus’ last day on Earth as a man and focuses on the 14 specific events, or stations, of His last day. Usually, in mass, attendees move from station to station to recall and meditate on each of the 14 devotions. For a visual depiction of the stations, head here.
As far as its correlation to Kendrick’s latest work, take a look at the number of tracks on DAMN. and keep in mind of the significance behind the album dropping on April 14, otherwise known as Good Friday.
Sticking to the theme woven into this album, DAMN. sonically captures elements of the stations within each track. On “BLOOD” he opens with “Is it wickedness, is it weakness, you decide, are we gonna live or die?” This is a moment of contemplativeness that is similar to the opening prayer that precedes the stations, known as the Act of Contrition. The dictionary definition of contrition is “state of feeling penitent." Although the intro is no confession, the three questions represent the yearning for an answer. Minutes after those words are uttered, a gunshot is heard, which reflects Station number one: condemned to death.
On “DNA.,” track two, Kendrick bears and accepts the cross that he’s been dealt with. Loyalty, royalty, cocaine quarter piece, war, peace, power, poison, pain, joy, hustle, ambition, evil, dark, and a troublesome heart are all the elements mentioned in this proverbial cross, or in the case of the song, his “DNA.” For Kendrick, he was “born like this.” These mentioned elements are ingrained in him, thus why he refers to himself on the track as “ Yeshua’s new weapon.”
On “YAH,” he tackles FOX News sensationalizing his chant of hope on “Alright.” Like the station, this can be articulated as his “fall.” The record was the first time Kendrick found himself in the crosshairs of the media misconstruing his lyrics and condemning it as evil. In addition, in the first verse he mentions “today is the day I follow my intuition/Keep the family close — get money, f—k bi—hes” and by the end of the song, he refers to Satan roaming the Earth but notes that “It’s money to get, bitches to hit… temptation is first on my list, I can’t resist.” Not only does he drop from the eye of the political media, but he decides to actually fall for temptation — at least according to our interpretation.
Station four finds Jesus meeting his mother. Track four on DAMN. is “ELEMENTS.” There are four elements of life: earth, water, fire and air. There’s no coincidence as to why the titled track is the fourth record on the album. Plus as the saying goes, these four elements symbolize Mother Earth or Mother Nature (hence the fourth station).
Track five, “FEEL.” Here Kendrick shows signs of depression and pressures of the world weighing on him. This can be drawn as a parallel to Jesus bearing the cross. As the story goes in station five, a member of the crowd is directed to help Him carry the cross. Interestingly enough, in the first verse Kendrick goes, “I feel like a chip is on my shoulders, I feel like I’m losing my focus.” In the scriptures, it was said that no one was willing to help and eventually a man from crowd became a victim of circumstance, as he was forced to carry the cross.
Track six, “LOYALTY.” tackles the value of unconditional love, a sign that is presented in station seven, wherein a woman named Veronica jumps from the crowd and offers the little that she can to help the Holy One in His tough journey. On “PRIDE.,” K. Dot becomes a victim to the title track, also a reference to one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” “Happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question?” he asks, before later adding “Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride / A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.” Keep in mind, station seven involves Jesus falling for the second time. With all that flashiness and success in mind, track eight finds Kendrick calling for the need to be “HUMBLE.” This is a lesson that is also mentioned in station eight when Jesus meets “the three women of Jersualem.” Here, Jesus teaches humility in that, while he is suffering and three women are lamenting, he directs them to not weep for him but for themselves.
He falls for “LUST.” in track nine, a reflection of the same station in which Jesus falls for a third time, and on “LOVE.” he strips away his pride and the temptations to confess to a special someone: “If I don’t got you, I got nothing.”
On Station 11, Jesus is nailed to the cross. On track 11 of DAMN., K. Dot details his experience trapped inside the belly of the beast. “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives / compulsive disorder, sons and daughters / Barricaded blocks and borders, look what you taught us…” he raps. Reflecting this message, the prayer associated with station 11 goes: “Help us to unmask the false freedom which would distance us from you. Help us to accept your "binding" freedom, and, "bound" fast to you, to discover true freedom.”
“FEAR.” opens up with a reference to Jesus’ last words on the cross, as we hear: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle.” From there, he chronicles his journey up to this point. He questions whether his “my humbleness is gone” and recalls feeling a fear behind the album’s opening question of “is it wickedness or weakness.” By the end of the song, he simultaneously references the last two stations that involve Jesus being taken from the cross and placed in a tomb, whilst driving in the notion of “fourteen tracks” (or fourteen stations). “Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax / Searching for resolutions until somebody get back / Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth / And I can't take these feelings with me / So hopefully they disperse within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax / Wondering if I'm living through fear or living through rap.”
As the story of the scriptures goes, following this death is a resurrection and eventually the Ascension. Hence the Easter Sunday theory.
Bonus: DAMN. Duality
As made clear above, the songs on DAMN. are interspersed with multiple narratives and layers that are tightly woven inside every bar and each verse. And while certain themes — mainly religion — are underlined throughout, the depth of these songs are heavy and tough to unpack. Now as a couple super fans pointed out on Reddit, there is a theory that DAMN. carries a dual narrative that can also be played in reverse.
As the theory goes, when playing the album backwards, DAMN. tells a completely different story. A key point in this conclusion is through the tracks "BLOOD." and "FEAR."
Where the order from top to bottom follows suit with the stations of the cross (as made clear above), it also answers the opening question on the album, "is it weakness?" As a Reddit user points out:
"When you play the album front to back, we see a confident Kendrick exposing his anxieties very subtlety until FEAR. where he lays out an entire lifetime of what scares him. He does admit insecurities on FEEL., but I view this as more an awareness of people treating him differently because of his success; a theme that makes sense leading into LOYALTY. This is the story of him not wanting to show weakness by admitting he is living through fear of losing his career or his life. I also believe this is the story of the real Kendrick, the one addressed on DUCKWORTH. that came out of Anthony not killing his father."
"You decide are we going to live or die?"
According to this duality theory, playing the album from top to bottom tells the story of Kendrick living through fear — better yet, it answers the immediate words that follow the (fatal?) gunshot on "BLOOD.," which happens to be: "Is it weakness?" This order portrays the weakness side. Through this version, we find Kendrick exposing his wounds and insecurities and it's on a record like "FEAR.," where he really digs into a lifetime of anxieties that have haunted him. Playing it in reverse, tells the "is it wickedness" side of the narrative. Where the former order tells the story of the Kendrick Duckworth we know today, thanks to Anthony not killing his father (as detailed on "DUCKWORTH."). When playing it backwards, the album details the "reverse of good karma" and reveals a story of what would have happened had K. Dot "grew up without a father and died in a gunfight."
As the Reddit post notes:
"On DUCKWORTH., Kid Capri says "We gon' put it in reverse!" The track ends with Kendrick saying, "Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin' life while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight," followed by a gunshot and the entire album sonically reversed until the, "So I was takin' a walk the other day" of BLOOD. This gave me the idea to play DAMN. back - front. This is the story of the Kendrick that would have resulted in Ducky being killed."
You be the judge.