Disclaimer: Due to the use of explicit language, reader discretion is advised.
Written by Chris Curia (@chriscuringle)
A DAMNing fear of God
‘DAMN.,’ Kendrick Lamar’s most recent record, boldly, but messily, proclaims the powerful response of God to the infidelity of a tainted mankind by starting with himself. The album is perhaps Kendrick’s most intimate endeavor to date – a work that dives deep into the chasms of Kendrick’s tumultuous relationship with God as he wrestles with evil. The complex, often incoherent narrative is a master achievement of tragedy and lament – a reacting cry to the ensnaring capabilities of life and death, wickedness and weakness.
In a track-by-track analysis, we will explore Kendrick’s innermost demons to help us understand the gruesomeness of life with God in a sin-tainted world, the necessary response of divine justice, and the need to approach God with fear and trembling. Without further ado, we dive into the madness of ‘DAMN.’:
‘BLOOD.’ & THE BLIND WOMAN
‘BLOOD.’ begins Kendrick’s journey of self-discovery by naming the most active forces in the record and Kendrick’s life: wickedness and weakness:
Is it wickedness? Or is it weakness?
Are we gonna live or die?
Almost immediately, Kendrick begins his story: an unidentified blind woman – a persuasive Genius theory suggests Lady Justice – tells Kendrick that he has lost his life after he offers to help her find whatever she has lost. The woman then shoots him, and her gunshots follow Kendrick throughout the duration of the album.
While Kendrick has declined to comment on this cryptic beginning to ‘DAMN.,’ other than to encourage listeners to “let the art speak for itself,” the duality of weakness and wickedness necessarily introduces Kendrick’s central conflict in his album incarnation: will he admit his own weakness and choose to obey God or let his wickedness consume him unto judgment by God and subsequent death?
The track masterfully sets all principle actors into motion: Kendrick, the believer; God, the builder, and destroyer; and evil, the beast that will stop at nothing to be Kendrick’s undoing.
‘DNA.’ & THE WEAPON
Lamar’s second track on ‘DAMN.’ sets the foundation for the artist’s later existential struggles by establishing Lamar’s perspective on God’s greater purposes for him:
I was born like this, since one like this
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua’s new weapon
Lamar compares his own birth to the Immaculate Conception – the Catholic dogma which states that the Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin – not to say that he himself is without sin. Rather, Lamar’s bold proclamation implies God’s divine ordination of him to be a weapon for God’s glory in Christ. He believes wholeheartedly that has been set apart by God for good works.
The rest of ‘DNA.’ plays out like an inauguration of Lamar’s rap career – a recognition of the love, hate, talent, and sin that encompass him as a person, but also a confidence in his own entirety. Subsequent tracks will see Lamar break down in his mission and identity before God; but, for now, he boasts in ignorance of the struggle that lies ahead.
‘YAH.’ & THE ISRAELITES
Expressed in the second verse, Kendrick’s affinity for the Israelites – God’s chosen people, loved and redeemed by Him – is the first of many featured on the album. But his frequent references to them go beyond the connection between Israel and the Church; he identifies with them as a person of color:
I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’
That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’
Just as he identifies with the Israelites racially and spiritually, Kendrick also recognizes that he communes with an active Creator God who “walks the earth” with him. An awareness of God’s omnipresence does not spare Kendrick from the need to resist temptation, however; he wholeheartedly admits his own accursedness in his susceptibility to evil.
Moreover, as a believer disenchanted with organized religion, Kendrick must also begin to feel the weight of feeling alone in the fight to purify himself from wickedness. He, like the Israelites, is a wanderer, unsure of whether God is as “for him” as he has been told.
‘ELEMENT.’ & DOMINANCE
In Kendrick’s anthem of professional dominance, he very clearly alludes to the famous “eye for an eye” proverb, originally from the Code of Hammurabi laws and found in both the Old and New Testaments:
Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit
Curiously, Jesus’ teachings command otherwise – that one must turn the other cheek from those who have done them wrong. In his “element,” then, Kendrick admits the pleasure of self- seeking and thereby disregarding the will of God. The temptation towards disobedience can be tempting, to be sure; but the repercussions of not living according to the will of God will soon be more than Kendrick can bear.
‘FEEL.’ & ISOLATION
Lamar laments the loneliness he experiences as he faces his inner demons and the false prophets that surround him. He feels alone and restless – as if deteriorating in the darkest night of his soul – especially in the limelight of fame and influence. “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em / but who the fuck prayin’ for me?” Kendrick cries out, perhaps to his fans, God, or anyone who will listen. The ongoing tension he feels in his relationship with God only amplifies in the absence of a support system.
The feeling of loss that pervades ‘FEEL.’ puts listeners in place of sharing Lamar’s pain and doubt in God. How can an all-knowing, all-powerful God allow for his people, his weapons, to feel like they are alone in their struggles against sin and heresy? What have we done to make him want to destroy us? These are the kinds of existential questions that we can only imagine are running through Lamar’s head – questions that, for all we know, may be left unanswered, in his journey and ours.
‘LOYALTY.’ & SACRIFICE
Kendrick is a man of allegiance. In ‘LOYALTY.,’ he forces introspection upon his listeners, prompting us to consider to what or whom we are committed. Near the end of the track, he and Rihanna pose the question:
Anybody else you would die for?
That’s what God for
After talking about loyalty to family, lovers, self and friends, the duo boldly declares that we are to be most faithful to God, just as He has been to us. We are reminded of God’s sacrifice through Christ’s death on the cross, to save humanity from its sins. The basis of faith, then, is God’s faithfulness to and sacrifice for us, especially in our infidelity. And the only adequate response is the laying of our lives down for Him.
‘PRIDE.’ & THE FALL
In ‘PRIDE.,’ Kendrick delves deep into what he recognizes as one of his greatest pitfalls: the capital vice of pride. Musically, Kendrick’s self-examination is a soothing, ever-swinging pendulum between high and low vocal pitches and hypnotic electronic drums. Such a movement invites us on a journey with Kendrick to live into that tension of what he desires and how he acts.
Love’s gonna get you killed
But pride’s gonna be the death of you and me
Kendrick proposes that the consequences of pride are far beyond personal. It kills us, body and soul; but does the same for those around us. Acting out of pride, therefore, is in direct disobedience to Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. Pride, being a byproduct of hatred, however unintentional, necessitates swift punishment from none other than God Himself.
‘HUMBLE.’ & PERVERSION
‘HUMBLE.’ is the epitome of Kendrick’s pride and reliance of self over God. He exudes cockiness as he commands his listeners:
Nobody pray for me
It’s been that day for me
Only tracks before, Kendrick longs for prayer from any willing party; now, in distance from God, he challenges anyone who will listen to be humbled by his lyrics. In ‘HUMBLE.,’ Kendrick plays God with a strong superiority complex over his contemporaries.
His attitude functions as an interesting commentary on how even our God-given potential can be perverted to serve the city of man rather than God. In this vignette, Kendrick appears to be holding none of that pride back.
‘LUST.’ & WATER
Purity, restoration, renewal, and thirst – these are some of the many meanings associated with water in Scripture. In ‘LUST,’ Kendrick takes advantage of this multi-faceted imagery by giving it a flare of non-convention: sexual desire.
In the introduction of ‘LUST,’ Kendrick’s cry for carnal satisfaction via water contrasts Jesus’ cry for thirst quenching and Scriptural fulfillment on the cross. To use the same imagery for the opposite meaning, then, is to speak to Kendrick’s need to for spiritual cleansing – the taming of a beast that he cannot control.
Lately it’s all contradiction
Lately I’m not here
Lately I lust over self
Lust turn into fear
Lately, in James 4:4 says
Friend of the world is an enemy of the Lord
Brace yourself: lust is all yours.
Kendrick warns us that a just God will give us over to our sinful desires – especially sexual immorality – if that is what our hearts truly desire (Ps: 81:12; Rom. 1:24). He will answer our thirst with fire instead of water; for we become his enemies when we lust over whatever fleeting pleasure the world has to offer.
‘LOVE.’ & SAFETY
Damn, love or lust
Damn, all of us
From the beginning of ‘LOVE.,’ Kendrick finds himself at a crossroads: love or lust? Is he damned from the start? Kendrick’s need for affirmation alluded to in the rest of the song would seem to suggest so. He deeply desires companionship – which he once described, interestingly enough, as “somebody [you] can tell your fears to.”
Perhaps love, then, is the shared space where fears can be safely put to rest – a reflection of God’s desire for intimacy with mankind. God exists to remind us that hope is not lost; may we never find ourselves at the crossroads of love and lust if we keep our hearts centered upon Him.
‘XXX.’ & THE U.S.
While ‘DAMN.,’ is a much less politically-charged endeavor than Kendrick’s previous works, there had to have been a part of Kendrick that recognized how intertwined faith and political identities have become. Like a B-side off of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Kendrick dives headfirst into an exploration of racial tension and spiritual dislocation with ‘XXX.’:
But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?
The question posed by Kendrick is what lies at the heart of ‘XXX.’. Without hesitation, Kendrick points to gun control, overzealous foreign policy, and harsh immigration reform as examples of America’s “wickedness.” He poses the question: if America is a country of believers (“you all know we love him”), then how can its citizens explain its governing policies?
Whether or not we agree with Kendrick is not necessarily the question at hand. With ‘XXX.,’ Kendrick simply proposes that the relationship of God with country – like that of weakness with wickedness – is more complicated than we might think. Is our Christian identity necessarily political?
‘FEAR.’ & DESPERATION
Kendrick’s weakness-wickedness dichotomy reaches its deepest gloom with ‘FEAR.,’ a dense track fueled by anger, sorrow, and lamentation. Through a voicemail from his cousin, Carl – alluded to in ‘YAH.’ – Kendrick arrives at the conclusion that his suffering is a byproduct of God’s wrathful judgment; his chastisement, a consequence of God’s sovereign love:
Why God, why God 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 God do I gotta suffer?
Earth is no more, won’t you burn this muh’ fucka?
I don’t think I could find a way to make it on this earth
The logic is twisted, to be sure; but Kendrick’s fearful proclamation of the sovereignty of God is birthed out of a place of emotional and spiritual desperation. More fascinating, then, is the conversation of what brought Kendrick to such a fragile state in the first place.
For many of us, Kendrick’s lament is not unfamiliar territory. Perhaps we have uttered similar prayers of defeat and brokenness – afraid of God, on one hand, and loving Him on the other. Fear of God is the necessary, awesome reverence of Him that precedes obedience to Him and His will.
What we learn, however, is that Kendrick’s fear of God has been polluted by his fear of everything else: being judged; missing out on relationships; losing creativity, loyalty, humility, and love; of the choice between wickedness or weakness.
To be afraid of God is to be healthy, but to despair is to fear all else before Him. We would do well, then, to heed Kendrick’s warning by keeping our own fears in check.
‘GOD.’ & IDOLATRY
In ‘GOD.,’ we can only assume the worse for Kendrick: that he has chosen to give into wickedness by fashioning a god out of himself. He goes full-on egotist, flaunting his achievements and comparing his success to how God Himself must feel about being glorified:
This what God feel like, huh, yeah
Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-ha!”, huh, yeah
As listeners, we have a hard stomaching that there has been no positive self-revelation for Kendrick – that he has not yet found his way out of the darkness of fame and idolatry. And yet, how often do we find ourselves learning the same lessons? Perhaps we can better understand God’s heart for us when we oh-so-frequently fall away from him as victims of our own wickedness. And we would do well to remember that no child of God is deprived of his or her opportunity to be forgiven and redeemed.
‘DUCKWORTH.’ & ETERNITY
The journey of ‘DAMN.’ concludes with Kendrick’s recollection of a robbery at a local KFC that could have, but never happened. Ultimately, Kendrick reveals the owner of the KFC to be his father; that if he hadn’t been generous to the robber, he could have been shot; that if he had been shot, Kendrick would have ended up without a father figure and likely in prison.
Suddenly, Kendrick is interrupted by gunshots; as the entire album is played in reverse up to the moment of Kendrick’s first skit, we are prompted to consider: what could have been in our lives if we had known what we know now?
Just remember, what happens on Earth stays on Earth.
This frequent, cryptic verse that introduces ‘DUCKWORTH.’ serves as an unsettling, but fitting conclusion to our discourse on life with God in a broken world. In his brokenness, in choosing wickedness, the Kendrick of ‘DAMN.’ has lost sight of his eternal destiny.
If it has not yet, the day will come when we, too, will be faced with the choice of obedience or disobedience; life or death; wickedness or weakness. May we be wise and consider a life of fear and trembling before God – an awesome reverence for Him prompting our unwavering obedience.
“I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”
– Kendrick Lamar
Chris Curia is a writer and youth director based in Grand Rapids, MI, whose work has been featured on Sojourners, Relevant, and other publications. Keep up with his work by following his personal forum, Through the Darkness, and Twitter @chriscuringle