DISCLAIMER: The following piece focuses on an album with language and content warnings. In no way is it an assessment or justification of whether Christians should listen to this or not. In many ways you will have already made up your mind as to the advantages or potential snares of listening to hip-hop generally, or Kendrick Lamar specifically. It is not my intention to decide this for you. Rather, this piece aims to analyse the messages, themes and concerns of the artist in light of a Christian worldview in order to prompt thoughtful and healthy discussion around this new release.
Man in the mirror
“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide…” So opens the refrain of ‘DAMN.’, the fourth LP by hip-hop’s king, Kendrick Lamar. In a recent interview, Lamar reflected that whilst his last album, 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ focused on “the idea…of changing the world,” ‘DAMN.’ reflects “the idea…that I can’t change the world until I change myself.” And that’s what the album is: rap’s titan taking a long, painful look in the mirror. The album abandons the hyper-hedonistic world of Lamar’s closest hip-hop rivals in order to set up a duality between his own propensity to ‘wickedness’ and ‘weakness’. This dichotomy appears in companion tracks throughout ‘DAMN.’, which cause the listener to question whether the album is the lamentations of a weak Christian or the dark introspections of a wicked sinner. The album employs frantic bars, clever wordplay and impeccable production to present the answer, which is more complex than may initially appear.
In ‘DNA.’, Kendrick paints a portrait of his wickedness as he celebrates and critiques his black heritage: he simultaneously feels empowered by it (“I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”) and frustrated with the ‘wickedness’ of the sin he sees within himself (“I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption…soldier’s DNA”). In ‘YAH.’ it’s Lamar’s weakness that causes him to sin and he is saddened by his inability to stave off temptation, recognising that it’s “first on my list, I can’t resist”. In ‘ELEMENT.’, Kendrick takes verbal aim at other rappers whilst at the same time acknowledging that his hostility comes from his own weakness and fear. This fear turns to self-despair and hopelessness in ‘FEEL.’, in which he wrestles with his emotions (“I feel like I’m losing my patience / I feel like my thoughts in the basement…”) and his inability to carry the weight of his fame (“I feel like I’m boxing demons / Monsters, false prophets scheming / Sponsors, industry promises”). He’s left distraught by the end of the track, feeling like “the whole world want me to pray for ‘em…[But who’s] praying for me?”), the album’s refrain.
‘LUST.’ is presented as the malevolent counterpart track to ‘LOVE.’, told through the eyes of four millennials who, to their own demise, conform to the trappings of the world’s promises despite being presented opportunities to ‘wake up’ and better themselves. Strikingly, Lamar himself is one of those characters who reflects “Lately, I lust over self…Lately, in James 4:4 says / Friend of the world is enemy of the Lord” just before the song cuts out and the listener is left once again to choose: is it wickedness or weakness that drives these characters? This theme is continued in the Rihanna-featuring ‘LOYALTY.’, in which the pair confront those who put their worth in material status and relationships (“Tell me who you loyal to / Is it money? Is it fame?…Is it anybody that you would lie for?…Anybody you would die for?”). No earthly treasure or relationship is shown to satisfy, as seen by Kendrick’s answer to the question of where loyalty should lie: “That’s what God for.”
On lead-single ‘HUMBLE.’, you’d be forgiven at first for thinking you were witnessing another swagger rapper laying waste to his competition as Lamar challenges his opponents to be humbled by his success. Yet when paired with the mellow production and undulating vocals of its counterpart ‘PRIDE.’ the tracks are seen as each others’ ironic antithesis, a warning of the emptiness of arrogant pursuits, with the rapper reflecting on his inner restlessness (“Happiness or flashiness, How do you serve the question? See in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world…”). The song’s refrain, “Maybe I wasn’t there” is layered over wailing sirens to expose a man confronted with the reality that the struggle between wickedness and weakness is destroying everything in his life.
The eight-minute slow-burner ‘FEAR.’, which opens with the refrain “Why God why God do I gotta suffer?” sees Kendrick confront his own personal weaknesses at three crucial life stages. As a seven-year old, he is afraid of physical harm from his parents for his misguided juvenile actions. At seventeen, gang affiliations and adolescent temptations push him towards an early grave as he fears “I’ll probably die anonymous / I’ll probably die with promises”. At twenty-seven, despite his success, he’s more depressed and far from God than ever, feeling as though he might be another Job figure about to have it all snatched away (“When I was 27, I grew accustomed to more fear / Accumulated 10 times over throughout the years…is God playing a joke on me? Is it all for the moment, and will he see me as Job?”). As the song closes, Lamar’s cousin Carl Duckworth leaves a voicemail reminding him that he can only overcome his weaknesses by returning to God, yet there’s only silence in response. Despite recognising his disconnect from his Creator, Lamar is seemingly at a loss as to the means by which he can access this relationship.
The tension that mounts between Lamar’s own wickedness and weakness boils over in the album’s centrepiece ‘XXX.’. In just over four minutes, the song’s sonic shifts – which move from harmonised vocals to whirling sirens over to enormous tempo changes – mirror the thematic structure of the track, which is just as multifaceted. The opening verse sees Kendrick’s friend call him for spiritual guidance upon the death of his son due to gun violence. In response, Lamar is retributive, replying; “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, / This is how I feel: / If somebody killed my son / That mean somebody getting killed,” before hanging up the phone to speak at a youth convention about the dangers of gun violence. Here, Lamar displays his own hypocrisy, turning the track upside down in order to trigger a reaction from the audience before the hinge bar of the song: “Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” This isn’t a standard gangsta rap song: it’s not grandiose or vicious. Rather, it’s a critique of humanity’s (and America’s) propensity to self-destruction due to our dislocation from the presence of God.
In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Kendrick mused; “I always feel God uses me as a vessel…to show my flaws…my intellect…my pain…my hurt…my stories, to share His message…” Yet at the same time, ‘DAMN.’ presents close to zero answers to the inner turmoil that Lamar faces, and is rarely cognizant about the means by which the sins confronted can be put to death. In this way, the album at face value is violently nihilistic and honestly depressing; a product of an uncertain man living in uncertain times. Yet on a deeper level, perhaps ‘DAMN.’ should be seen as the devastating groan of one halfway through the gospel story. Despite Kendrick’s awareness of his need for God’s help, the album is void of the promises of Jesus’ cross and absent of the certain hope of His resurrection, and because of that, it is also void of the passion and desire to put sin to death by the power of the Spirit. And in some way that’s no surprise for someone confronted with sin, yet not at the end of the greatest story ever told.
Our sinfulness is deeply confronting, altogether violent and utterly destructive: it leaves us not only wicked or weak but also truly damned. Yet that is not the whole story of the gospel. ‘DAMN.’ is Romans 1-7 without Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”. It’s Mark 1-14 without Mark 15-16. It’s your story without the cross, and my story without the cross. Nevertheless, it is still God Himself who is the answer to the soul-searching agony and frustration of ‘DAMN.’. It is God Himself who is the answer to whether our most basic human vices are evidence of wickedness or weakness. It’s even God Himself who answers first with the thunder of the cross and the roar of the resurrection when we feel like “Ain’t nobody praying for me.” In the end, if the pursuit is change of one’s self, it doesn’t matter whether it’s wickedness or weakness that is causing self-destruction: the change is God’s alone to make if the sinner would just take his eyes off the mirror and fixate them on the cross.