The release of Kendrick Lamar’s new album DAMN. last month was met with a torrent of internet conspiracy theories, most of which riffed on a common theme: that there was another Kendrick album waiting just around the corner.Kendrick seems to be deliberately undermining the savior mythos he created for himself in his previous music. Instead of posturing himself as the savior, he asks over and over for our prayers: “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” “Somebody pray for me.”
If that sounds a little greedy, it’s because it is. The finest rapper on the planet (a claim that’s not even all that contentious these days), having just given us two bona fide masterpieces in good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly, released the highly-anticipated follow-up to universal acclaim—and all his fans could talk about was how there might be yet another Kendrick album about to drop. Their enthusiasm was fed by Kendrick’s collaborator Kid Capri, who told an interviewer the day of DAMN.’s release, “It’s just the beginning. . . . He’s got—it’s about to get crazy with that dude, man.” Add to that an offhand comment from Kendrick himself, who told a crowd at an album signing, “Y’all take care. We gonna continue to bang this. I got some more music, you dig what I’m saying?”
It was enough to set the theorists theorizing. Some suggested that the hypothesized new album would be called NATION.—so, together, damnation. Maybe Kendrick was about to offer some hope for our own nation in our grim national moment? Another theory was built around Kendrick’s ambiguous reference to “TOC” in the track “The Heart Pt. IV” (a single released in the build-up to DAMN.). “TOC,” the theory went, stood for “the other color,” a reference to the Bloods and Crips. The word DAMN. is written in red on the album’s cover, and the first track on the album is “BLOOD.”; the new album, then, would be blue, like the Crips. The theory got a boost when the brick background in Kendrick’s Spotify cover photo suddenly changed to blue a night after DAMN.’s release.
If all of this seems a little ridiculous, it’s helpful to remember that Kendrick’s music lends itself very naturally to conspiracy theories. It is jam-packed with complicated allusions, double meanings, and multifaceted metaphors. It’s the kind of music the lyrics website Genius was made for. After all, this is the same Kendrick Lamar who released To Pimp a Butterfly on March 15, 2015—twenty years and one day after Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World came out on March 14, 1995—to mirror the fact that Kendrick’s birthday, June 17, is one day after Tupac’s, June 16.
Dizzy yet? “I like to put a lot of different things and wordplays and messages in my music because I want it to live further than two weeks,” Kendrick has said.
But the most compelling conspiracy theory about a new Kendrick album was also the simplest. DAMN. was released on Good Friday. It’s a dark, disconsolate album, and in the day or two following its release no one was quite sure what to make of it. (Most of us are still struggling to make sense of it now.) So the Redditors and Tweeters hypothesized that the mythical follow-up album would be released on Easter Sunday, just two days later. It seemed reasonable enough. DAMN. is fixated on death and damnation: the album is bookended, in its first and last tracks, by two variations of Kendrick’s own death. And given Kendrick’s own Christian faith, not to mention his relentless output and creativity, it didn’t seem all that far-fetched that, after the downer that is DAMN., he was going to lift us all up again with an great big, joyful Easter Sunday album.
That was the pattern of his previous albums, after all. good kid, m.A.A.d. city culminates in Kendrick and his friends praying the sinner’s prayer in a Compton, California parking lot in the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” To Pimp a Butterfly followed Kendrick into the depths of survivor’s guilt and suicidal depression, but ended on a spiritual upswing, as Kendrick emerged from his cocoon to offer wisdom to the black community on songs like “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” and “i.”
For all their intricacy, good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly both fit into fairly simple interpretive molds. One was a salvation narrative, and the other came with an interpretive key—a poem Kendrick gradually reveals throughout the album, and then reads in full and expands on at the end. On those albums, Kendrick tells his own story to inspire others, emerging from the prison of institutional racism, pride, capitalism, survivor’s guilt, and depression to offer hope and redemption to his neighbors back home.
DAMN. is another story. It’s a desperate, angry record, guaranteed to ruffle feathers. Kendrick seems to be deliberately undermining the savior mythos he created for himself in his previous music. Instead of posturing himself as the savior, he asks over and over for our prayers: “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” “Somebody pray for me.” Sometimes this is a desperate demand; at other times it’s lonely lament. Kendrick needs us to be okay with the fact that he’s not okay right now.
As is often the case with Kendrick, we might have seen this coming if we’d been paying attention. To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t end with the spiritual uplift and feel-good vibes of “i.” It certainly could—“i” is, in many ways, the album’s big emotional payoff, and the culmination of all its themes. But “i” is only the second-to-last track. The album ends with an epilogue, “Mortal Man,” in which Kendrick questions his fans’ loyalty: “As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression.” Kendrick knows our fickle tendency to build celebrities up only to tear them back down. He knows his savior status is tenuous. And he knows his own natural propensity to weakness, sin, and depression. “Let me ask this question,” he raps. “When the sh*t hits the fan, is you still a fan?”
DAMN. is the sh*t hitting the fan. Kendrick could have followed To Pimp a Butterfly with an album that played into and perpetuated his savior image. That’s what we all expected him to do—and when he didn’t, we quickly hypothesized that there must be another album waiting in the wings, one that would provide the spiritual payoff we’ve come to expect, and fit Kendrick right back into the comfortable mold we’ve made for him.
But there wasn’t. Instead, there was just DAMN.
DAMN. doesn’t exactly undermine everything we know about Kendrick, but it does unsettle it. We don’t see a different Kendrick so much as we see a more conflicted Kendrick. The arc on this album is less coherent and constructive than previously. In the past, Kendrick has always considered humility a cardinal virtue, and when he brags or calls out other rappers, it’s always behind layers of self-awareness and self-critique. On DAMN., though, Kendrick’s bragging takes on a new, less ironic tone. He might know it’s not right, but this is how he feels.
This pattern of devil-may-care honesty is repeated throughout the album. On the song “LUST.,” Kendrick describes the temptations his success has brought—not only to physical indulgence, but to apathy and entitlement. “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, hoping election wasn’t true / All of us worried, all of us buried our feelings deep / . . .Time passing, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways: Lust.” Kendrick is admitting that his success has insulated him from the real world. Even in the wake of the 2016 election and widespread upheaval in our society, he still feels the pull of complacency and indulgence.
And Kendrick’s thoughts turn to violence, too. Kendrick has spoken out against black violence in the past, notably in the challenging song “The Blacker the Berry” on To Pimp a Butterfly. (Bradford Davis has written perceptively about the complicated moral world of “The Blacker the Berry” right here on this very website.) But DAMN. shows how conflicted Kendrick’s understanding of this question really is. On the song “XXX.,” a friend whose son has been killed comes to Kendrick, asking for wisdom. The friend wants and expects the Kendrick from To Pimp a Butterfly—but that’s not who he gets. “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel,” Kendrick tells him. “If somebody kills my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed / . . . Let somebody touch my mama / Touch my sister, touch my woman / Touch my daddy, touch my niece / Touch my nephew, touch my brother / You should chip a n**** then throw the blower in his lap.” Kendrick’s answer to his friend is vindictive and angry. In a bitter twist, his rant is interrupted when he has to go speak at a convention about gun control—“Matter fact, I’m bout to speak at this convention / Call you back / ‘Alright kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control.’” Publicly, Kendrick is still repping the principles he stood for on his previous records, but DAMN. shows us how shaky those principles have become.
The virtues of his previous records are still here, but in tortured form, and they’re rendered dubious and blurry by the presence of their opposite vices. So we have “PRIDE.” alongside “HUMBLE.,” and “LUST.” alongside “LOVE.” This dualism parallels the album’s two intertwining narratives and bookending deaths (which, in turn, roughly mirror the “wickedness/weakness” dichotomy he draws throughout the album). In the first track, “BLOOD.,” Kendrick tells a story about volunteering to help a blind woman on the street who seems to have lost something. In response, the woman shoots Kendrick dead. It’s unclear who exactly the woman is, but “America” wouldn’t be a bad guess. Kendrick’s efforts to help his society through his music have only resulted in his being used and abused by the media (he takes some shots at Fox News in particular, via a couple of pointed samples), and misunderstood by his fans. In the album’s last song, “DUCKWORTH.,” Kendrick imagines an alternate reality in which his father was killed when he was little and he grew up on the street, eventually succumbing to an early, violent death. Whether he chooses to follow the path of loyalty, humility, and love, or the path of fear, pride, and lust, he ends up dead either way. As he raps on “ELEMENT.”: “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
It’s not that Kendrick has always presented himself as a model citizen before this. His music has always given us a complex moral portrait, honest to the point of self-effacement. He’s certainly taken us down dark and dubious moral and personal paths—but always with a clear end game in mind. Kendrick’s previous albums were linear, always moving from a point A to a more nuanced and enlightened point B. On DAMN., points A and B quite literally fold back on themselves: the album ends, after Kendrick’s second imagined death, with a reversed audio effect that takes us all the way back to the beginning of the album. Kendrick seems to be asking whether there’s really any reason to take A over B after all.
The first rule of criticism is that we have to critique the text we have in front of us, not the text we’d like to have. That means we can’t complain that DAMN. isn’t the album we’d hoped for, or expected. We have to fight against our natural tendency to judge art by our own interpretive grid, rather than letting it speak to us from outside ourselves.
That’s human nature. We tend to cast our favorite artists in our own image. We were thrilled to find a rapper as principled, as wise, as honest, and as spiritually resonant as Kendrick Lamar, and we were quick to ascribe to him all of our own best ideas about life in these United States. For a while, Kendrick seemed to be playing along. He gave us albums that challenged and amazed us, but that still fit more or less comfortably into our neat fall/repentance/redemption narrative. But then he gave us DAMN.