God is one funny mothafucka
A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him
– Kendrick Lamar, “DUCKWORTH.”
Kendrick Lamar grapples with God in the same fascinating way he grapples with contradictions.
It is one of his favourites words, after all: contradictions. It is one of the many reasons (others being his lyricism, rapping skills, performances etc.) why, at 30, the Compton native is already being considered by many as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
Kendrick has always been open about his dualistic personality. In his critically acclaimed album To Pimp A Butterfly (which is now archived in the Harvard University’s Library) he raps, “Your horoscope is a gemini, two sides. So you better cop everything two times”. Listening to his albums is like watching the rapper shadow boxing in front of a mirror. Yes, Kendrick grapples with many things in his music – with being a black man in America, with gang violence in his neighbourhood, with love and relationships, with temptations, with faith and religion, with leadership – but while he throws those punches and jabs, you can’t help feeling that those blows are not meant solely for others. Rather they are meant for him – for Kendrick Lamar, the imperfect man who is grappling with himself. He says it best in DAMN.’s last track “DUCKWORTH.”: “It was always me vs the world until I found it’s me vs me / Why, why, why, why?”
True to Kendrick’s duality, many of the tracks in DAMN., his highly-anticipated fourth studio album, are named in contrast to each other: “HUMBLE.” and “PRIDE.”, “LOVE.” and “LUST.”, “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” etc. But the pairing of the album’s most personal song “DUCKWORTH.” with a track called “GOD.” seems particularly telling. Don’t forget: DAMN. was dropped on Good Friday, and Kendrick’s music has always been rich with biblical imagery. He is an artist who has always been vocal about his faith in God and has mentioned his baptism as a turning point in his life. His first album with a major record label, Good Kid, M.A.A.d City (GKMC), is, in many ways, a retelling of how he’s saved by the Lord: the album starts with a prayer and ends with an old woman leading him to Christ after he has witnessed the murder of a friend. In his old songs “Faith” and “His Pain” (with BJ The Chicago Kid), he tries to reconcile believing in the divine with his own failings and the harsh nature of his surroundings. He spends the entirety of To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) escaping the enticement of Lucy, a female incarnation of the devil Lucifer. In an interview he did after the release of DAMN., he explains why God is such a mainstay in so many of his songs: “I’ve always felt God used me as a vessel. Period. Whether to show my flaws, my intellect, my pain, my hurt. To share my stories. To share His message. I can say the nastiest thing on record, but I still feel like that’s a vessel. You need to hear that. Cause I can’t sugarcoat the reality of what’s going on out here. I can’t sugarcoat the reality of my imperfections.” These “imperfections” are exactly what makes DAMN.’s relationship with God such a difficult thing to pin down.
Firstly, it is important to understand that by the time this album came along, Kendrick was already being seen as one of the most important voices of his generation; a leader for his community; a rare hip-hop artist who’s received both critical and commercial acclaim. Students unpack and study his lyrics in classrooms all over the world just as they study William Shakespeare and James Joyce. (GKMC has in fact inspired a composition class where the album is studied alongside Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) TPAB, his album before DAMN., is a vibrant, exuberant and intense narrative that sees Kendrick tackling institutional racism, fame, leadership and survivor’s guilt. Kendrick’s art has never been ‘light’, but a thread of hope can still be detected throughout the album. Many of Kendrick’s darkest moments in TPAB – the songs “u” and “The Blacker the Berry” – are followed by songs with uplifting messages like “Alright” and “i”. “Alright” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement, while the chorus of “i”, a song heavy with elements of jazz and funk, finds Kendrick screeching the affirmation “I love myself!” with unbridled joy. God is portrayed in this album as a constant source of truth and comfort. In “Alright”, Kendrick proudly proclaims, “I’m fucked up / Homie, you fucked up / But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”. The positive song “i” starts with the line: “I done been through a whole lot / Trial, tribulation, but I know God”. So when the DAMN. album dropped and we are exposed to its much, much darker religious themes, many can’t help but wonder, “Woah, K-dot, what happened?!”
A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies
Promises are broken and more resentment come alive
Race barriers make inferior of you and I
See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches
I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison
I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service
Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world
– Kendrick Lamar, “PRIDE.”
In The Ringer, Micah Peters writes that “Kendrick’s faith functions astride the spiritual and the secular, leaving ample room for doubt”. We listen to his words and wonder: what is faith to Kendrick? How does God exist in an evil world? What kind of God is Kendrick’s God? How does Kendrick’s faith function in Trump’s America? There is such a bleakness to DAMN. – and the existence of the God in DAMN. – that makes these questions all the more pressing. Writing for NPR, the critic Rodney Carmichael even compares the album to the Bible’s Lamentations: “DAMN. is Lamar’s Lamentations, bleak in tone and temperament, long on suffering and short on hope.” This album is not a typical church service, which Kendrick himself has described as “praise, dance, worship. Pastor spewing the idea of someone’s season is approaching. The idea of hope. So on and so forth”. (The buoyant form of Christianity that Chance The Rapper portrays in his music comes to mind.) Kendrick goes on to say that, as a child, he felt these church sermons, although “beautiful”, “had an emptiness about it. Kinda one sided”. What he chooses to explore on DAMN., what he is feeling on DAMN., is infinitely more personal.
The two refrains you here throughout DAMN. are “what happens on earth stays on earth” and “ain’t nobody praying for me”. “Ain’t no nobody praying for me”, specifically, is delivered multiple times in multiple ways – sometimes angrily, defiantly or despairingly. Kendrick is suffocating; he literally says so in the song “FEEL.”: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe / Look, I feel like I can’t sleep / Look, I feel heartless, often off this / Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with / Darkest hours”. He talks of “the feelin’ of false freedom”, of being paranoid in “LOYALTY.” (“Feel somethin’ wrong / You actin’ shifty, you don’t ride / With me no more”), to the point of distrust in “PRIDE.” (“I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men”). Themes of ‘Thirst’ and ‘Hunger’ are prevalent throughout the album. The song “FEAR.” begins with a sample from The 24-Carat Black, who sings from the depths of “poverty’s paradise” that “I don’t think I could find a way to make it on this earth / I’ve been hungry all my life”. The song’s main refrain – “Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?” – echoes Jesus’ from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In “LUST.”, a track about the repetitive nature of human’s based desires, Kendrick croons, “I need some water / Somethin’ came over me”. It is fair to say that the ‘water’ he is longing for here is not just water to quench his sexual desires, but also the water of life. (In the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” from GKMC, water represents his and his friends’ need for a spiritual cleansing, and Jesus himself asks for water while he is nailed to the cross.) This desperate yearning of Kendrick’s is a great contrast to the close proximity he seems to have with the figure of God (and the devil Lucy) in TPAB. No longer is he the clear-eyed and determined Kendrick in “i” and “Alright”. Here, on DAMN., he is on his knees in the wilderness, seeking a respite from his sufferings.
I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em
But who the fuck prayin’ for me?
– Kendrick Lamar, “FEEL.”
Kendrick has mentioned how DAMN. is an “urgent” album. This is not a surprise, considering America’s political situation and how socially conscious Kendrick has always been. There is a deep sense of doom in DAMN. which is absent from his previous albums. He raps in “FEEL.”: “I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world / The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’”. In “DNA.”: “Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way / Sentence on the way, killings on the way”. With the apocalypse fast approaching, you begin to feel that Kendrick has no time for faith in the traditional sense. Not only does he has no time for it, he sees no use for it and gets no satisfaction from it. He might be on his knees lamenting, but he is not going to beg either. Like he says, he has “done cried for this shit” and that he’s willing to “put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit” (“ELEMENT.”). In “XXX.”, a song he describes as “controlled chaos”, an acquaintance loses a son to the streets and comes to him so he can “philosophin’ on what the Lord had done”. The man sees Kendrick as someone who’s been “anointed” and begs Kendrick to pray for him and show him “how to overcome”. But instead of providing spiritual comfort, Kendrick coldly shuts him down: “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel / If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed”. He then goes into anger mode and preaches revenge, boasting that he’ll even wait to kill his enemy as he is leaving a church service. This, of course, reflects back to what he says in “ELEMENT.”: “I might take a life for this shit”.
In TPAB, the homeless man whom Kendrick blows off reveals himself to be God, but in DAMN., the old blind woman he tries to help turns around and shoots him dead. This switch is dark stuff; Kendrick no longer views kindness as a gateway to heaven, but as an act of weakness that can destroy him. This cynical view harks back to the anger he has expressed before towards God, although not to same extent as he does in DAMN.. In “How Much A Dollar Cost” from TPAB, he ends the song (or parable) with the lament: “I washed my hands, I said my grace / What more do you want from me?”. In “Untitled 1”, a track from his bonus album Untitled Unmastered, he weaves together a picture of the end of days from The Book of Revelation. He “pulled out his resume” when faced with God’s judgement, but instead of humbly pleading his case to get into heaven, he goes on the defensive: “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you / Say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for you / I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you / Who love you like I love you?” This is defiant Kendrick, roaring in the face of the almighty. Hurt. Wounded. Asking God, “What is going to be enough for you?”
While the overall narratives present GKMC and TPAB as Kendrick’s New Testament, DAMN. is undeniably his Old Testament. In this album Kendrick’s God is not a figure of liberation, redemption or grace. DAMN.’s God is a jealous God. He is a demanding God. He swaggers with millions in his pockets, “laughin’ to the bank like, ‘A-ha!’” (“GOD.”). He is always hovering over Kendrick’s shoulder, passing judgement and testing his resolve. In “FEAR.” Kendrick even questions whether God sees him as Job and is testing him. (“All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me? / Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?”) The song also features a voicemail from his cousin Carl, who quotes Deuteronomy 28:28 – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart” – and presents the thinking of the Black Israelites: people of colour are a “cursed people”, and until they return to God’s commandments, “these curses are gonna be upon us”.
Goddamn us all
– Kendrick Lamar, “FEAR.”
Hip-hop artists have been rapping about black spiritual movements for years, but while Kendrick himself declares, “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’” on the song “YAH.”, it is unclear to what extent he actually believes the teachings of his cousin. Being cursed means having your free-will taken away; it means you are already damned (excuse the pun) whatever you do. It is nature winning over nurture. And it is, as Kendrick says on “ELEMENT.”, a case of “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”. Yes, he talks of the “wickedness” in his DNA that “won’t let me involve in the light of God”, but at the very end of the album (“DUCKWORTH.”), he explores the other side of the coin, too. “DUCKWORTH.” tells the real-life story of how his father Ducky and Anthony or ‘Top Dawg’ (the head of his label who plugged him from the streets of Compton and into hip-hop superstardom) first met. Many years ago, Anthony planned to shoot up the KFC where Ducky worked, but decided against it after Ducky showed him kindness, befriending him and giving him free food. This one decision, Kendrick argues, “changed both of their lives”. If Top Dawg had killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be serving life in jail and Kendrick himself would “grow up without a father and die in a gunfight”. This story, of course, undermines the theory of the curse, which says that we have no free-will; that resistance is futile. This one decision by Kendrick’s father and Top Dawg “reverse the manifest”. It proves that good things can happen when “you take two strangers and put ‘em in random predicaments / Give ‘em a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it”.
However, being Kendrick, he simply refuses to leave you with a straight answer. He keeps asking more questions. At the end of the album, everything rewinds back to the very beginning – to him taking a walk one day and encountering the blind woman. This can be an indication that the entire thing has been a dream sequence – that none of the events we’ve listened to has happened yet. (Kendrick himself has alluded to this possibility in an interview.) But the Collector’s Edition that was subsequently released seems to call this theory into question. The Collector’s Edition is the album played from back to front, completely changing the entire narrative of DAMN.. Instead of Kendrick feeling hopeless and tortured (“DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “FEEL.”, etc.) to him being liberated with the realisation of free will in “DUCKWORTH.”, his journey descends into chaos and death. In this alternate narrative, he is doomed from the very start. Cursed. He is stuck in a pre-destined cycle of destruction. And so the question is raised again: “Is it wickedness or is it weakness?” (BLOOD.) Do we suffer because of our inherent wickedness and doomed fate? Or do we suffer because we fail to overcome our weaknesses?
It is an intriguing thing: the ever-present dichotomy between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God in Kendrick’s music. Can such contrasting ideas of the divine exist in the same space? Can both portrayals of God be balanced against each other? Kendrick himself seems to think so. He writes in response to a DJBooth article which discusses the different ways in which he and Chance The Rapper talk about God: “As a community, we was taught to pray for our mishaps, and He’ll forgive you. Yes, this is true. But He will also reprimand us as well. As a child, I can’t recall hearing this in service…I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance…. I love when artists sing about what makes Him happy. My balance is to tell you what will make Him extinguish you”.
I am not here to judge whether Kendrick’s views of God are right or wrong; that is not really the point of DAMN.. Rather, the point of DAMN. is what it does or what Kendrick has intended for it to do. DAMN. illustrates how difficult it is to find and create goodness in a wicked world. It is to make you ask questions of the person you see in the mirror. It is to make you consider the choices you make in your life. And, like Kendrick, it is to make you examine your own psyche first when faced with the chaos of the world. Whatever your view of the God in DAMN. is, Kendrick’s complicated relationship with him highlights how desperate we are to make sense of our pain. That perhaps, despite of our flaws and cynicism, we are still, as Kendrick himself says, just “running in place trying to make it to church” (“Untitled 1”) .