For Jill, who would have hated this shit.
So I was taking a walk the other day…
Sometimes, when I’m taking walks by myself, I make lists in my head of what’s going to get me killed: CANCER. CARDIAC ARREST. PULMONARY EMBOLISM. The worst part about being a hypochondriac is that this shit isn’t just in my head (as if that would make it any less valid); it’s all corporeal, it’s all in my DNA. I’ve had a BLOOD clot, my grandfather died of a HEART ATTACK while shoveling snow when my dad was six years old, CANCER killed my sister. Some say that LOVE can get you killed, but it’s FEAR that’s going to be the death of me. It’s in my DNA. I’ll prolly die from anxiety.
What is Kendrick Lamar afraid of? On his latest release, Kendrick reveals that his greatest fear is loss, whether it be of money, creativity, LOVE, LOYALTY from PRIDE, GOD’s light, HUMBLEness. There’s a FEAR present here that no degree of straight fire will ever reverse GOD’s curse against all things black. Doubt and duplicity permeate Kendrick’s lines while he maps his way forward, but he delivers his thoughts with unmatched clarity. Kendrick knows even more now (or at least when he spits knowledge, it’s more succinct): murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption, scholars, fathers dead with kids. When Kendrick takes a walk, he’s also making lists of how he’ll die, vivid in his imagery in a way that only somebody who’s almost died can be: “anonymous… with promises… walkin’ back home from the candy house… because these colors are standin’ out.” To Pimp a Butterfly saw Kendrick going home after making it out. This time, we hear him wrestling with whether making it out was enough.
Damn is a derivative of damnare, a rather mundane Latin word meaning loss or harm. John Ayto, author of The Dictionary of Word Origins, reveals that it didn’t become exclusively a theological term or an expletive until its original meaning was lost around 16c; its Biblical use is therefore contested, as its original connotation of mild condemnation does not fit what has eventually become synonymous with exemption from divine mercy. Its use on DAMN. encapsulates all of these historical permutations, as loss, harm, and exclusion (from both divine and mundane spaces) are all prominent themes. There’s a recurring motif, delivered at one point through a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl, of people of color being cursed by GOD for being inequitable and following other gods. Damn, as a verb here, is something that GOD does. It’s a top-down kind of smiting, but this kind of exchange is also present here between mortals. On opener “BLOOD.,” there’s a sample of FOX News reporters misquoting and deriding his song “Alright” after his 2015 BET Awards performance. “Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it,” one anchor says of its supposed anti-police message. It’s another, fleshier example of punching down, of condemning (or reinforcing condemnation of) a disenfranchised people.
On “ELEMENT.,” a song that mostly eschews religious imagery for pointed digs at fake rappers, Kendrick uses “damn” as a participle, adjective, verb, and an expletive in one line, highlighting how those most affected by violence are pushed out of those very positions of power that could protect them: “Damned if I do, if I don’t (yuhhh)/ Goddamn us all if you won’t (yuhhh)/ Damn, damn, damn, it’s a goddamn shame/ You ain’t frontline, get out the goddamn way.” It’s a biting twist on Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, delivered as a sparse bridge in between sexy James Blake-produced keyboard stabs and grimy snares. Kendrick is asserting through this track that nobody can take him out of his ELEMENT, which in this case is wherever he’s at.
While “damn” itself is used in a plethora of different ways throughout DAMN., it is “DNA.” that sets these permutations into motion through its sheer power, eliciting that initial reaction from its audience: “DAMN.(!)” Kendrick is cracking open his genes all over this thing with vigor, unravelling strands of his pedigree like a Pandora’s ladder, choking those who are offended by his inner duplicitousness: “I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA / I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA.” There are multitudes here, mutations, mutilations, meditations, millions. Packed so tight that it never stops popping. Unpacking it all is an impossible task. Luckily for us, trying is a Helluva time.
I got so many theories and suspicions…
As both a religious person and a scholar of religion, I’ve always been fascinated by religious rhetoric and imagery, especially in non-worship music. Biblical imagery is abundant on DAMN., but its intentional juxtaposition with profanity is what makes it stand out. Deuteronomy 28:28 is referenced multiple times and presents us with DAMN.’s central dilemma: “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind.” This is essentially a curse, one that Kendrick’s cousin Carl uses as an etiology for black suffering. This divine curse leaves Kendrick wrestling with two options throughout DAMN: keep defying it by succeeding against all odds, or guarantee everlasting life by repenting and coming clean. “YAH.” exemplifies Kendrick’s quandary:
“I’m not a politician, I’m not ‘bout a religion
I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’
That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’
My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth
Said know my worth
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed
I know he walks the Earth
But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah
Zeroes to flip, temptation is, yah
First on my list, I can’t resist, yah
Everyone together now, know that we forever”
In one verse, there is both a rejection of religion and a reclamation of an ancient religious lineage. Kendrick respects his cousin Carl’s faith amidst adversity, yet offers that temptation is often stronger. Ultimately, Kendrick professes a message of togetherness, locating eternity in fraternal bonds. Attaining redemption, however, rides on making it out in America, a land plagued by its own inequities divorced from those that drove Kendrick’s people out of the Promised Land, America itself a land that promised radical equality for those who have been oppressed and suppressed. As Bono sings in “XXX.,” “It’s not a place/ This country is to be a sound of drum and bass.” U2’s chorus reminds us that America is still at war with itself and is so by its own cruel design.
Three months in, DAMN. feels like our first Trump-era classic. It’s as bold and as hard and as hopeful as it is bursting with vitriol. It’s as distracting as it is inciting. It’s as cohesive as it is dense. It’s a volatile, unpredictable chapter in a legacy that’s followed Kendrick from Compton to Congress and now to the Cosmos, as we all struggle for meaning together in a Universe that’s on fire and covered in BLOOD. DAMN. is an expletive shouted into infinity, a judgment of our own judgments, a wrestling with GOD, a letting go of loss and harm, something that we could all give a little more of. It’s a DAMN masterpiece in a world that too often feels like a DAMN shame.
FEEL (alternate version)
I FEEL like my only accomplishments are reflections
I FEEL like my privilege only silences my message
I FEEL like I’m losing my GOD DAMN edge if I had one
I FEEL like I never had much to say in the first place
FEEL like, I FEEL like we’re on two different planets
FEEL like I am part of a problem that I can’t fix
I FEEL like too many people out prayin’ for themselves
I FEEL like violence is a function of FEAR and that’s BULLSHIT
GOD. DAMN. you
GOD. DAMN. me
GOD. DAMN. us
GOD. DAMN. we
GOD. DAMN. US. ALL.
GOD bless every DAMN one of US ALL.
Are we gonna live? Or die?
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.”
— Philippians 1:20-22
“Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives
One curse at a time
Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I’ll tell you why
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”
Two Christmases ago, my sister died of cancer. Around that time, I started experiencing stomach pains and frequent dizziness for no discernible physiological reason; part of me convinced myself that I had somehow contracted cancer from her ghost and that ghost cancer just wasn’t detectable. We weren’t that close, but as those holes have closed up tightly in her absence and my other sister and brother and stepmother and I have grown closer, I’ve realized more and more just how intimately people can be connected. Loss can be physically devastating. On hard days, I’m reminded more than ever before how violent disconnection can be. For a lot of people, life isn’t a choice; it’s a sentence. It’s hard finding lessons in what so often feels like a cavalcade of creative and destructive accidents. But here’s where hope enters: we have some control of that speeding, blistering motorcade. We can listen while others mourn, we can hold each other up when foundations bottom out, we can rebuild this house together, and we can forgive when listening and holding and rebuilding and forgiving seem impossible. Life is DAMN. hard, but it’s shit like DAMN. that make it a bit easier. It’s fresh air over a gravestone. Sunshine on an epitaph. GOD BLESS these molecules, bent on decay.
So I was taking a walk the other day…