This article was originally published in The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, a journal in the Augustine Collective.
“I love when artists sing about what makes Him happy. My balance is to tell you what will make Him extinguish you.”
Kendrick Lamar is currently one of the world’s most talented lyricists, a generational storyteller, and a Christian grappling with eternal condemnation. Christianity has always been an integral part of Lamar’s albums: 2012’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City heavily featured justification by grace, and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly focused on the ascendance and sanctification that followed. However, Lamar’s 2017 DAMN takes an entirely different focus, centering on personal and societal shortcomings and their eternal consequences.
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City opens up with gang members reciting the sinner’s prayer (“Lord God, I come to you a sinner … Thank you Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood”), and To Pimp A Butterfly opens with “Wesley’s Theory,” which describes how Lamar’s candid storytelling has not only lead to success, but a “pimping” by the music industry. Thus, it becomes no surprise that DAMN, in which Lamar reckons with salvation and manipulation, bookends this religious triad. “BLOOD,” the first song on DAMN, opens with a narration in which a blind woman tells Lamar: “you have lost something. You’ve lost … your life.”
Bēkon, a guest artist on DAMN’s single “FEAR,” drives in the central feeling of the album: “God damn you / God damn me / God damn us / God damn we / God damn us all.” In a response to a djbooth article on DAMN and religion, Lamar emailed in, saying “Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLINE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, we’ll be corrected through his discipline.” Lamar chooses to push a side of God reminiscent of His Old Testament actions, a God of stern correction who will perform surgery on both Lamar’s soul and his home city, Compton.
Underneath the street preacher polemics, however, DAMN really is an album about desperation. Kendrick does not hold back regarding his sins, his past life gang-banging, or his current life as a self-proclaimed “king.” Throughout the album, Lamar tells of the immense anxiety and depression that has come with the fame he has accrued, as well as the expectation that he speak for the plight of all African-Americans. With telling his life story has come a burden of responsibility, a belief that his music must somehow spark societal uplift. How, Lamar implores, do Christians operate under a societal framework that not only destroys the moral fabric of their communities, but also destroys their souls? How do Christians rise out of complacency in their sins?
Christian music fans love raising up Lamar as a cultural icon, a religious voice that seamlessly intermingles with mainstream society. I wonder, however, how much selective listening occurs when Christians listen to DAMN, how much Christians praise Lamar’s lyricism and instrumentation while ignoring the fact that his prophetic lament is meant for his Christian listeners to receive and act upon. This message appears to cut especially hard against American Christianity, particularly its White Evangelical variant and its “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” suburban megachurch triumphalism. Millions worldwide swarm around Lamar’s cult of personality, and yet, as Lamar declares countless times in DAMN, “ain’t nobody praying for me.” Are Christians heeding DAMN’s lament? What would our society look like if we lived out Lamar’s conviction?
“What’s up, family? Yeah, it’s yo cousin Carl, man, just givin’ you a call, man. I know you been havin’ a lot on yo mind lately, and I know you feel like, you know, people ain’t been prayin’ for you. But you have to understand this, man, that we are a cursed people. Deuteronomy 28:28 says, ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.’ See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder. Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way…” (intro to “FEAR”)
In “FEAR,” Lamar uses his struggles to identify with the biblical Job, seeing him as model of faith. In it, he raps, “all this money, is God playin’ a joke on me? / is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? / take it from me and leave it worse than it was before?” Lamar has witnessed a great precarity in his success: the chance at conquering the world and being eternally condemned at the same time. This is no different than the life of Job, a biblical figure who, according to Job 1:3, had 10 children, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 3,000 oxen, 500 donkeys, and a large number of servants—the ancient equivalent of Lamar’s eight figure salary. Lamar is bracing for a fall.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Lamar, at age 30, is currently Job at the peak of his life, before all his family and possessions were taken away. For Lamar, it is not just that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but that “with success comes an absolute course of destruction.” Just like Job, Lamar struggles to persevere until all he has left is God. Much of DAMN can be seen as a reflection of Job’s statement that all the material success in the world means nothing in the face of a God who has created the universe.
“We used to have these successful people come around and tell us what’s good and what’s bad in the world… but when we walk outside and see somebody’s head get blown off, whatever you just said went out the window. And it just chips away at the confidence. It makes you feel belittled in the world.” (interview with i-D Magazine)
In other words, Lamar believes God’s wrath to be inescapable—he downplays a grace gospel simply because the reality he sees does not reflect that, and seems to ask, how can Christians outside these communities simply peer in blithely? Lamar posits that the only explanation for this chasm, one driven by race and class, is that his community is smitten by God.
Lamar’s response is sad, but unsurprising, and does not feel far off from the cry of the Israelites and their ruined Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations. The Israelites’ ultimate answer and redeemer is Jesus, and Lamar has also accepted Jesus as his savior—but in the moment, both parties lament and grieve over the current period of suffering. Lamentations 5:1 asks, “Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us,” and DAMN serves the exact same purpose of taking notes of the times.
“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.” These final words on “PRIDE” illustrate the extent to which Lamar grapples with the institutional oppression on his community, how he both criticizes himself for complacency while lambasting just how broken his community is. Lamar accepts no cheap grace.
However, the last song on DAMN, “DUCKWORTH,” is not a lamentation on structural and personal dilapidation, but a song of hope, a breaking of intergenerational trauma. In it, Lamar tells a story of how his father, who worked at a fried chicken place, avoided being robbed and killed by Lamar’s now record label manager, “Top Dawg” Tiffith, through generosity: by giving him extra biscuits. If his father’s restaurant had been robbed, as it had been the year prior, Top Dawg may have been imprisoned, and his father may have been killed. But out of this unlikely union, Kendrick Lamar emerged. A radical fracture of intergenerational suffering ended with his father’s decision of generosity, and Lamar has been its product. “Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives / One curse at a time,” Lamar raps in the last verse. There is freedom from damnation, Lamar states. There is grace.
By ending the album with “DUCKWORTH,” Lamar opens up a sliver of hope, a small opening into reconciling his inner self. Just as the power of God is used to condemn the unfaithful, so can it be used to radically uplift millions facing racial oppression and structural poverty. There is a fatalism to Lamar’s theology, but a fatalism that allows space for hope, mercy, and salvation—or just the simple hope that Lamar can return to the person he was on Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, an ex-gang member submitting before the grace of God. The entire album seems to build to this moment, a moment when hope can persist even though anguish appears inescapable. The ending of DAMN parallels the last verse of Lamentations: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! / Renew our days as of old—/ unless you have utterly rejected us, / and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”
Lamar spoke on his personal role in an interview with the New York Times: “I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have. I know that from being on tour—kids are living by my music.” He added: “My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” For non-Christians, DAMN provides a deep exploration into Lamar’s humanity, the dissonance pulling at his faith and his stardom. However for Christians, DAMN is something much more. DAMN is a grieving album, a lamentation, but also a vehement invocation to do away with a triumphalistic, individualistic Christianity that does not address societal suffering, and to start somewhere to address the spiritual pitfalls in America.
Kion You is a sophomore at Brown University, concentrating in English.