Kendrick’s first studio album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, perfectly captures the experience of Kendrick’s time as a young boy in the Compton ghetto - the chaos, the fear, the violence, the pressures, the desires. What is too often a passing one-line boast for other rappers today, about growing up in the struggle, Kendrick expanded into a cinematic masterpiece of an origin story, establishing the essential foundation for his career as the best conscious rapper of this new generation.
In Kendrick’s follow up, To Pimp A Butterfly, we find him as a man, with the mad city behind him. The final poem summarizes all of the lessons he learned after he “went running for answers”, lessons he feels his loved ones back home can’t see, since they’re still “trapped" in the middle of the maze. To Pimp A Butterfly is a powerful opera of black identity in today’s America, an infusion of jazz and soul, exploring issues such as gang violence, self-hate, police brutality, hopelessness, and the justice system. The story of the caterpillar, the cocoon, and the titular butterfly represents what Kendrick believes is the strong gravitational pull of the ghetto, even to the most beautiful, creative inhabitants (the butterfly).
At the end of the album, we listen in on a conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur. Discussing these problems, Tupac suggests that a violent revolution is inevitable, seeing no other way to turn things around. Kendrick disagrees, still true to his belief that music and vibrations are “the only hope” he sees right now, that you can use the system to change it. If the caterpillars use their cocoons for consciousness and creativity, they’ll begin to see above the city they’re all stuck in, and change the system that way. However, Tupac never responds to this, and the last sounds of the album are Kendrick desperately crying out for his response.
DAMN - A Journey Through Hell
Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth
Kendrick’s two previous studio albums have not only served to encourage and relate to those on the inside of the mad city, but also to those on the outside, appealing to two worlds at once. The albums have clear themes, and tell a vivid story for the listener. When keeping this in mind, it’s hard to identify exactly what DAMN is actually about, or what line it is taking. This is because DAMN is a project entirely about duality, and the hell duality can bring. DAMN is a hypocritical, conflicted, bipolar experience if you enter it searching for a clear take-home message, and indeed it wasn’t until I stopped doing this that I felt any sense of ease listening to the full album.
It isn’t a coincidence that, as well as the red background, the big red ‘M’ on the album cover is positioned right above Kendrick’s head, as if it were a set of devil horns. DAMN emulates the experience of Kendrick falling into his own personal hell, and confronting his demons. Kendrick literally dies at the beginning of the album, before the first real song begins, in order to get there. One of the lines repeated throughout the album is “I don’t think I can find a way to make it on this earth” - implying Kendrick must instead go somewhere else to find the meaning he’s looking for. Perhaps the line “I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface world” relates to this too - Kendrick feels not enough people are prepared to face this terrifying spiritual journey in life. The album is full of religious references, mostly to the Book of Deuteronomy, which lays out the consequences of being damned, or breaking God’s laws. The tracks ‘LUST’ and ‘PRIDE’ are named after two of the deadly sins, and describe Kendrick’s internal conflict over his own sins as a religious man.
Wickedness Vs Weakness
Hell-raising, whale-chasing, new worldy possessions
The first line of the song introduces the two opposing forces of hell - “Is it wickedness or weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?”. From the perspective of somebody controlled by their own demons, they often feel they must either behave in a wicked, cruel way towards others, or be seen as weak, as if these are the only two options. Throughout the album, the tracks constantly switch between wicked, macho and boastful songs such as 'DNA.' or 'HUMBLE.', and vulnerable, "weak" songs like 'FEEL.' or 'FEAR.'
For example, 'PRIDE.' is a wicked song, in which Kendrick asks “flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen?”. His tone implies that in the song, this Kendrick is only concerned with satisfying the flesh at the expense of the spirit, whilst also showing us the danger of doing so. We see Kendrick brag of how he is “hell-raising, whale chasing” - a reference to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Captain Ahab is an archetypical character horribly consumed by pride, and obsessed with killing the whale that took his leg from him at any cost. In referring to Captain Ahab, Kendrick confronts us with the hypocrisy and duality of the situation - the dangerous and dark side that always comes with being a hell-raising badass, often unbeknownst to the badass until it’s too late. It’s very unnerving that whilst Kendrick poses the question of materialistic fulfillment vs spiritual fulfillment as “Happiness or flashiness”, what we experience throughout the album is a Kendrick erratically changing his mind over which he is seeking.
In 'LUST.' we experience the ugly side of fame and fortune; the repetitive and spiritually vacuous lifestyles of the rich, consumed with materialistic pleasure, or lust. Kendrick repeats lines about his daily routine, which consists of little more than sleeping in, sex, weed, Instagram, and the club. Kendrick contrasts this with the current political situation in the US, and concludes that our materialistic pleasures eventually lead us to ignore the real problems with society, to regress back into these old routines again.
This commentary follows into 'XXX.' two tracks later, where wicked Kendrick explains why he may have been violent at times in his youth: “Throw a steak off the ark to a pool full of sharks, he’ll take it”. The sharks represent the young black men of inner-city America, and the ark those who have been “rescued” from being left in that situation. Kendrick takes on the persona of a violent man in the city, explaining how he would even kill an enemy who was leaving church if it was his only chance to do it. This epic hypocrisy for a religious man is then put next to the hypocrisy of America as a religious country, and its foreign policy of dropping bombs on civilians -
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
The weak, vulnerable songs are just as extreme. 'FEEL.' is like falling into a deep depression - the echoey, haunting noises make it sound as if you’re alone in a dark, empty room - often a literal and metaphorical place depressed people constantly find themselves in. Kendrick muses all the musings that occur in a depressed mind - isolation, distrust, resentment, and no regard for the future at all. “Nobody praying for me” is a repeated line, exposing Kendrick’s deep fears of being unrecognized, and that deep down nobody cares for him or his life’s work - this is examined much further in 'FEAR.' which lays bare the three greatest fears of Kendrick’s life so far.
It isn’t until the very end of the album, 'DUCKWORTH.' that Kendrick, who is known for telling stories in his rhymes, tells one with a clear narrative. Kendrick raps the true story of how his boss Anthony ‘Top Dog’ Tiffith, whose company Top Dog Entertainment signed Kendrick when he was 15, had many years ago planned to rob the KFC where Kendrick’s father worked at the time. However, Kendrick’s father was often generous and gave free pieces of chicken to Top Dog, causing him to decide not to commit the robbery, which otherwise might have resulted in Kendrick’s father being killed. Kendrick ponders an alternative reality in which this is what happened. Top Dog would have spent most of his life in jail and would never have been able to give Kendrick the opportunity he did. Kendrick would have grown up without a father, making him more likely to resort to drugs and gangs in order to make money and find a father figure.
This story acknowledges how Top Dog could just have easily ruined Kendrick’s life as improved it, reflecting duality. But because of a simple everyday act of generosity, things went differently and worked out much better for everybody. At the end of the final song, the entire album rewinds back to Kendrick’s first line - “So I was takin’ a walk the other day”, and finishes, and we can assume that this time, Kendrick isn’t killed, and goes about his life. This everyday generosity, if done more often, might “rewind” a lot of potentially horrible situations where people might have otherwise found happiness and prosperity. Whilst being slightly inconclusive, this is definitely a message you can take from the album and be mindful of, and a good start in Kendrick’s search for answers.
DAMN is a classic journey into the darkest area of one’s own self, in this case, Kendrick’s personal hell. Kendrick’s journey in DAMN might draw comparisons to one of the greatest films of all time, Apocalypse Now, which is about a soldier’s journey into his own ‘heart of darkness’. Francis Coppola, the director, went through a similar experience whilst making the film, and his wife described it as follows: “It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the centre of himself and confront his fears, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane. You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.” This could easily apply to Kendrick’s journey in DAMN, and explain the sense of unease I initially felt.
You could say that Good Kid M.A.A.D City is about Kendrick’s city, and To Pimp A Butterfly is about Kendrick’s people. If DAMN is anything, it’s Kendrick’s first album purely about himself. Kendrick deeply explores his own demons, his own issues, and his own personal hell, where, as illustrated on the album cover, he is his own Satan. The entirety of the album is spent trying to understand and defeat this Satan, in order to escape damnation. The first sentence of the final song proclaims “I found out it’s me vs me”, representing this inner struggle. Kendrick’s expression on the album cover also displays this conflict - he looks menacing, but he also sort of looks as if he’s experiencing a lot of pain and confusion too.
This is the one central theme throughout the album - duality. Kendrick is both wicked and weak, he is both a good man and a sinner, he is concerned with both material and spiritual fulfillment. He has touched on this issue before, but never before have we seen it stressed so much on one album, particularly an album representing Kendrick’s battle with himself. In essence, we can see duality as the answer to this struggle, and the acceptance that we are, and to a degree always will be, imperfect and hypocritical. Kendrick slams the concept of a ‘perfect’ anything throughout the album - on one song bragging about his money, and on the next saying “In a perfect world I’d choose faith over riches”.
Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride
In today’s world, things are simplified and made to seem black or white, good or bad, particularly within the media and politics. We are constantly encouraged to think as part of one side, and ignore the messy duality of reality. Kendrick refers to Instagram, a platform which often depicts fake “perfect” bodies or lifestyles, and has been psychologically proven to keep many young people trapped in a cycle of depression and dissatisfaction. The lesson we can take from DAMN is that we need to accept a lot of our duality and imperfections, and inevitably face our own demons in the process. Kendrick’s journey through hell and damnation in order to find answers could in fact be what he went through as a caterpillar in his cocoon. If interpreted in this way, DAMN can follow immediately on from To Pimp A Butterfly, and help inspire us in not only understanding ourselves, but understanding and sympathizing with others and their struggles too.
"People are permeable and art is never produced in a vacuum. I like exploring the political and social context of music."