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Kendrick Lamar was nom­i­nated for the American Music Awards artist of the year. | Wiki­media Commons

Rappers don’t often move the­mat­i­cally beyond money, rep­u­tation, and women.

But Kendrick Lamar does more than rap. He even called himself a writer, rather than a rapper, during an interview on the Colbert Report because his music “is more sto­ry­telling than rhyming words together.”

He paints pic­tures in the listener’s mind. He tells the stories of life in Compton, a city near Los Angeles where he was born. He struggles with the belief that human nature — “wickedness and weakness” — causes chaos and suf­fering. And he faces God’s seeming pas­sivity to human suf­fering — or even worse, his active role in it.

For the con­tem­plative, philo­sophical expe­rience that Lamar’s 2017 album “DAMN.” pro­vides lis­teners, he deserves to be the American Music Awards artist of the year on Sunday.

The other nom­inees for artist of the year — The Chainsmokers, Drake, Bruno Mars, and Ed Sheeran — make fine music, but they don’t offer the sto­ry­telling that enhances our moral and spir­itual dia­logue.

Lamar begins the album with the song “Blood” and presents the choice God offers: Admit weakness and submit to God’s will, or live in wickedness and maintain pride. 

In the song, Lamar sees that a blind woman dropped some­thing and can’t find it. His wicked side hes­i­tates to do the right thing and help her. Yet when Lamar chooses the right thing by offering his assis­tance, she murders him, showing the frailty of human exis­tence. More con­cretely, the allegory reveals a dis­turbing truth about his com­munity: Kindness, which is often per­ceived as weakness, gets you killed.

In “Pride,” he says it out­right: “Love’s gonna get you killed.” But if people can’t safely choose good over evil, what do we do? He offers a solution in the next line: “But pride’s gonna be the death of you and me.” The per­ceived weakness of love, kindness, and goodness does not threaten humanity as much as pride. 

The album tells a story forward and backward. Played start to finish, it ends in hope. Played backward, it ends with anger, fear, and unre­solved ques­tions. It’s two albums in one, allowing lis­teners to decide the answer to the first question Lamar asks in “Blood”: “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” 

Listen forward, and you’ll answer that human kindness and God’s grace will overcome. Listen backward, and you’ll answer that wickedness and weakness will undermine humanity. 

In “DNA,” the second track on the album, Lamar presents his con­ception of humanity’s depravity (“I got dark, I got evil that rot inside my DNA”) and the inability to escape it (“I was born like this, since one like this”). It’s a tragedy that people can better them­selves only to an extent — and Lamar reflects this in the song’s intense, angry vocals.

In “Duck­worth,” the album’s final track, Lamar con­cludes with a mixture of kindness and cosmic irony. He tells a story about an encounter between two men involved with rival gangs: his father, Kenny “Ducky” Duck­worth, and his pro­ducer Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, CEO of Top Dawg Enter­tainment.

Top Dawg lived in Compton near Ducky, who worked at Ken­tucky Fried Chicken. Top Dawg wanted to rob the fast-food joint, which would likely require him to kill Ducky. Ducky knew Top Dawg’s history, but he decided to show him kindness instead of ani­mosity — “Free chicken every time Anthony posted in line, / two extra bis­cuits, Anthony liked him and then let him slide.” Rather than allowing the sit­u­ation to end in vio­lence, the two moved past their gang-related dif­fer­ences.

Lamar says their decision to quell con­flict, rather than escalate it, is rare in Compton. And it saved his life, in a sense. If the tension had risen to vio­lence, Lamar wouldn’t have the father who raised him or the record label that allows him to share his poetry with the world.

“Whoever thought the greatest rapper / would be from coin­ci­dence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky, / Top Dawg could be servin’ life  / While I grew up without a father and die in a gun­fight.”

Lamar allows the lis­tener to decide whether chance or kindness pre­vailed 30 years ago in that KFC. Either way, Lamar is here today, sharing his wisdom through stories — and he accom­panies the stories with the best col­lab­o­ra­tions and the most diverse vocals that con­tem­porary hip-hop has to offer.

Like many lis­teners, Lamar hasn’t answered the ques­tions about suf­fering and God, either. In fact, he’s still ques­tioning God’s justice. If lis­teners reverse lyrics on “Fear,” they’ll hear Lamar sing: “Every stone thrown at you resting at my feet. Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?”

I’m praying for you, Kendrick. That you win Artist of the Year, that your story will be heard and change will arise because of it, and that you’ll find peace with your
unan­swerable ques­tions.