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