Kendrick Lamar: Making Sense of His World, One Bible Verse at a Time
The Bible’s influence is immense. For many it functions as their life's compass, by which going in the right direction means to walk in God’s footsteps and all other paths -- at best -- lead nowhere. That perspective is what Kendrick Lamar cautiously navigates on his third proper studio LP, DAMN.
Similar to Lamar's debut album, good kid m.A.A.d. City -- which closes with an older woman saving a group of roughneck teens with the Sinner's prayer -- the concept of DAMN. is threaded together by religion. Though here on Lamar’s latest, he leans into Bible messaging and scriptures even more.
Throughout Lamar’s career, he’s used a sizable amount of his content to elevate his listeners, to speak for the voiceless and forgotten from his Compton, California home. His previous album, 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, broadened his scope, aiming to lift not only the black community in his native Los Angeles, but African Americans from coast to coast who felt disenfranchised, belittled and inhuman in the new era of highly publicized police brutality -- one that necessitated slogans like #BlackLivesMatter. But with Kendrick seemingly disillusioned by what has happened in this country since Pimp was released two years ago, the second half of the album's volatile “XXX” calls up to Christ to lament about the United States.
“Hail Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” Lamar begins, “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives.” Later in the song, he expresses his disappointment with Donald Trump being elected president whilst nodding to former White House tenant President Obama. “We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again,” Lamar raps, “But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”
The “we” in that last line is key, because Kendrick often includes himself when addressing societal ills. On “Humble” he counts himself among those delighting in life’s trivialities: spending his riches on cognac and lavish cars while bragging about sexual exploits. All that comes before its sobering hook which urges all to practice humility: “Hold up, lil' bitch,” it orders. “Be humble.”
Kendrick knows better, but he’s still often unable to resist temptation. Awareness of the possibility to be a better person, and choosing whether to actually be that at all times, is the classic plight of man.
DAMN.’s “Yah” features a mention of Carl Duckworth, Kendrick’s God-fearing cousin who often lays Bible passages on the thoughtful rapper. Here, Carl teaches Lamar about the Book of Deuteronomy, which talks of the penalties for breaking the rule of God. “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds…” it reads.
How does a sinner like Lamar find redemption? By delving even deeper into religion and understanding of self. On the same track, he notes “I'm a Israelite/ Don’t call me ‘Black’ no mo’/ That word is only a color/ it ain't facts no mo’.” Another way we often find peace with wrongs committed is to balance them out by good deeds. A song like TPAB’s “Alright,” as empowering as it is comforting to many of Lamar’s fans, might be able to fish Lamar out of trouble waters when his judgment day comes -- not to mention the umpteen other cuts in his catalog that boast uplifting themes.
Still, on “Feel,” Lamar worries that while he’s been battling against “demons, monsters, false prophets schemin’, sponsors, industry promises” and more, that he doesn’t have anyone praying for him. “I feel like my thoughts [are] in the basement,” he raps in a state of depression, before threatening that he may “Feel like removin' myself, no feelings involved.” Whether that’s a suicidal thought or simply foreshadowing of forthcoming reclusiveness is anybody’s guess. But when a soldier hints that they want to go AWOL, it deserves to be noted.
One of DAMN.’s most poignant songs, “Lust,” lists a several weaknesses Kendrick has; clothes, showing off to his ex, and smoking marijuana all make the cut. But by the end of it, he’s citing the Bible’s James 4:4. “A friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,” it says; meaning that in order to attain God’s grace, ignoring your lusts is of the utmost importance. As legendary DJ Kid Capri yells a few times on the LP, “What happens on Earth stays on Earth.” This album encourages its listener to wonder what will happen when they leave this life and pass on to what’s next. Will you be proud of your time on Earth? Will God be proud of you?
A few DAMN. plays suggest that Kendrick probably isn’t quite confident enough to answer Yes to both of those questions just yet. He’s arguably the greatest rapper of his generation. But as he constantly reminds us, outside of the recording booth, Lamar just a mortal man trying to figure himself out.