Reversing the Curse: A Spiritual Guide to Decoding Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
Hip hop, race, religion and why we need to look back at our history
Table of Contents
Forward, About and Introduction (current page)
Part 1: Kendrick the King
Part 2: Kendrick the Prophet
Part 3: Curses & Commandments
Part 4: The Kingdoms of This World
Part 5: The Kingdom of God
Part 6: The Complete Commandments
Part 7: Problematic Prophets
Track 7: PRIDE.
Track 8: HUMBLE.
Track 9: LUST.
Track 10: LOVE.
Track 11: XXX.
Track 12: FEAR.
Track 13: GOD.
Track 14: DUCKWORTH.
Femi introduced me to Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.A.A.d city in the summer of 2014. At that time, I was in the midst of questions about what to make of my life and the insecurity that comes from not knowing what to pursue. I had picked up the scent of a burgeoning interest in theology and art and it was in the midst of that interest that Femi suggested that I give Kendrick’s album a listen.
Femi warned me that I might have to brace myself if I went into listening to the album with a pre-conceived notion of what a ‘Christian’ album needs to sound like. The best advice that he gave me was to listen to the whole album and to pay attention to the arc of the story presented on it.
For an album like DAMN., that advice still certainly applies. As Femi will go on to mention, “it can be hard to distinguish whether the stories on the album are about Kendrick himself, the narrative version of Kendrick or Kendrick’s community”. In fact, the tension that Kendrick experiences as a result of what the public thinks he is results in a conflicted self, perhaps best expressed in the song “u” on To Pimp a Butterfly. Because Kendrick is complex and his relationship to his faith is complex, we may be tempted to pull out a single moment and to call it the genuine man. We would be mistaken to miss the whole picture, however.
Religious faith is not something which exists in the abstract. Whatever we may like to believe about faith, it is hardly simple. I am captivated by Kendrick’s music because he faces the parts of himself that scare him. And by listening to Kendrick’s internal turmoil, I am reminded of the inner turmoil that I experience within myself each time that I listen. Perhaps there is no genuine way to listen to Kendrick except to take this journey with him: a journey which causes us to face who we are, who our family is, where we come from, and who we are friends with, even as we struggle with the reality of those things.
Sure, we don’t have to pay attention to Kendrick’s thought on alcohol and alcoholism as we blast “Swimming Pools” at the club. I don’t think that it is necessarily Kendrick’s responsibility to force us to listen to things which he has said. Nonetheless, the words are there, always at the ready, for those who are willing to listen. To you, reader, I do not know what your experience of religion is, but I hope that you can at least begin with a respect for the gravity of the topics that Kendrick chooses to engage with. He talks about love, society, drugs, success, doubt, history, oppression, the Bible, and God. Femi’s explication of these themes may unlock for you even more of the depths which are hidden away in Kendrick’s album and the very reality which it attempts to convey.
PhD Student at Boston University School of Theology
About the Writer
World is going [crazy]
Where did we go wrong?
It’s a tidal wave, it’s a thunderdome
Get God on the phone
I just got a raise
Spent it all on me
- Kendrick Lamar from “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”
Thus says the LORD:
“Stand at the crossroads and look.
Ask for the ancient paths —
where the good way is — and walk in it.
Then you will find rest for your souls”
But they said:
“We won’t walk in it.”
- Jeremiah 6:16
When I was 3 years old, I walked into my mother’s room confused. She was talking aloud but there was no one else in the room. I asked her who she was talking to. She replied that she was talking to God. Curious, I asked her how she managed that. She explained that there was someone named Jesus who could come, live inside of me and enable me to talk to God too. It seemed great to be able to talk to someone anywhere I was, so I asked Jesus to come live inside of me. My mom showed me the Bible and read some stories that explained who Jesus was and how the world came into its current state. These stories were usually simplified and always presented with a clear moral lesson. The alterations made them easier for my 3-year-old mind to comprehend. However, these simplified lessons pointed me to the idea that Jesus suffered so I would not have to suffer, an idea that I began to question as I became acquainted with the world.
When I was 13 years old, I was looking for new music to listen to when I discovered the music video for “Thugz Mansion” by 2Pac, who at that point had been dead for 6 years. The song told of the artist’s struggle with violent street corners, police harassment, suicidal thoughts, and poverty while dreaming of escape to a better place. I was immediately struck by the raw honesty and hope found in 2Pac’s lyrics. Having grown up with African immigrant parents in middle-class white neighborhoods in the Bible belt, hip hop and the people who listened to it had always been dismissed as negative influences. Yet now I found that 2Pac’s music humanized a whole generation of people who looked like me. For the first time in my life, I started to understand what it meant to identify with the disinherited, with those who were suffering. I soon immersed myself in songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, “Changes”, “Dear Mama”, “It Ain’t Easy”, and “Life Goes On”. I found similar voices in works of Nas, JAY Z, and The Notorious B.I.G.. These men taught me what it meant to be a black in America. Hip hop was my initiation to becoming a black man.
When I was 23 years old, I was looking for some new music to listen to when I found a recently released album entitled Section.80 by another 23 year old named Kendrick Lamar. The album featured vignettes of individuals born in the late 80’s and raised by families receiving Section 8 public housing assistance. From the beginning of the album I noticed that Kendrick rapped with a rare earnestness, the kind that first moved me ten years earlier. I was particularly struck when I heard “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”, a song which told the story of a young black girl who was forced to live on the streets where she turned to prostitution before being killed by a client. I knew this story. This was a retelling of 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby”. However, while 2Pac gave standard explanations of how Brenda got stuck in her predicament, Kendrick explained that the reason Keisha could not get out was that “she never heard of sinner’s redemption / that sound foolish.” As someone who had known Jesus’s stories for two decades, it was surprising how Kendrick’s answers to life’s most challenging questions always came back to the same spiritual concepts I had struggled to understand. While many hip hop artists had used religious terms out of context and many Christians had made unconvincing attempts to evoke the raw honesty of hip hop, I had never found someone who consistently merged these two streams of thought. While I resonated deeply with Section.80, at the time I agreed with JAY Z, who in 2003 rapped, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli”. The conventional wisdom was that the dense commentary that Kendrick displayed on Section.80 would have to be comprised if he wanted to become a top-selling artist. I thus doubted that I would hear such a unified mindset on any of his future albums.
In early 2017 at the age of 29, I wondered how the world was to recover from its current plight. 2016 had revealed the extent to which anger, hatred, fear, isolation and disillusionment were tearing societies apart. I became convinced that something had gone terribly wrong in modern society, so I started studying history, philosophy and theology to dig a way out of our predicament. As I examined the history of my own faith, I was genuinely shocked by the extent to which both conservative and liberal interpretations of ancient scriptures had departed from how the ancient audiences understood them. Most notably, I was challenged by the extent to which humility was the hallmark of the earliest followers of Jesus and how departing from humility lead to violence, oppression, hypocrisy, and the destruction of our planet. To process my thoughts, I wrote a post entitled “Evil’s Reversal, My Restoration, Our Reunion” and published it on April 14th, 2017. On the same day, Kendrick released DAMN. his third album since Section.80. Even though Kendrick had already proven JAY Z and myself wrong with how he was able to maintain his unity of thought while releasing two of the most critically acclaimed and top-selling hip hop albums of the decade, DAMN. took his feat to an entirely different level. As it turned out, Kendrick had been going through a serious study of his faith as well. He had come to many of the same conclusions that I had, but had gone much further. His first hand experience of violence and destruction gave him a clarity that I could never have had on my own.
As I wrote out my interpretation of the album, I started to see my own life transform. I understood more and more of what God’s prophets have been saying all along. These writings grew into a book I decided to freely release online. Many people have endeavored to explain Kendrick’s songs with a remarkable knowledge of the parts. My aim to provide wisdom about the whole. For those of you already immersed in hip hop, you may to glean new insight into the spiritual vocabulary and allusions that have always been a part of hip hop. For those of you who are rooted in a faith tradition but can’t understand how a popular, “secular” rap album can be a faithful witness to Jesus’s life and mission, Kendrick — and Jesus for that matter — may surprise you. For anyone who is still searching for how truth and justice emerge from the shadow of racism and oppression, I present to you the stories of hip hop and Judeo-Christian scriptures in the hope that you can find in them the kind of transformation that I have experienced.
I think now, how wayward things have gone within the past few months, my focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they’re doing the groundwork. To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore. We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.
— Kendrick Lamar from an interview with The New York Times in early 2017
On April 14th, 2017, which happened to be Good Friday, Kendrick Lamar released his most recent album entitled DAMN. The album became his third in a row to reach Billboard’s number one. Furthermore, it arrived with universal acclaim, hyperbolic statements from fans, and a rekindling of arguments over whether Kendrick is the greatest rapper of his generation. However, most commentators stop short of declaring Kendrick to be the greatest rapper of all time largely because that list is already set.
Years ago the hip hop community arrived at a broad consensus that there are five greatest rappers. In order of their career apexes, the list is comprised of 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, JAY Z, and Eminem. In other words, the works by these five artists constitute hip hop’s canon, the collection of works which scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping a culture. All cultures have canons. Western culture long ago canonized the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Much of what we know about the many earlier Greek philosophers is mediated through summaries that these three wrote. To this day, Westerners see any philosophy in light of these three men. Even the terms used to discuss good and evil were largely defined in their writings. In much the same way, Jewish identity has been primarily shaped by five texts — Bereshit (“In the Beginning”), Shemot (“Names”), Vayikra (“And He Called”), Bəmidbar (“In the Desert”) and Devarim (“Words”) — which constitute the Torah, the first collection of scriptures in the Jewish canon. All later Jewish scriptures essentially reinterpret these five texts and apply the lessons to problems of the day. Kendrick’s approach to his albums is no different.
My spot is solidified if you ask me
My name is identified as “That King”
I’ll let y’all worry about a list, I’m on some other shit
- Kendrick Lamar from “The Heart Part 4”
DAMN. certainly is cut from the same mold as other influential hip hop albums. The greatest hip hop albums — 2Pac’s Me Against the World, The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die, Nas’s Illmatic, JAY Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP , and many others — all share a common hallmark. Each of these albums bring you down to the ground level of a world you’ve never been a part of. Each album opens the window to the streets of the ghetto outside of the artists’ window. The artists, like journalists, report what they see with stunning poetry lyrical imagery, and subversive cultural references which augment the war going on both outside the artists’ doors and inside their minds.
Kendrick Lamar’s work is different, though. His albums start on the ground with this same structure but as the album progresses the listener is lifted up as Kendrick shows the listener not just what he sees from below but what God sees from above. In doing this Kendrick’s narrative albums — good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and now DAMN. — all rise above the conventions of their hip hop genre and enter another more rarified and spiritual genre: prophecy.
I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y’all lamed out
Didn’t really appreciate it ’til the second one came out
So I stretched the game out, etched your name out
Put Jigga on top
- JAY-Z from “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
I prophesized on my last song, you laughed at me
But when the shit get brackin’, don’t you ask for me
How many leaders gon’ tell you the truth after me?
- Kendrick Lamar from “The Heart Part 4”
There is a strong precedence for influential poets to be considered prophets of their day. In fact, Paul, an early leader of the Jesus movement and author of about thirty percent of the Christian New Testament, upheld that the Greek philosopher-poet Epimenides was a prophet to the people of Athens (see Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). Some rappers have claimed to inherit this prophetic legacy, but Kendrick Lamar like no rapper before has identified himself as a true prophet from the black community to America. He is consistently aware of this purpose in his life and music. He has a message to bring to us. It is a message which represents an Orthodox understanding of God’s nature. The only difference is that his message is being delivered 16 rap bars at a time. His is not the dry, sterile message one might hear in a modern, American-style three-point sermon. It is a message wrapped in a subversive, modern art form but rooted in ancient truths. It is a message which Kendrick believes comes directly from the Spirit of God.
Closer to the Spiritual
Remember the ancient days;
bear in mind the years of past generations.
Ask your father and he will inform you,
your elders, and they will tell you.
- Deuteronomy 32:7
But what does it mean for a message to come from the Spirit of God? Such a claim seems quite fanciful to the modern world. The word “spirit” has grown detached from anything that we consider real. This was not always the case. Thus, it would benefit us to recover what the word originally meant. In many ancient cultures, the word spirit and the word breath were identical. Thus, for the ancients, the idea of spirits was firmly rooted in a concept which was unquestionably real, a concept one was reminded of with each breath that one took from the surrounding environment. However, we in modern society tend to dismiss the idea of spirits or spiritual influences as a kind of non-scientific superstition akin to ghost stories or a way to speak about hyper-emotional experiences. This constrained perspective is in large part due to how thoroughly our minds have conformed to a Western European post-Enlightenment frame of reference. Even Western thought before the enlightenment was not nearly so constrained. Ancient Greek philosophers freely spoke of spirits as an invisible, immaterial influences that conveyed various thoughts upon individuals.
20th century thinking has effectively tried to re-invent the ancient wheel by offering concepts such as “hive mind” or “group mind” which feel more grounded in visible, material allusions. Nonetheless, we can still find traces of the more ancient, unencumbered perspective in the words that we use. For instance the word “inspired” traces back through Latin into Ancient Greek. This is why in English the word still means “to infuse into the mind”, “to communicate to the spirit”, and “to infuse by breathing”.
In addition to highlighting the connection between spirit and breath, the meanings of the word inspire also reveal the inseparable link between spirit and mind. Through these connections, we would expect the transmission of thoughts. Thus, at the most basic level, a spirit is simply a pattern of logical and emotional thought which is shared amongst multiple persons. This definition is why we still use terms such as “school spirit”, “the spirit of cooperation” or “the spirit of the law”. When we see the concept of spirit in this way we can come to a better understanding of the word religion. In the post-modern West, it is popular to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In this statement, people primarily use the word religion to mean the negative subjugation of one’s individuality to a rigid structure imposed by antiquated, controlling, and questionable institutions. However, originally the word “religion” came from Latin where it meant “to reconnect”. It thus makes little sense to share a pattern of thoughts and emotions while remaining unconnected. The problem is not being connected, i.e. being religious in the classical sense. The problem lies in being connected to a problematic spirit.
We can thus come to the conclusion that describing something as “spiritual” does not mean it is inherently good. Spirits can be good or evil. Whether a spirit is good or evil is determined by whether the pattern of thoughts the spirit maintains lead to good outcomes or evil outcomes.
And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone
Just let our spirits live on
Through our lyrics that you hear in our songs
- Eminem from “Sing for the Moment”
Whether good or bad, many spirits live on for generations after the person who was first inspired. At critical junctures the domain of a given spirit is advanced by prophets, either prophets of truth who lead people to a good spirit or prophets of falsehood who lead people to an evil spirit. This necessary distinction between spirits may then lead us to an insightful question. Is there is any pattern of thought that is inherently good, one that only produces morally good outcomes? If there was — it would surely seem prudent for us all to be inspired by that spirit above any others. Kendrick wrestles with what such a spirit could be like for him and those around him. This spiritual quest has been the recurring theme that has tied all his narrative albums together. Thus to understand Kendrick’s journey we need to go back to the beginning of the story.
Let the Story Begin
If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.
- Kendrick Lamar, 2011
When Kendrick started rapping at 13, he went by the stage name K. Dot. The stage name seemed to work for him as he quickly rose to prominence in the local rap scene. However, he eventually felt that his K. Dot persona was distracting him from reaching his audience in an authentic manner. Thus, in 2009 at 22, he began rapping under his real first and middle name, Kendrick Lamar. He also started planning how to tell his real story over the span of several albums. After his first album Section.80 earned him a national platform and a deal with a major record label, Kendrick was ready to tell his story.
A few people get confused and think it’s just talk and it’s just rap. No. These are my experiences. When I say “Gangbangin’ made me kill a nigga blacker than me”, this is my life that I’m talking about. I’m not saying you, you might not even be from the streets. I’m not speaking to the community. I’m not speaking of the community. I am the community… I’ve done a lot to tear down my own community. So, for you to not recognize that and see that one hundred percent flip… Please learn.
- Kendrick Lamar from an interview with MTV in 2015
One of the inherent challenges with Kendrick’s use of narrative is that it can be hard to distinguish whether the stories on the album are about Kendrick himself, the narrative version of Kendrick or Kendrick’s community. In interviews, Kendrick has maintained that his albums — including their most alarming details — are primarily taken from his actual life. Nonetheless, Kendrick does frequently take on the voices of multiple characters as he weaves the stories of his friends and family into his own narrative. Kendrick is the only one who knows where the stories stop and where he begins. As such, he is the only one with the keys to explaining the actual meaning and definitive history behind his work. Kendrick is not one to give away those keys. Like a writer for a hit TV show, Kendrick normally withholds critical information within his albums so that he can unveil surprising backstories on future albums (see “DUCKWORTH.”). The audience must do the work of constructing the pieces the author has provided thus far into a narrative arch that seems faithful to the person behind the story. This book represents one such construction.