If heaven exists, it's a damn fact most of us will struggle to get there. Lies, hedonism, jealousy – as a species we seem incapable of exercising the restraint necessary to gain entry. Sometimes we slip up and make mistakes; other times we knowingly engage in immorality. Some of us aren't even believers, surely the most imperative requirement of them all. If the big bearded man in the sky is indeed real, do you think he has a checklist where the good is levied against the bad? Or are we, as the saying goes, eternally damned to hell? Did we fuck it already?
On his latest album DAMN, Kendrick Lamar emerges from these questions in a state initially resembling a crisis of faith. As a Christian (Lamar is reported to have been baptised in 2013) and one of the biggest rappers of a generation, Lamar's religious beliefs seem to be at odds with both his career choice and troublesome upbringing in Compton. "That's why you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder", his cousin Carl says on "FEAR", after referencing the Book of Deuteronomy, which states those who disobey God will be punished. By the end of the album Lamar is asking not to be judged. There's also a knowing tension: "This what God feel like," he says on "GOD", perhaps aware of the religious implications of his superstar status.This isn't the first time Lamar has mentioned religion. The narrative of his breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d city centred around The Sinner's Prayer, documenting how young kids in Compton sought salvation through evangelical teachings. Its follow up To Pimp a Butterfly saw Lamar converse with both the Devil and God (on "Lucy" and "How Much a Dollar Cost", respectively). As his third major label album, DAMN feels like the conclusion of a trilogy: Lamar has already been "saved", he's witnessed and partaken in good and evil, he's now grappling with the ramifications the latter will have toward his future judgement. Yet despite the fact DAMN is glued together with a litany of theological references, its takeaway needn't be strictly religious. Instead, its divine conclusion feels more based in the here and now: a journey through karma, fate and the opposing yin and yangs that make us the living, breathing humans we are. Spiritual shit, basically.
Looking back on Lamar's lyrical stance throughout his career gives this idea some credence. As much as he is religious he's also deeply spiritual, wrapped up in his star sign ("Very emotional, I'm a Gemini") and attuned to the deeper energy of the earth connecting us all ("I can feel your energy from two planets away"). On DAMN, it's as though this metaphysical world merges with Lamar's religious beliefs, complimenting and contrasting with them to enlightening degrees. Sitting between his Christian conviction and desire to never be anything less than the most honest portrayal of his self, the record symbolises Lamar's biting point.On the one hand, Lamar is devoted to his Father – when Rihanna asks if there's anybody you would "lie for, slide for, die for" on "LOYALTY", Lamar responds "That's what God's for". But he also believes he's plagued with immovable sin ("I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA"), is egoistically wrapped up in his fame ("I am legend / y'all are peasants") and situationally unable to be separated from it ("In a perfect world I would choose faith over riches"). Lamar's knowingly sacrilegious mindset leads to one definitive statement: "God damn us, God damn we, God damn us all", as it goes on "FEAR". As he guides us through his voyage of self-discovery however, it seems things aren't so black and white. Or at least that's what Lamar would like us to believe, anyway.
Despite the nods to holy scripture (as well as referencing Deuteronomy, Lamar directly quotes a line from James 4:4 on "LUST"), immorality ("Is America honest or do we bask in sin"?) and Satan (lyrics are played in reverse, as though curling backwards from his mouth), DAMN operates on (and also fears) the idea that "what happens on Earth stays on Earth" – a direct opposition to Christian teachings. The line is scattered throughout the record like a mantra, introduced at first as a line on "ELEMENT" before repeating itself throughout "FEAR" and looping back on closer "DUCKWORTH". On "FEAR", Lamar hopes the positive feelings he's brought forth in his music live on beyond him. The line has another use, however: in believing we are a product of our own reality, it's possible to overwrite wrongs with rights, doing unto others what we do unto ourselves, achieving spiritual balance. That's sort of been the backbone of Lamar's entire career, really; there are messages of repentance for his younger life in his music, a desire to become a solution, to be a guiding light.
In an interview with NPR in 2015 Lamar said: "I can't change the world until I change myself first". Though he hasn't been entirely reborn yet, immaculately conceived, Lamar documents his current mindset across "DAMN", warts and all ("I put my faith in these lyrics so people know I ain't perfect"). On "XXX" Lamar seemingly admits he would seek revenge if anyone touched his "mama, sister, woman". The assault-like response is out of "love and loyalty" but it's also arguably immoral – something Lamar seems to be aware of when he admits he can't "sugarcoat" his reality. "LUST" seems to be transported straight from an Andre 3000 fuck-book fantasy, couched in the same atmosphere of The Love Below's "Vibrate" and "She Lives In My Lap". On other tracks Lamar approaches his music like an athlete, furious and ambitious, willing to stomp out his competition.All these instances create a more rounded and true-to-life character. It's just this time Lamar seems to have realised he consistently has to push back against himself rather than blame outside factors for how he's feeling. The names of the tracks on "DAMN" seem to be embalmed in the tonality of being, referencing some of the core parts of the human experience. "LOVE", "LOYALTY", "PRIDE", "HUMBLE" – these are direct themes. Like the clashing yet complementary emphasis of religion and spirituality, these tracks also often form a whole from two parts: "LUST" is followed by "LOVE" while "PRIDE" comes before "HUMBLE". Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is "GOD" and "DUCKWORTH", the two closing tracks on DAMN. By presenting these tracks alongside one another, Lamar tackles the album's central tenet and the focus of his frustration: he believes in God; he believes in himself – and is it sacrilegious to do both?The latter track kicks off with the line, "It was always me versus the world / Until I found it's me versus me", giving some foundation to the spiritual, self-bettering themes on DAMN. This track tells a simple story of fate and cause and effect; of how Lamar's father and Anthony Tiffith (CEO of Lamar's label) met when Lamar was a child, almost had a life-threatening fracas but didn't. The story ends with the most important takeaway of the record: give someone a soul, so they can make their own choices and live with it, and karma will do the rest. In this case, both Lamar's father and label manager live on to see Lamar become – as he puts it – "the greatest rapper". It's a personal story but extrapolated, it also gives weight to the album's deeper theme of what it means to be alive, religious or not, to be a person.Inasmuch as To Pimp a Butterfly was an inherently political record, DAMN seems to be the opposite. Yet there are political references here: to Trump, Obama, blackness in America, gun control, et al. The importance of these shouldn't be lost, especially when placed next to the album's conclusion. Regardless of the religious aspect, it seems Lamar is saying we are all affected by our own actions and so, we should do right by ourselves and let the rest follow, which is in itself a revolutionary political act. DAMN is an album of duality – of good and evil; of fearing and adoring God; of karma and fate. Ultimately, this adds up to an album of self. The track names themselves play into this idea we're all the sum of our own parts – their names popping up across the record, weaving themselves into one another. In the end however, does any of it matter? "I'm damn'd if I do / damn'd if I don't," Lamar says on "ELEMENT". Life is a pickle. The journey of Lamar to this point – somewhere between "no tomorrow, fuck the world" and salvation – only serves to highlight the multiplicity and shades of the human experience.You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.