Kendrick Lamar raps exceptionally well. Sometimes well enough that it's all we as listeners need to be satisfied. It's what made us fall in love with him way back on Overly Dedicated's "The Heart Pt. 2" when he was rapping for his life and barely pausing for a breath. It's why every rapper on this side of the planet with something to prove felt the need to respond to his "Control" verse in 2013. It's why our corner of the internet freezes at any hint of him dropping new material. But it's not just the rapping that keeps us engaged. Kendrick's technical gift for putting words together is what has pulled most of us in enough to engage but it's the invitation to witness the emotional ride life has taken him on since he started reaping the financial rewards for his gift that keeps us around. The Compton rapper's fourth studio album, DAMN, offers a shotgun seat on that ride.
When Kendrick sat down with T Magazine earlier this year he mentioned that his then forthcoming LP would have a different focus than To Pimp a Butterfly, while still searching for a solution for the world's ills. " To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I'm in a space now where I'm not addressing the problem anymore," he said. "We're in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God." It's not like this religious tug-of-war has ever been absent in his career. Almost a decade ago, on 2009's "Faith," he talked about his struggles with maintaining his Christian beliefs after a friend was murdered. Section .80 standout "Kush & Corinthians" was about the weight of being a Christian and a repeated sinner. The crux of good kid m.A.A.d. city is bookended by Lamar and friends asking God to forgive them of their sins. But there are moments in DAMN. where, through Christianity, Lamar strips his biggest struggles down to a question of whether he can effectively play the role of deliverer or face losing everything he worked for.
Nothing spells out this struggle more eloquently than "FEAR," the longest track on the album. The song is a three-part story which revisits Kendrick's biggest worries at seven, 17, and 27 years old. It starts with a voicemail from Lamar's cousin Carl, who, in trying to guide him, says, "But you have to understand this, man, that we are a cursed people. Deuteronomy 28:28 says, 'The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.' See, family, that's why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder. Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way." In the Torah and Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that they are God's chosen people but are cursed and will remain so until they've fully obeyed God. To Carl, this holy order is what is truly weighing down on his cousin.
At the song's start, seven-year-old Kendrick's biggest source of fear is his mother, who stays on him about doing his homework, not wasting his food, and keeping the new Jordans she just bought him fresh. Teenage Kendrick, meanwhile, is in a perpetual funk as he watches LA gang life claim friends and family first hand, wondering how much time he has left before a mistaken identity or an overly aggressive cop puts him in the dirt, too.
It's the 27-year-old Kendrick that really strikes a chord in verse three, though. Here, he talks about waking up to a life so foreign to the one he's accustomed to living. "The shock value of my success put bolts in me / All this money, is God playin' a joke on me? / Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? / Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?" The fear of going back to living on section 8 as he did as a child or being screwed over by an accountant haunt him. In the Book of Job, God puts a man with incredible wealth to task by taking everything he loves and values away from him to test his faith. When he sees that Job remains a faithful subject, he restores everything he lost, plus more. These thoughts occurred when Lamar was being exalted as hip-hop's savior around the time of To Pimp a Butterfly. In the wake of unrest in Ferguson and two years after the Trayvon Martin verdict, racial tensions in the US were the highest they'd been since the Civil Rights Era. Young black people were looking for someone to look to in a time of crisis. Knowing that, Kendrick seemed to feel obligated to dedicate himself to the cause by addressing the social climate in his music. If he hadn't, he risked the possibility of losing the faith and support of those who helped him reach new personal heights. "At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein' judged / How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city / What they say 'bout me reveal / If my reputation would miss me," he raps. Kendrick is held to a higher standard than any of his peers. As highly as he's regarded, we've come to accept that Drake is subject to drop a few lyrical duds here and there, endlessly pushing and pulling between being wronged and half-heartedly apologizing for his own wrongdoings. But because Kendrick is presented as the only rightful voice in our struggle, his words are picked through with a fine tooth comb. There's no room for half-assed apologies and excuses. That's presented throughout the album when he plays Fox News takes on his lyrics and why he continues, "What they see from me/ Would trickle down generations in time/ What they hear from me/ Would make 'em highlight my simplest lines."
Being let into moments like this is what makes an artist special to the spectator. When we witness an artist's rise and even claim a small role in helping them gain prominence, it's not always to claim possession or act like without us they wouldn't be where there are. In part, this is true. There is a symbiotic relationship between creators and consumers. Consumers go to artists when nothing else in the world seems to be working, and artists feed off of that yearning around them to create. But a crucial role of the artist is also that they act as a portal to a side of life that many of us know that we will never experience. Yes, we tell ourselves that we will be rich someday, too, and that we will gain everything that we've ever desired, but the truth is that most of us won't. That's why seeing your favorite rapper flashing their ridiculously expensive jewelry in an Instagram post can bring a smile to your face when you know they dreamed of doing it the same way you did as a kid. It's why you feel triumph when a rapper like Kendrick Lamar actually becomes one of the greats: because you heard him when he was making mixtapes, and him succeeding was a victory for you too, even if it was just for the hour you tuned into his new album. Whether artists want to accept it or not, we look to them to escape the ugly corners of life. So when they also acknowledge that there are elements to their lives that aren't perfect, it doesn't feel like progression in your own is so distant.
The space that Alchemist's production provides Kendrick to speak here is key, too. "FEAR" is a conversation between Lamar and listeners, and not having to fight the urge to rock your head to it—usually one of the most rewarding experiences of unpacking his music—makes the exchange feel even more personal. The flashes of vocals from The 24 Carat Black's 1973 funk-tinged soul number "Poverty's Paradise" in the track's background give the proper emotional foundation for Kendrick to operate. "Ever since my birth I've had no one to care," and "shameful living's been my way," are two of that song's first lines and a similar feeling of melancholy with an urgency to evolve pushes through. In emotion, "FEAR" is akin to To Pimp a Butterfly's "Momma," another considerably bare track that explores his self-actualization. But what makes the bit about 27-year-old Kenny most effective is that it feels the most spirited of the song's three chapters. Lamar's tone noticeably switches when he revisits the earlier points of his life; he's imitating his mom in the first verse and his 17-year-old self speaks as if a low cloud of pessimism hovers over him daily. His 27-year-old self is closest to current thoughts and experiences, so when he revisits, it feels fresh. So fresh that he spends the most time on this point of his maturation. And in some ways, there's a hint of triumph because he's made it past a place that felt particularly trying and unfamiliar.
Aligning with the Israelite sensibilities may be a stretch for some, but the core feeling that Kendrick expresses here is one that can be easily shared among those of oppressed groups. Am I cursed? Why do I barely see examples of my people flourishing? What is God punishing us for? Sometimes life as a black person does feel like a trick being played on you. Yes, there are sources of pride, too. Our imprints on global progression, though written out and glossed over in history, are not to be disputed. Our influence on world culture can't be denied. And at times, to try to make sense of these things, it feels like you must be of some elite group—as Carl stresses to Kendrick—if so many barriers have to be set up for you to fail. That doesn't erase the constant turmoil you feel directed at your spiritual and physical existence, though. And that's what Kendrick gives that we don't typically get from others in his arena—at least ones that we collectively pay the most attention to because making people happy while telling them the whole truth is not an easy task. The reminder that you are constantly working on the self. That life is a practice. That there isn't a finish line once you secure a set amount of bags. You have to keep trying to make sense of shit or you might just lose your mind and your whole self along with it.
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