Deciphering The Mysteries & Meanings of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN

It started with a song. All albums do, to be fair, except that this song wasn’t even on the album. The Heart Part IV it was called, and it came out in late March. Hours before the song dropped there’d been a cryptic Instagram post from Master Kendrick – a black background with the roman numerals ‘IV’ plastered atop it. Nothing else, nothing more.

The track itself was close to five minutes of Kendrick just taking out the trash. With his new album rumoured on the way, he’s reminding everyone who sits on the throne and laughing in the faces of the false prophets who claim his seat. Read closely enough and there are clear shots at Drake, possibly Big Sean too, whilst he takes an explicit shot at the US elections and name checks Russell Westbrook. Rapid fire bars and typical lyrical wizardry, this was King Kendrick in full flex mode… but the real purpose came in the song’s final line… “y’all got ‘til April the 7th to get y’all shit together…”

Okay then, April 7 it is. He used this same technique on The Heart Part III where he announced the release date back in 2012 for good kid m.A.A.d. city so this wasn’t much of a riddle. April 7, new Kendrick album. Skip forward two weeks to April 7 and we didn’t get that album… but we did get a pre-order for a week later. Wouldn’t be long at all and in the meantime we were blessed with the music video of the year in HUMBLE.

Goddamn, the imagery in that sucker. From Kendrick Plays Young Pope at the start to the Last Supper homage – no guesses as to whose seat he sits in. There’s the flaming head shots. The curved lens stuff on the bike that makes it look like he cycling the globe. How about Kendrick Lamar as David Foster Wallace with the motion trickery camerawork and the black turtleneck and penny glasses? There’s enough in there to keep a scholar busy for months but we didn’t have that much time to spare – there was a full album dropping in days.

Kendrick Lamar is not an artist that feels the need to spell everything out for his listeners. There are layers to all that he does, from his clever wordplay to his careful presentation. The last official K.Dot release before THP4 was his untitled unmastered tape which was exactly what it sounded like. Labelled from Untitled 01 through to Untitled 08, he gave the tracks dates but he didn’t give them names. And it’s funny just how much different your relationship is with a song when you don’t know even what it’s called.

But that’s all part of the mystery with Kendrick, all part of the hunt. He gives you a hint but it’s up to you to figure the rest out. His debut record, Section.80, was a quality album. But since then he’s absolutely 3/3, dropping perfection on us from above. GKMC was “a short film by Kendrick Lamar” – it said so on the album cover. It was a conceptual take on his experiences growing up in Compton, surrounded by crime and temptation. K.Dot’s dazzling storytelling ability coupled with some mellow beats and almost dreamlike instrumentation brought out a dichotomy between the young Kendrick’s artistic evolution and the harsh life of the streets around him, resulting in a modern classic, a hip hop bildungsroman.

And To Pimp A Butterfly only upped the ante. Here he incorporated a jazzy backdrop, a little more funk, working with several acclaimed musicians from other genres and took that stunning orchestration and laid down the most fierce and erudite and inspiring exploration on race/heritage in modern America that this generation will experience. The scope was enormous, reaching all the way back in the history of African-Americans with visceral honesty but also an uplifting message too. Of course it was uncompromising, it was also as ambitious as it could possibly be – musically and lyrically. In particular it was the way he weaved in that poem, a few lines at a time, throughout the record, coming back to it on the final track, Mortal Man, where it was revealed to be a letter to the spirit of Tupac Shakur, which was then interspersed into a faux-interview created out of unreleased recordings of the late Pac. Every time he unveiled a new line it put the previous line into new context, shifting your interpretation back and forth like a pendulum. Put it simply, it was genius.

Now here came DAMN. The song credits arrived before anything else; cameos from Rihanna and… U2. That was one to hold the breath on, for sure. Then the album art. DAMN. Red brick wall, bright red typeface in a plain serif font. Kendrick standing on a lean before the wall looking like he hasn’t slept in a week. Every detail of it seemed deliberate but what the hell did it all mean?

“What happens on Earth stays on Earth,” declares DJ Kid Capri one more than a few occasions. DAMN starts with a skit where Kendrick helps an old blind lady fumbling around in public, he offers her assistance and she shoots him dead. That’s how the album starts: he gets murdered on the street by a blind woman. Pop. Drop. Stop. This could be some kind of statement on being an artist in the public sphere, perhaps some kind of personal statement about killing his ego or his persona. What’s if it’s a true story based on somebody he knew? The interpretations are endless if you want them to be.

It takes a few listens even to get a grip on things. While his last two proper albums were huge and conceptual, they were also pretty honest about what they were getting at. DAMN isn’t so on its own sleeve but if Kendrick was trying to drop a basic album on us, just a collection of tunes without much connecting them, then he wouldn’t have been so measured about it all – he’d probably chuck it out there like he did untitled unmastered and that’d be that. Nah, he’s onto something here but he isn’t telling.

A look at the tracklist suggests something too. Look at those titles, every song is named for a single word. Blood, DNA, Yah, etc. Duckworth is his given name and that title is explained in the tune itself. Blood is the opener where he gets shot. Curiously, Duckworth is a song about a guy not getting shot and it ends with a gunshot, like a cyclical thing there where he ends the album how it started. Circle of life or whatever.

But most of the other songs are named for virtues or vices and it seems like some of them have direct opposites. Lust and Love, Pride and Humble. Two different takes on romance and two different takes on ego. Like Humble, the lead single, which sounded first off like Kendrick telling all other rappers that they’ve gotta be humble because he’s running this game (got the whole world talking) yet sounds changed when it plays straight after Pride – “I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure” – where he’s reckoning with that particular deadly sin. Pride comes before the fall, PRIDE comes before HUMBLE. Pride has a soft, unobtrusive beat while Humble is bombastic. Suddenly his call to “sit down, be humble” sounds like he could even be talking to himself. Or are there two characters at work here, he switches up his vocal registers in Pride and everything.

Wait and then he released the video for DNA which features a rap battle between Kendrick, in cuffs at a police interrogation booth, and Don Cheadle (for real). Yet they’re alternating between lines that are all K.Dot’s in the track, right? All of a sudden we’re seeing them directed in opposition, like the lines are coming at each other. So who’s got loyalty, got royalty inside their DNA and who was born outside a jellyfish? It’s like these songs are hard enough to decipher and then he goes and shuffles the deck again… like some trickster god at play.

Speaking of shuffling decks, he throws out there gambling references all over the show. Count how many times he talks about dice and cards and all that, like flirting with luck. Something else that felt notable was how often the names of other songs seemed to pop up in different tracks. They’re all single word titles so it could be coincidence but then again maybe not. The closer Duckworth is written entirely about a coincidence only it’s framed like something greater than that. Come back to that one, it’s probably the skeleton key to the whole record, that song. Mortal Man was the same on TPAB so it’d make sense.

Yeah… the song title thing turned out to be a dead end. It was just a couple occasions that made it sound like more, a case of the red herring in action. But diving deep on RapGenius only threw up a bunch more clues from the lyrics. Like in Love, which is surely gonna be top five for sexiest song of 2017, a tune presumably dedicated to his fiancé and high school sweetheart. Love comes straight after the song Lust, a track pairing that plays with the same kinda contrasts as Pride/Humble. It seems like Lust is about the empty rewards of chasing temptation compared to Love which is about a genuine human connection. “Let me put the head in…” goes the refrain in Lust, which is funny and sort of desperate. Makes you wonder as well if he also means ‘head’ as in how he writes lyrics with an intellectual leaning.

And there’s this line in Lust about lust turning into fear and Fear really is one of the other tracks. Might be something to that theory after all. In between is Love and XXX and that brings up another idea… why get U2 in to play when they don’t even sound like themselves on the record? That’s a huge relief having seen those credits, but still.

Damnit and what’s the title mean!? It’s not the name of a song. He uses the word plenty of times but not in a way where it’s anything special. If that second album had materialised then maybe new light woulda been shed. That was a rumour worth delving into, supposedly there was a complete other companion album called NATION which had the same cover but in blue and it was gonna be released on Easter Sunday (with DAMN coming out on Easter Friday). Get it? Death and resurrection. Except DAMN never really sounded like a half of something else, it was fully formed for sure. Kendrick did his (soon to be legendary) Coachella set on the Sunday and there was no album, though you can understand the hype. You wait so long in anticipation then it’s here and you realise how much you loved the waiting once it’s over. While you’re waiting, the album can be anything. Schrodinger’s LP. Any sound, any quality, anything – because until you hear it, it has no form to you.

Then the record appears and the riddles slap you over the face more times than you can even react to (but at least they make it look sexy). Maybe there is no skeleton key to this sucker after all. Maybe it’s just a series of… you know… songs. But then if that’s the case then who is Kung Fu Kenny?

The Coachella set was incredible. You watch that and you already knew the dude was the world’s premier MC but here he is slaying the live performance game as well and there’s pretty much nothing he isn’t the best in the business at, apparently. He played most of the songs from DAMN but mixed it up with some untitled, some butterfly, some maad city and all of that. He shouted out the day one fans, he brought out Future and Travis Scott and of course ScHoolboy Q and he ripped out the bangers all night long. He also played a three-part short film elaborating on the Kung Fu Kenny shouts.

The film was as unknowable as the album. There was something about a turtle and there were Chinese subs and at one point he was fighting this chick like Mortal Kombat and in the end he seemed to find the power within himself as dictated by a golden light coming outta some chick’s vagina. He appeared to learn a lesson but… dunno what it was supposed to be. Could be anything from the power of the ego to the origins of humanity.

Then we have the reversed vocals on a few of these tracks. Kung Fu Kenny keeps up with a theme about knowing God but he also incorporates a technique that’s got (admittedly ridiculous) satanic connotations. There’s nothing new in the words there that get said the right way round but the fact he chose to do it at all must mean something. Another dichotomy or contrast. Something about the cyclical thing again. It’s like it’s right there in front of you but the answer disappears in smoke when you try grab it.

Duckworth is a piece of brilliance on par with anything he’s ever done. The way he weaves the characters into the narrative, writing a novel in a few hundred words, is unparalleled among modern rappers. Fear is similar in how he weaves in the anxieties of three different stages of his life but Duckworth is the final chapter for a reason. “Just remember what happens on earth stays on earth, we gon’ put it in reverse.”

Put it in reverse… like those reversed lines again.

Anthony was a hustler, Ducky worked at the KFC to support his young family. Both fellas did what they had to do. Anthony planned to rob the KFC but Ducky greases Anthony and his boys up with free chicken whenever they go in the store, hence they let him slide and twenty years later Anthony “Top Dog” is the head honcho at TDE and Ducky’s son is their numero uno dude… a certain Kendrick Lamar.

“You take two strangers, and put 'em in random predicaments; give 'em a soul

So they can make their own choices and live with it

Twenty years later, them same strangers you make 'em meet again

Inside recording studios where they reapin' their benefits

Then you start remindin' them about that chicken incident

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”

Then pop goes another gunshot and more reversed audio comes in. Like a tape rewinding this time though, way faster and not just for the effect. It’s the story that opened the album, from Blood. Then the tape skip stops and… “So I was taking a walk the other day…”

It’s the first line of the album. We’re back to where we started except now it’s different because of one decision that saved lives. Two strangers, two souls, one random predicament. This must be what he’s really getting at. This is the answer, the drama, the morale of the story. Life is funny and full of coincidence. It’s a comedy of chaos, a farce. One man gets shot by a blind woman for offering to help her while another goes free in an armed robbery out of equal kindness and goes on to father the greatest rapper on the planet.

Suddenly that revelation seeps through the rest of the album. Kendrick isn’t addressing problems or offering solutions… he’s accepting the whims of fate that dictate that probably the finest artist of his generation is only here now and able to speak to us because of a crazy set of circumstances that… well they probably begin going way back in generations but let’s draw a line at his parents moving from Chicago to Compton. They’ve got a kid, they hope he sees college. Ducky gets that job at the KFC. Ironically the story is that the Duckworths left Chicago to dodge the gang violence there but ended up in Compton, though it meant Ducky knew his way around the streets. He plays nice with Top Dog, a man who the song explains was equally born into circumstances well beyond his control, and it possibly saves both lives. Kendrick’s own life since could be completely different if that one day had gone another way.

All of our lives are the same. Think of the narrow escapes and the small victories. Think of all the tiny things that happened for your life to turn out the way it has. Think of all the tiny things that led to you being born at all, not just talking genetics there but things like ancestors migrating to the right place at the right time, not being killed in wars and all that. Imagine how many bloodlines were ended in futile wars and what geniuses we never had because of that.

And the insanity of it all is that the same twist of fate that leads a man to spare another man’s life over fried chicken isn’t really any different than getting shot by some blind woman for no reason. It’s not a nihilistic thought at all though, it’s kind of a beautiful thought. It means that we’re all blessed to be where we are now, having dodged so many bullets along the way - metaphorically and even literally in Ducky’s case. If that’s not divine providence then what is?

Unless that’s not at all what the album is about. Twenty different people could come up with twenty completely unique theories on the matter and who’s gonna say that any of them are wrong? I guess in the end the real message of any album is the one you take from it, the one that alters the way you see the world whether it was the artist’s intention or not. And that’s a beautiful thing too. Damn.