Lamar’s Quest: DAMN Album Review
DAMN is the fourth studio album by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. It was Soundwave, DJ Dahi, Mike Will Made It and Ricci Riera, as well as contributions from James Blake, Steve Lacy, BADBADNOTGOOD, The Alchemist, 9th Wonder, Katranada, and more. I've been Kendrick Lamar fan since his mixtape Overly Dedicated. Back in 2010, I remember searching for mixtapes to download on Datpiff. I noticed the unique cover and it made me curious. I was amazed by his lyricism at 15 years old. From the variety of producers, Kendrick Lamar has a unique taste in music and is not one dimensional. When Top Dawg Entertainment released the album cover, I noticed how expressive it is. The album cover was designed by Vlad Sepetov, he also created Lamar's last two albums - To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered. Sepetov described DAMN’s cover as Loud and Abrasive not political like his previous album. In the last two years, Kendrick Lamar has evolved as an artist. To Pimp a Butterfly covered topics such as police brutality, race, culture, and discrimination. DAMN gives us that same self-awareness but with a different focus. Lamar himself told the New York Times that it wasn't going to be another state-of- the-nation address:
What kind of album is DAMN?
After listening to DAMN multiple times, I noticed that it’s very scattered. Filled with different emotions and thoughts. The first track BLOOD shows a struggle between wickedness and weakness. The open track starts with a question; Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live, or die? These questions are the glue that holds this album together. You hear it asked multiple times throughout the album. As DAMN progresses, we see Kendrick communicating wickedness and weakness as two different ways of seeing himself. Following the “wickedness or weakness” intro, Kendrick sets up his story describing a normal day of walking. He happens to come across a blind lady. He wants to help this lady, not knowing she isn’t good for him. He dies with a gunshot. After listening to the song multiple times, I realized it's connected to the Bible. The blind lady represents the effects of sin. Lamar chooses wickedness and dies. He disobeys God and is therefore damned for his choice. This sounds like the Judeo-Christian beliefs that Lamar spoke about on previous albums. However, DAMN offers us a whole new religious worldview, Black Hebrew Israelite ideology.
Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites? What do they believe?
In a nutshell, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is a movement seeking to give black people an identity, a purpose, and a reason for our oppression using the Old Testament of the Bible, also known as the Tanakh. The core belief of Black Hebrew Israelites is that the lost 12 Tribes of Israel are not actually “lost.” These tribes have been displaced from their homeland by way of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. According to their beliefs, the racial categorization of “blackness” does not exist. In fact, to label them as “Black Hebrew Israelites” is a contradiction. They would rather be called “Hebrews” or “Israelites” instead of being called “Black” or “Negro.” So, I will only refer to the group as Hebrew Israelites. Those who identify as the displaced 12 tribes are Black Americans, South and Central Americans, Native Americans, Haitians, and West Indians. (see “12 Tribes Chart” to the left). Hebrew Israelites tend to group themselves together by different “camps.” Every camp shares in the common belief that blacks are Israelites but each camp differs on other beliefs. For more information on what Hebrew Israelites believe check out the website for the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, The website for the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, Yahweh Ben Yahweh’s website, and Ben Ammi’s book God, The Black Man, and Truth
A Spiritual Quest
Kendrick’s spiritual journey has always been an interesting one to me. If we look at his studio albums alone, from good kid, m.A.A.d city to DAMN, he has shared with us belief in the Judeo-Christian God. We see examples of this journey mapped out from reciting the sinner’s prayer at the beginning of Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter to the retelling of a biblical parable on How Much a Dollar Cost, to the Book of Revelation-like prophesies on untitled 01. Yet, this journey has neither been easy nor concrete for Kendrick. He has escaped the Mad City (Compton) only to find himself navigating a hostile music industry while trying to hold onto faith in God.
So how, why, and where does Hebrew Israelite ideology fit into this Compton MC’s spiritual journey? Has he fully embraced the Hebrew Israelite worldview? I think Kendrick is still on his journey and may not have completely gravitated to it. He’s still trying to figure life out. He’s still seeking answers. We see this in the song DNA where he wrestles with the presence of both good and evil in his being. Kendrick comes out the gate with boldness and assurance, exclaiming “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” However, with that same bold tone, he tells us “I got dark, I got evil that rot inside my DNA.” By the end of the song we are subtly introduced to the “cursed people” narrative in Hebrew Israelite thought; a narrative that suggests death and destruction follow black people because we live in wickedness, disobey God, and forgot who we are as Israelites: “Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate/Gonna be our fate…Sex, Money Murder—our DNA.”
The song YAH is where Kendrick becomes more explicit about his attachment to Hebrew Israelite thought and the “cursed people” narrative. He tells us in the second verse that he no longer wants to be called “black.” Instead, we should call him an “Israelite.” His cousin Carl is accredited for introducing Kendrick to this new way of seeing himself: "My cousin Carl, my cousin Carl Duckworth said know my worth..." We also hear where the “cursed people” narrative comes from: "And Deuteronomy said we've all been cursed..." This is a reference to Deuteronomy chapter 28, the source of most Hebrew Israelite teaching on ethnic identity and God’s curse. Deuteronomy 28 is explained in greater detail later in the album by cousin Carl. Still, as Kendrick takes a break from mapping out his spiritual journey the listener is left with this question: “Is Kendrick Lamar a Hebrew Israelite now?”
“The Greatest Rapper Alive…”
Kendrick has been one of my favorite rappers for the past seven years. He's progressed as a top tier MC in the industry, even claiming to be the greatest rapper alive. On ELEMENT, he has a braggadocios vibe to him. Rightfully so—he deserves to feel that way. Kendrick Lamar started rapping in 2003. It took him eight years to get recognition. It took hard work and selfless dedication to accomplish his goals. Around 2011, Lamar achieved national attention with Section 80. Kendrick flaunts his wealth in ELEMENT saying, "I'm allergic to b***h n***a, aye/ An imaginary rich n***a, aye/ Seven figures, h**, that slimmer than my b***h figure, aye." He mocks rappers who think they are wealthy. You hear this same bravado stance in The Heart Part 4, a loose-single he dropped before the album. Kendrick bragged about earning thirty million dollars: "Thirty millions later, my future favors/ The legendary status of a hip-hop rhyme savior." Although, he doesn’t stay on this pedestal forever. As I mentioned before, DAMN is very scattered with many up’s and down’s. The album takes a dip in tone as Kendrick continues his internal pursuit for answers.
Lamar’s Quest Continues
What is true happiness? I ask myself that question every day. People ask me how I'm doing daily, sometimes I answer them vaguely. I usually say I'm good. I have up and down days. On FEEL Kendrick contemplates his negative feelings. On the intro of the song, he repeats: "Ain't nobody praying for me.” This is also a reoccurring lament throughout the album. He’s a man that’s being tested on all fronts. He’s seeking refuge and encouragement yet feels as though that quest is futile. Kendrick feels isolated and not wanted, his sense of abandonment leads to depression. I personally identify with that struggle. I tend to isolate myself from human beings when I'm depressed. In the first two verses, he starts each sentence with: "I Feel." Lamar wants the consumer to understand his mind state during his struggles. Kendrick switches his tone and rejects his feelings for a moment. Lamar states, “F*** your feelings, I mean this for imposters/ I can feel it, the phoenix sure to watch us/I can feel it, the dream is more than process/ I can put a regime that forms a Loch Ness/ I can feel it, the scream that haunts our logic." He seems to feel bad for having feelings. He ends the song with: "But who the f*** praying for me?"
Fast forward through another series of up’s and down’s—through LOYALTY, PRIDE, HUMBLE, LUST, LOVE, XXX—and on FEAR we find Kendrick reliving fears from when he was 7, 17, and 27 years old. All three stages of life produced different types of fears but the subtext of this song communicates Kendrick’s fear of not having an answer to his suffering. Suffering from both internal and external issues is hard to go through, we all can attest to that. However, going through suffering with no answer to the “Why?” question is frightening and frustrating. Not knowing why, Kendrick is left to believe his suffering has no purpose. This is his biggest fear and it’s why we hear at the beginning of the song “Why God? Why God? Do I gotta suffer?” All this time Kendrick has been “searchin’ for resolution until somebody get back” and he finally gets what needs: Someone to pray for him and someone to answer his questions. This is where cousin Carl comes back into the picture. In the beginning of the song Carl leaves a voicemail message telling Kendrick that he is praying for him. He also articulates to Kendrick that the reason for his suffering is linked to blacks being a cursed people. He reads from Deuteronomy 28:28 saying “The Lord shall smite thee with madness, blindness, and astonishment of heart.” At the end of FEAR, Carl reads from Deuteronomy 28:2 and continues to interpret the biblical text. He tells us that as true Children of Israel, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are being punished for our wickedness, punished for our disobedience. We never hear from Kendrick either affirming or denying this belief. It leaves us with some problematic questions: Are black people and other minorities really suffering because we are cursed, we've fallen away from God, and forgot who we are as Israelites? Is God punishing us for that?
Ending His Quest
So, has Kendrick found a suitable answer to his question of suffering? Has he answered his “wicked or weakness” question? Does he fall in line with cousin Carl’s Hebrew Israelite worldview? As the album comes to a finale, Kendrick sifts through the information he receives and comes to his own conclusions. For Kendrick, black folks and other minorities are not cursed (wickedness), but are flawed human beings (weakness). Furthermore, he believes that we could either succumb to our weaknesses or rise above it. This is the message we hear at the end of DUCKWORTH. He tells a well written and true story of how Anthony "TopDawg" Tiffith almost kills Ducky, Kendrick's father. By the end of the song we learn that Top did not kill Ducky. However, the story serves a larger purpose in answering the wicked or weakness question: "Pay attention. That one decision changed both of they lives/One curse at a time/Reverse the manifest..." With the next two lines Kendrick answers his own question of suffering while refuting his cousin Carl's answer: "You take two strangers and put'em in random predicaments/Give'em a soul, so they could make they own choices and live with it." He chooses to end his quest on a high note. We all make our own choices whether to act on our weaknesses or not. Rather than accepting the fatalistic worldview of his cousin Carl and the Hebrew Israelites, Kendrick’s worldview is rooted in free will and personal responsibility.
The reputation Kendrick has built for himself is tricky because he lives and thrives in duality. Many times, he has denounced fame, money, and influence, while later appearing on pop hit features and speaking at music awards. He is humble, yet proud; loving, yet lustful. In this way of being truthfully human, Kendrick has become one of the most deserving in the field of hip hop—doing it for nothing less than the music itself.
Writers: Kojo Dakwa & Kelsey Ogbewe