“How are you?”
“I can’t complain,” I always say.
It’s true, I don’t have much to complain about. I’m employed with no crippling debt, I’m in good health and I have a solid social circle. I’m very much grateful for the things I have earned; the answer is sincere.
3,000 miles away, Kendrick Lamar seems to have it all together, too. He has a deal with a major record label, his first three albums have each been certified Gold or Platinum by the RIAA, his newly-released album DAMN. is set to debut at No. 1 and he’s among the most well-liked guys in the industry. But he is far from happy. In fact, he’s quite depressed, the result of crippling fear that his life has all been one elaborate joke and God is ready to drop the punchline at any moment.
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?
On “FEAR.,” one of a countless number of standout selections from his newly-released opus, Kendrick does what he does as well as anyone, tapping into an emotional contradiction that drives the behavior of so many of us but so few even realize exists. This time, he underscores our inability to achieve contentment or happiness, derailed by an underlying, irrational fear of losing everything in the blink of an eye.
I might say I can’t complain about life; what I don’t say, however, is that I fear the rug being pulled out from under me. I don’t talk about re-living the fear of walking into work and being told to go home. I don’t mention the paralyzing depression and self-hatred of unemployment. I don’t mention the fear of turning a missed workout into a slide back into obesity. I don’t mention the months I spent alone without a friend when I first moved out of my childhood home that make me deathly afraid of losing the new ones I gained. I don’t mention that I dread ordering coffee in the morning because of my speech impediment. I don’t mention how everything I do is to avoid those fears from becoming reality more than growing as a person.
"I practiced runnin' from fear, guess I had some good luck,” Kendrick raps.
These anxieties are brought on by compounding trauma over decades that never allows us to enjoy the things we have rightfully earned. It starts as early as childhood in Kendrick’s case, his mother threatening him with beatings if he so much as dirtied his Jordans. By the time Kendrick reaches adolescence, he’s so jaded with violence in his life that he has all but resigned to an early death.
I'll prolly die walkin' back home from the candy house / I'll prolly die because these colors are standin' out / I'll prolly die because I ain't know Demarcus was snitchin' / I'll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin' with bitches / I'll prolly die from witnesses leavin' me falsed accused / I'll prolly die from thinkin' that me and your hood was cool
Kendrick eventually escapes the stranglehold of street life, just as many of us find a way out of seemingly impossible situations, whether it be finding a job, finding love, escaping abuse or coming home from war. When these situations are resolved on a topical level, it is assumed that all is right. “Nobody is praying for me,” recites Kendrick throughout DAMN. He's right. No one is checking in on A-list celebrity Kendrick Lamar.
Success has a way of masking all our other problems, starting with the debris of compounded stress and trauma from working towards that success. The damage stopped growing, but the wounds are still open. True happiness is still a ways away.
For Kendrick and so many of us, the world we experience in the first third of our life is what we are conditioned to. For Kendrick, death and violence are a regular part of life. As a celebrity, that threat goes away. So now what? Where is the threat? Is it his accountant, as it was for Rihanna? Is it hidden in the tax code, like he raps about in “Wesley’s Theory” on To Pimp a Butterfly? When does life take another nosedive, as it has so many times in the past? Why should it suddenly stop at 27, “afraid to lose it all”?
Scared to spend money, had me sleepin' from hall to hall / Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin' / 30 shows a month and I still won't buy me no Lexus / What is an advisor? Somebody that's holdin' my checks / Just to fuck me over and put my finances in debt? / I read a case about Rihanna's accountant and wondered / How did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers?
Since his adolescence, from an outsider’s perspective, Kendrick’s life has improved drastically. But is this new the norm? Or will the tribulations of street life magnify under the microscope of celebrity? Has God built his ascending wave only to send Kendrick crashing back down, leaving him worse off than before? When he looks and sees what has happened to so many of his peers, particularly black celebrities who have become victims of an unforgiving music industry or law enforcement, he can only wonder when his time will come.
“Falling off is a sickness, I heard that it’s quite contagious,” Kendrick rapped on “The Heart Part 3” five years ago. Three successful albums later with a place in rap as secure as any, he still feels the perils of everything coming apart at the seams. Such an irrational thought can only stem from the fear that has been conditioned over years of trauma.
Kendrick even speaks on his fear of losing parts of his mind and character, including creativity and his humbleness. Such things only go away by slow erosion over time, and only if they are not attended to, which is not the case for Kendrick. But to Kendrick, why can’t he lose those things just as he lost friends, family, relationships and everything else beyond his control?
Kendrick is an extreme case of societal PTSD, going from the lowest class of society to among the most well-off on the planet. I cannot begin to imagine enduring some of the situations and tribulations he has been through, but the way we allow fear to drive us is a shared sentiment. When exposed to a certain negative for long enough, the fear of its reoccurrence makes finding true happiness an impossibility until we make peace with our past. Until that happens, we continue to work hard out of fear rather than out of the pursuit of a better self.
And I can't take these feelings with me / So hopefully they disperse / Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax / Wonderin' if I'm livin' through fear or livin' through rap
We work late at our jobs to not face unemployment again. We develop eating disorders for fear of gaining back an ounce of fat. We lose sleep because we spend nights thinking about what could be the next thing to go horribly awry and how we can stop it, scheming solutions to problems that don’t exist. “Or maybe die from panic or die from bein' too lax,” Kendrick raps. “All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things.”
This lack of control is a recurring issue, one in which we typically have no say in the matter. Accepting a lack of control makes sense in theory, but is practically impossible for someone who has endured as much death and turmoil as Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick has discussed paranoia on almost all of his records in some capacity, but he has never shared a solution to combat its impact. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. Whether it be the emotional dilemmas of a celebrity or the normal daily stresses of us common folk, fear and trauma have conditioned our thought processes and must be confronted and reconciled.
Until these fears are resolved, true happiness is unachievable.