In the past few weeks, as internet hip-hop hysteria has hit an all-time peak thanks to Kendrick Lamar and DAMN., I’ve found myself reminiscing over my junior year of high school. More specifically, over one assignment in English class that was responsible for the way I think about the countless fan theories and bizarre conspiracies that surround high-profile hip-hop releases in the internet age.
On a smoggy Friday in late spring, my class watched Robert Redford’s ‘90s classic A River Runs Through It, and the teacher gave us a take-home essay analyzing shadows as a recurring thematic metaphor. Real inspiring stuff, I know, but that mundane assignment was memorable for a reason.
My friend Ricky, being a ballsy son-of-a-bitch, dug up Robert Redford’s address through the glorious sketchiness of the 2009 internet, and wrote the director a letter containing all of our cinematic theories.
Unbelievably, Redford wrote back.
His letter ended with one simple sentence, which I’m still digesting almost a decade later:
“Sometimes a shadow is just a shadow.”
If I could tweet seven words to every hip-hop listener on the internet, it would be those seven. Especially after this past week, as the number of conspiracy theories surrounding Kendrick’s album drop and the outlandish nature of some of the resulting fan speculation has left me dizzy.
Before DAMN. even had a formal release date the chatter was deafening, mostly linked to the “April 7th” line in “The Heart Part 4” that had just about everyone convinced that a Kendrick album would drop alongside one from Joey Bada$$. There was no concrete evidence leading to the widely accepted certainty that April 7 would be the day, but that didn’t stop millions of us from buying in, and that was just the beginning.
The conspiracy mill ramped up into full on mania after the album’s release, when a series of tweets from producer Sounwave about a “blue pill” attached to the date 4/17 had an embarrassing number of fans convinced that Lamar was poised to drop a second album. So far, of course, that turned out to be wrong as well, but hardcore believers have plenty of “evidence” to cite to justify these hunches.
After all, 4/17 was Easter Sunday and Kendrick said the project would be about God and he dies on the first track of DAMN. and he says on “The Heart Part 4” that he’s going to drop back-to-back classics and the “M” on the cover looks like devil horns and and and—dig deep enough, and spend enough time looking, and you can find a long list of hints that point to a conspiracy.
Album release theories weren’t the only speculations that caught on, either. As soon as it was revealed that the title DAMN. was hiding in the “HUMBLE.” video all along, Twitter exploded in a good old-fashioned easter egg hunt. Wherever you looked, even some of the most respected minds on the hip-hop internet were obsessing over the nuances of Kendrick’s Coachella set or the possible meanings of DAMN.’s album cover or the virtues of playing the album backward.
It’s easy to see where these types of theories come from at a root level beyond Twitter circle-jerking and internet groupthink. Kendrick puts an enormous amount of effort into conceptualizing his albums, and they deserve to be examined. Combine Lamar’s inherent complexity with TDE’s penchant for subtlety and conspiracy baiting, and you’ve got a recipe for fan analysis that borders on paranoid delusion.
Again, fan-driven conspiracy theories aren’t singular to Kendrick Lamar by any means. Lupe Fiasco stans treat his writing like holy scripture that contains at least a half dozen layers of subtlety in every bar, and Kanye lovers look for diabolical genius in even his sloppiest moves.
However, Kendrick fandom and the conspiracy theories that come with it demonstrate a particular paradox particularly well: as active listeners, we should be dedicated to analyzing important artistic works, but not at the risk of chasing after shadows that don’t add to our understanding of what an artist is really attempting to convey.
When you’re invested in an artist fully and believe their genius radiates through all their work, it’s easy to find hints of that genius everywhere. We see Kendrick as a master lyricist and dissect everything else he does with the same intensity with which we scrutinize his rapping. Every social media post gets viewed as a move on a chess board; every possible subtlety in every song and video becomes another piece of evidence supporting Kendrick’s master plan.
Ultimately, it’s ironic that this kind of thinking starts as a respect for Kendrick’s genius, because it accomplishes the contrary. By focusing on smoke and mirrors and chasing after clues and conspiracies, we cheat the music that’s right in front of us of the informed analysis it deserves.
To be clear, this is not an argument against deeper analytical investigation. Do play those reversed lyrics on “FEAR.” backward and write down what you find. Do take the time to look at how an artist like Kendrick uses symbolism and subtlety to convey meaning. Do find evidence for your theories and backup your arguments with something more than a link to a hip-hop gossip blog.
But keep the focus on the music. Don’t base your analysis of a piece of art on all of the things outside of that creation that don’t really matter. Don’t chase after meaning in every touch of gray. Don’t forget that sometimes a shadow doesn’t mean death or ambiguity or any of the other pieces of symbolism you could find if you looked hard enough.
Sitting with the video for “DNA.," I found myself spiraling down that rabbit hole. My first time through was so overwhelming and the production was so obviously layered, that every subsequent play found me looking for another hint and building on a grander theory, until I took a step back and realized I’d convinced myself of a whole lot that just wasn’t there.
It’s easy to chase after those shadows, to find levels of meaning that reinforce some grander design. We want the artists who’ve changed us to be genius in everything they do, and we want to believe we’ve found the missing link that ties it all together and shatters our understanding.
But don’t take the easy route. Don’t chase after shadows; turn on the lights and open your eyes wide, and see what an album like DAMN. is really trying to say.
We won't get there by waiting for some missing tweet or diving so deep into the details that we miss the holy grails right in front of us. Practice listening closely, throw that record on repeat, and chew the meat. There’s a whole lot that’s real and important and irreplaceable to savor in the music we love without creating meaning that's meaningless.
Sometimes a shadow is just a shadow.