How Kendrick Lamar Views Himself in ‘DAMN.’ Visuals - DJBooth

"Savage, Asshole, King": How Kendrick Views Himself in 'DAMN.' Visuals

How Kendrick's videos for "HUMBLE.," DNA." and "ELEMENT." prove he's all of his self-assigned nouns.
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I'm a savage, I'm a asshole, I'm a king.

I’ve argued on behalf of “LOYALTY.” since DAMN. was released. “It didn’t fit in the context of the album” and “I don’t want to hear Kendrick doing pop” were frequent responses to the track, more so than I could imagine after first hearing it. I witnessed Rihanna fanatics commit sacrilege and turn on their own to slander the song. No one was safe, either. Even our own Matt Wilhite made an error in judgement by placing “LOYALTY.” second to last in his ranking of the tracks.

I never saw anything wrong with Kendrick using sonic motifs from other genres, but I did have trouble fitting the song into my conception of DAMN. as a whole. Albums don’t have to be conceptually whole, but since this particular album feels like it is meant to be, I wanted to resolve inconsistencies as best I could.

Thankfully, Kendrick ironed out some creases yesterday by dropping the visuals for “ELEMENT.”

Theories flew around social media about the Gordon Parks and Elliot Erwitt references, most of which are fascinating and worth exploring. One of the beauties of human interaction is seeing different points of emphasis from the same raw experience. For me, the “ELEMENT.” video solved the puzzle of the line quoted above and expanded the cloud of meaning surrounding DAMN.

It’s my favorite bar from "LOYALTY.," and the way he and RiRi sync their rapping makes you think they’ve done this before, despite being their first official collaboration. Kendrick’s description of himself is clear enough. He draws the outline of his personality, connecting those three points: savage, asshole, and king. It’s difficult to parse out what those terms mean in the context of his latest album without taking into account the videos he released for “HUMBLE.,” “DNA.” and now “ELEMENT.” Carl Jung rhetorically asked in Modern Man in Search of a Soul how we could doubt that art explains the artist, and that applies to the entire body of work, from cover art and plug-ins to live presentation and short films.

None of the three videos are clearly defined. They all bring visual reality to the invisible tension Kendrick feels between his disparate modes of being and those aren’t neatly separated. That tension can have hauntingly visible results, though. “HUMBLE.” finds him checking all of us (and himself) on our excess hubris: wearing papal garments, assuming the role of Christ in classic iconography, and defiantly boasting while a dozen guns are pointed at him. “DNA.” dramatizes his inner monologue by giving him a constant adversary, whether it’s Don Cheadle or the viewer through the lens. This latest installment shows him trying to fit a violent nature into a poetic narrative, by “making it look sexy.”

Each video corresponds to one of his self-assigned nouns. “HUMBLE.” reveals his king status, “DNA.” is an expression of the asshole, and “ELEMENT.” displays the savage. Yoh showed us DAMN. can be played in both directions and I feel the same way about analyzing these videos. Since “ELEMENT.” is fresh on our minds, let’s begin there and work our way backward.

Savage. That word, like ‘vibe,’ is used so often and loosely that an eye roll is the only natural impulse. Labelmate Isaiah Rashad gave the best distillation of the term on “Park” when he says it’s “doing shit just to do it.” We find Kendrick and the rest of the characters in the video living by that philosophy. It may be the philosophy of his environment, but he’s noting the pointless “savagery” of literally beating violence into children. He’s not taking the “Jack Thompson approach” and raising the first flag in a “holier than thou” crusade. It’s an informed position, one that still feels the sting of indoctrination.

We also must understand Kendrick’s religious imagery here, or we’re as hopeless as deciphering a Young Thug lyric with no understanding of sexual slang. The video opens with a shot of a hand emerging from a body of water. It’s an obvious reference to baptism, the sacrament meant to transfer divine energy into the subject through the water. It’s timed perfectly with Kid Capri’s “NEW KUNG FU KENNY!” line, which refers to new music as well as “Kendrick the New Man” post-baptism. We never see a complete transformation, though. The full body never emerges and no other shot of a subject in water ends with the oxygen relief they’re seeking. A baptism is even reappropriated for the transfer of a violent nature when he shows the child being pelted by a heavy rain. Instead of washing away the film of his upbringing, he’s drowned in the substance of his environment.   

For Kendrick, some stains never wash away. He doesn’t have to be making a point about original sin, though, there’s probably something there. Stripped down, he's claiming that habits take more than a refreshing dip to erase. He tells us at the beginning of the first verse that D.O.T., his earlier self, the one infected with the curse of violence, is his enemy and this villain maintains the upper hand throughout. From the toy guns of youth to the “slap-happy” days of maturity, a cloud of violence and true savagery hovers over him.

Asshole. An insulting term that somehow becomes more potent with those four letters tacked onto the end. Just reading the word conjures up images of past acquaintances. It’s a broad classification, but all assholes reveal themselves through personality contradictions. I had a boss once who lectured his adult staff on the importance of picking up trash on the job and, 15 minutes later, purposely ignored the towel he threw on the ground. Asshole. [Insert your story here.]

As I wrote earlier, Kendrick displays the contradictions in his own personality through two different characters, Kung Fu Kenny and Don Cheadle the Interrogator. Their exchange throughout the first verse is a rendition of the dialogue we have with ourselves in the mirror occasionally. We alternate between deliciously confident self-praise and self-deprecation we wouldn’t dare launch at someone else (“Power, poison, pain, and joy”). Like Cheadle, we’re overcome by the force that causes him to make claims he wouldn’t in his right mind.

In true artistic fashion, Kendrick uses his experience to shine a light on situations we all face. While he’s delivering these lines with the unique coloring of K.Dot’s past, he’s urging me to find what makes me an insufferable asshole. I don’t want to be the kind of person who claims to live by a set of principles only to throw them away when it’s convenient, but I have, and I will do it again. There’s only so much comfort in the fact that others share this pitfall. Kendrick takes it a step further just by talking about personal contradictions on a track called “DNA.” The implication is that no one can escape it, it’s as universal as needing oxygen to stay alive.

King. I could have explored Kendrick’s tripartite personality in any order, but it’s nice to end on the positive element. Even fighting with himself on “DNA.” he acknowledges the royalty latent in his genetic code. In the “HUMBLE.” video, we see him express that power.

Since it was released, I’ve obsessed over the shot of the flaming heads. Kendrick, dressed starkly opposed to his surrounding crew, opens the second verse rapping while his head is engulfed in flames. The circle of men around him have pyro halos too, but their faces are concealed by rope. Kendrick is the only recognizable man on fire. Fire, as a symbol, can mean many things. In a Christian context, it could refer to the transfer of the Holy Spirit, conferring “spiritual royalty” to those “burning.” Flames have also been cited as evidence of a person’s sainthood. I’m not sure what to make of them, or where to begin really, but I’ve heard firsthand accounts from a person who claims he saw fire above the head of a living saint. Again, it’s not my goal to figure out that situation, but to discover the true meaning of the symbolism.

We encounter fire the least of the four crude elements. Earth, air, and water assault us with their presence every day, but fire happens rarely and has transformative effects. Perhaps recognizing the royalty, the inherent worth, we have inside is a prerequisite to transform the way we look at ourselves. Yeah, we’re assholes that revel in savagery, but that’s only half of the story. The fact that we recognize the inconsistencies and feel horrible about them suggests there is a good part of it in us somewhere. I don’t want you to think I’m pessimistic about human existence because I’m not. Neither is Kendrick. Understanding the bad tendencies lying below the surface of our personalities prevents them from becoming the dominant forces in our decision-making.

Initially, I thought Kendrick was claiming unique kingship. His entourage of flaming heads forces us to widen the entrance. Their presence is proof you can be this way, too. Concealing their faces puts the last stitch in this hopeful quilt because we’re unsure who’s been anointed. That ambiguity is meant to be an encouragement, a push to reach the day when we see the face of our properly-aligned self behind the ropes.           

‘Connection’ is an odd word. It’s meaning is obvious, but it’s used to describe a range of situations; the plot of melodramatic Law & Order reruns, our ability to access the internet, a distant in-law, or the feeling of a true bond forming. The same word in all cases, used on a spectrum of meaning.

Thinking about why we’re drawn to connections is a hazier exercise. We don’t need a professional to explain the intoxicating pull we feel towards certain people, but it’s strange how we’re attracted to finding connections in what we consume. The elation I get by recognizing a sample without researching it is the same feeling you got when you saw how characters fit into the storylines of Atlanta or Breaking Bad. Replace my interests with your own, the drive is the same.

When artists have produced an extensive catalogue like Kendrick, it’s possible to find connections across their creative efforts. I’m not claiming Kendrick meant to design his first three videos so that they correspond to his anthropology. Nor am I claiming the line from “LOYALTY.” was given that much thought. But when you’re dealing with an artist as versed in symbolism as he is, of course, it’s possible, and even probable, that there was planning across creative mediums.

Art is slippery, though, and connections don’t require authorial intent. In fact, if I had a concept of existence that was formulated well enough to express in art, it would most likely color all my expression, conscious or not. I’m starting to think the best art comes from the place that exists between conscious decisions and unconscious intuition, whatever the hell that means.

It doesn’t really matter how we conceptualize it here, though. From where I’m standing, Kendrick is showing us how to live it.

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