Amidst one of the most outwardly divisive years in recent American history, there is a reason why Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is topping almost every end-of-year list. The album holds its own in terms of objective quality alone, with Kendrick rapping harder than ever, but the hip-hop MVP also delivers a timely—and, unfortunately, timeless—message on the state of the union.
In direct confrontation with ill-informed claims of a post-racial society, racism reared its ugly head openly in 2017, spurred on by the current administration. White supremacists gained the confidence to protest openly and speak at colleges, while The New York Times profiled your friendly neighborhood Nazi sympathizer. Donald Trump spent many of his tweets airing out his grievances with Black NFL and NCAA players, could not honor Native Americans without reducing political opponents to racist stereotypes, and pushed legislation against Muslim-majority countries, all while denying that any of these incidents were related to race or ethnicity.
In a year where people are desperate for easy solutions to racism, none seem available. The popularity of Joyner Lucas’ “I’m Not Racist” shows how willing the general American audience is to celebrate a well-intentioned but ultimately simplistic and misguided attempt to bring MAGA hats into the same room as rappers for a dialogue. Against this desire for simplicity, DAMN. delivers a complex portrait of a Black man swimming in the “pool full of sharks” that is America, as he refuses both to play nice with Fox News or deemphasize Kendrick’s sins in the fight for equality. The album offers no easy answers or ways out of this mess but instead employs Black Hebrew Israelite theology to suggest that America is damned until we break the curse of disobedience.
With the new release of the collector’s edition of DAMN., Kendrick reverses the tracklist, which he mentioned earlier in the year was on purpose, stating, “I don’t think the story necessarily changes, I think the feel changes.” Kendrick’s albums are known for their narrative arc, with good kid, m.A.A.d city’s day in the life of a young K. Dot and To Pimp a Butterfly’s more intricate picture of survivor’s guilt. The fact that Kendrick does not feel the album's narrative changes when played in either direction, then, reveals another layer to a project that has kept us talking all year long.
Yoh previously wrote that “DUCKWORTH.,” the 9th Wonder-produced final track in the original order which tells the story of how Kendrick would probably not have lived to see today had his father Ducky not once been kind to Top Dawg executive Anthony Tiffith, offers proof that good karma can lead to better outcomes when humans are given the chance to exercise their free will. Yoh points out that “an act of kindness kills Kendrick [on opener “BLOOD.”], while an act of kindness kept his father safe.” Furthermore, the act of kindness that kept Kendrick’s father safe contributed to Kendrick’s ability to overcome the statistical fate of too many Black men in America, allowing him the agency to craft his own ending. The gunshot that interrupts Kendrick on “DUCKWORTH.” is thus only hypothetical—a bullet that could have caught him had it not been for the good karma of his father.
Playing DAMN. in reverse, however, Kendrick is now birthed by an act of kindness on “DUCKWORTH.,” but is later killed by his own act of kindness on “BLOOD.” as he attempts to help a blind woman find her way, only to be shot by her. At the end of the track, in that infamous sample, the Fox News hosts express their distaste for what they misread as Kendrick’s message: “Ah please, I don’t like it.” The album is over, and the final words of the fourteen tracks are no longer in Kendrick’s hands, but in the hands of Fox News pundits who refuse to see a Black man worthy of anything but disdain as they use his name for a percentage.
In his 1926 meditation on Black artistry, Langston Hughes affirmed the humanity of Black people: “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” Kendrick often employs this affirmation, as on “DNA.” when he asserts he has “power, poison, pain, and joy” inside his own. But Kendrick’s hour-long meditation on what it means to be a Black man trying to be seen as human, while also living what it means to be human, rings hollow in the ears of the Fox News mindset. When the album ends, Kendrick is memorialized by a section of America that hates his Black body, and there is nothing left for him to say in his defense.
As it stands, America is indeed cursed to repeat its past over and over again until we confront our racist history and dismantle structures that do not value Black lives. If we are to read the blind woman on “BLOOD.” as a metaphor for America, Kendrick is attempting to help her find her way away from the curse of our fraught history, but she—quite literally—cannot see. Therefore, in this alternate version of DAMN., the tracklisting is not just to be read as in reverse, but backward—this is not the way we were intended to live. It is common in religious mythology to suggest that the world is not as it should be. Following the threads of Black Hebrew Israelite theology that Cousin Carl preaches on the album, the earth will continue to be cursed—with minoritized races suffering the weight of the curse—until we return to the way God intended us to live.
You don’t have to be religious to get with this sermon: DAMN. in its original sequencing is God’s intended way, wherein Kendrick could have died from an unending legacy of American racism, but instead was saved through the agency of two Black men given the space to make the choices that allowed K. Dot to flourish in all of his complexity. If we are to continue living backward, however, away from what Kendrick sees as God’s intended path, then we will continue to miss the complexity of humanity and disguise America’s real problems through harmful caricatures that demonize minoritized people in life and death.
As Kendrick raps on “XXX.,” a standout among many, “America’s reflection of me: that’s what a mirror does.” On the reversed DAMN., Kendrick holds a mirror to America and charges it with creating a monster of its own image, a curse that will not end until this nation ceases its long history of making the Black man into a caricature of its own problems. There is no easy way forward, but faced with the reality of our history, we can begin to take the steps toward what James Baldwin believed was the way to true liberation in this country: “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”
DAMN. in reverse is both a warning and a wake-up call, in that Kendrick believes America has it backward, but still has the hope that a course correction is possible. As repeated throughout the album, “What happens on earth stays on earth,” and in this sermon, we are asked if this is the best version of the earth we’re fated to share together. That DAMN.’s original order was released Easter weekend is perhaps a sign of Kendrick’s belief in the resurrection of a better America, if we only we would confront our history and learn how to use it.
Let that message preach as we heed the altar call for our nation’s future.