Fear is an emotion that every person must handle: fear of changes, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, and even fear of fear itself. But what happens when you bring millions of dollars into the equation? When you finally have the means to feed your family and friends and their families and friends? When an entire generation hangs onto your every word like it’s gospel?
For his fourth studio album, DAMN., Kendrick Lamar penned a confessional about his deepest and darkest fears, fleshing out the skeletons of his past, present, and future over the bare bones of an Alchemist instrumental.
“FEAR.” begins with a melancholy wailing. The falsetto makes it difficult to discern the words: poverty’s paradise. It’s a pitched up vocal sample of an old 24-Carat Black song about destitution, and when Alc’s thunderous drums start knocking over eerie guitar riffs, a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl begins playing. He uses a passage from the Bible to remind Kendrick that “[they] are a cursed people,” and the burden he carries is hereditary. Before Carl can even finish talking, his words are interrupted by the bridge:
“Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle / Why God, why God, do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin' at my feet.”
There’s a weariness to the hypnotic baritone that reflects slow-burning despair more so than righteous indignation, and the bridge vocals are reversed the second time around—it’s a jarring transition as Kendrick hearkens back to his fears as a seven-year-old.
This is the only verse where Kendrick isn't speaking from a first-person perspective, instead channeling the anger of a scorned mother; her threats are addressed directly, so we can feel that same fear. She’s low on patience while struggling to raise a child in Section 8 (“I got beaucoup payments to make / County building’s on my ass tryna take my food stamps away”). The last line is perhaps the most looming (“You gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else”).
A mother’s love doesn’t always translate to coddling and pats on the back, just as every family doesn’t grow up with silver spoons and white picket fences. This militant style of parenting reflects the gravity of being born into generational poverty, a ubiquitous need for families in the projects where the stakes are much higher when you’re fighting for every scrap.
Wasted pizza, dirty shoes, or unfinished homework: these are all seemingly mundane components of a normal childhood, but the distinction for Kendrick is a perpetual fear of physical discipline. When he failed to complete a poetry assignment for a seventh grade English class, it was this same fear that forced him to crank it out in 10 minutes once he got to school:
"Later that day, [the teacher] was passing out the grades and I was looking at my friends going ‘Man, I got a D, I got a C,’ and I looked at it and it was an ‘A’. From that moment on, I knew I had a gift to put words together and draw my inspiration out on a piece of paper. That was the beginning of when I started writing actual lyrics." —Kendrick Lamar, Joe Interview
In the second verse, Kendrick delivers a laundry list of 17 different ways to die as a 17-year-old. There’s a hint of resignation in his tone as he dejectedly accepts his fate. All signs of life are absent in his voice; it’s a troubling level of detail that can only come from a vantage rooted in reality. The specificity of each line reads like a nameless obituary of innocent bystanders and dead homies. Remember, Kendrick has witnessed firsthand the Grim Reaper lurking around every corner of Compton, his scythe gleaming with shades of red and blue under the sun.
In the face of death, Kendrick Lamar found his purpose in life. He clawed his way out of Section 8 to become the undisputed heavyweight of hip-hop, moving with bulletproof integrity every step of the way. He has a nonexistent ceiling for creativity, consistently pushing the envelope; he advocates for social justice; he gives back to his community; he lives a modest lifestyle. But Kendrick’s adolescent fears were amplified tenfold in the wake of his newfound superstardom, and at 27 years old, his biggest fear was losing it all.
In the third and final verse, Kendrick grapples with his blessings aside a vindictive God (“Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? / Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?”), struggling to reconcile with his commercial success (“All this money, is God playin' a joke on me?”) and even critical acclaim (“How many accolades do I need to block denial?”).
The fear instilled in Kendrick as a child comes back full circle (“Scared to go back to Section 8 with my momma stressin' / 30 shows a month and I still won't buy me no Lexus”). Despite 11 GRAMMYs and one of the most impeccable discographies in hip-hop history, the weight of his legacy feels like a chip on his shoulder (“At 27 years old, my biggest fear was being judged / How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city”). The pressure he feels at the peak of his career is palpable, and the urgency in Kendrick’s voice crescendos as he reveals a bone-deep spiritual cynicism that permeates every fiber of his being, “wondering if [he’s] living through fear or living through rap.”
Kendrick’s honesty attests to the power of fear. The greatest rapper of our generation is fueled by a fear of failure and judgment, but instead of allowing apprehension to cripple him into complacency, Kendrick found a way to weaponize that fear during his meteoric rise to the top. When you’re overlooking the world below, the prospect of plummeting can be frightening—or that same fear can serve as a visceral reminder of what you could overcome on your way up.
In an interview with i-D magazine, Kendrick was asked if he’s written the perfect rhyme yet—you can take a wild guess what his response was.
"It's completely honest," he says. "The first verse is everything that I feared from the time that I was seven years old. The second verse I was 17, in the third it's everything I feared when I was 27. These verses are completely honest." —i-D Interview
Kendrick Lamar finds a temporary solution in the song’s chorus, with his pitched up vocals providing comic relief in an otherwise desolate soundscape. But once the high wears off—and the chorus ends—we are quickly brought back to reality with every verse.
If you could smoke fear away, would you roll it up? We do what we can to drown out that nagging voice in the back of our heads, but it’ll always be there—how you wield that ever-present burden is entirely up to you.