Kendrick Lamar is a man of secrets and silence. The 33-year-old, Compton-born rap star does not maneuver social media with the hypervisibility of his hip-hop contemporaries. He rarely posts. Seeing or hearing from him, also rare. This absence creates a quiet that gets louder the longer he waits between new releases. One starts to wonder, where is Kendrick?
I asked myself the above question a few weeks ago. I was certain the Top Dawg Entertainment recording artist was on the verge of a return with the March 5 announcement of pgLang, the mysterious service company he created with longtime friend and The Little Homie collaborator Dave Free.
On March 11, a week after pgLang launched its social media campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NBA to pause their 2020 season, bringing the world to a sudden halt.
Before the pandemic, there was never a time in my 29 years of being alive where the world stopped, where there was no televised basketball, no concerts, no clubs, no movie theaters, no music festivals, no school, no movement.
The government said to stay in our homes. To break our routines by sitting still. Unfortunately, the way our society is set up, we are born on a fast track to collide and coexist. Social distancing, quarantine, and isolation all go against the laws of man.
The laws of man, specifically law and order, made the world move again following the killing of 46-year-old Houston native George Floyd. Every day since May 25 has felt like a nightmare.
Some might say the nightmare began long before the viral video of George Floyd taking his last breath underneath Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee. After seeing Floyd’s life ended in such a cruel and inhumane way, there was a collective heartbreak.
Murder, civil unrest, gun violence, police brutality, and the plight of darker-skinned men and women in America are all subjects that appear across Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, DAMN.. It’s surreal, playing the album now, how timely the music is in 2020, more timely than when Kendrick released the project in 2017.
There’s one line, in particular, on “FEEL.,” the fifth song off DAMN., that resonates differently when, outside your window, buildings are burning; a deadly virus is spreading; peaceful protests are in a cloud of tear gas, and ducking rubber bullets; Black women are being sexually assaulted; Black men are found hanging from trees; and people of every race, ethnicity, and binary are dying violent deaths—some at the hands of law enforcement.
With every fresh listen, DAMN. sounds more and more like a premonition of the end of days, an album made for this exact uncertain and imperfect world. A world without prayer. A world lacking in hope. Not once does Lamar tell the listener that everything will be fine. There is no “Alright.” At best, the most comforting refrain is: “What happens on Earth, stays on Earth.”
I always found it a bit odd that Kendrick Lamar chose to title his fourth studio album DAMN.. One would think, after the critical and commercial success of three inarguable hip-hop classics—Section.80 (2011), good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), and To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)—a famous, multi-Platinum-selling rapper would be ecstatic by the fruits of his labor. This is the same man who made “Wanna Be Heard” and made his dream come true. He’s a world-renowned rapper, but the dream doesn’t sound heavenly. This reality is primarily due to Kendrick’s fear of God. He is terrified by the unseen, frightened by the uncertain.
Upon revisit, the song “FEAR.” is the crux of DAMN.. “Why God, why God, why God?” Kendrick asks before the three powerful verses. He explains all the ways death could snatch life. There is little comfort to be found in these lyrics.
This section of the third verse has always stood out to me:
“My newfound life made all of me magnified / How many accolades do I need to block denial? / The shock value of my success put bolts in me / 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? / At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all” –Kendrick Lamar
Unlike his contemporaries, Kendrick Lamar accepts that his success could be taken, not by man, but by God. Everything he knows can be stripped away as fast as it was given.
Regardless of if you believe in God, or curses, or the Book of Deuteronomy, there is something unique about hearing spirituality expressed in this damned way; hearing Kendrick walk and speak as a cursed man awaiting judgment.
Through the first five months and 17 days of 2020, it feels like a reckoning has arrived to destroy all that we know, the end of normal, the beginning of a new world. A damned world.
After three years, and through these unfathomable times, DAMN. is a classic.
DAMN. captured the fear, anxiety, anger, and uncertainty of a shift caused by multiple disasters—COVID-19, white supremacy, institutional racism. All invisible plagues, but we know they exist. We know they affect us.
Kendrick Lamar knew something was coming. That’s why he told The New York Times one month before the release of DAMN.: “Learning to accept it, and not run away from it, that’s how I want this album to feel.”