The Book of Lamentations—a series of Bible verses that mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy temple—opens with a figurative description of Jerusalem as a fallen woman who was once a queen but who now has become a slave. While its authorship can't be confirmed, it serves as a significant text in the Jewish and Christian mythologies and is recited frequently, in some cases weekly, at the Wailing Wall in Old Jerusalem. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it appears in the liturgies recited during the last three days of Holy Week, beginning on Holy Thursday and ending on Easter.
Kendrick Lamar's latest album, DAMN., opens with a blind woman, seemingly distraught over the loss of a valued possession, but when Kendrick approaches her to offer a helping hand, she shoots him and tells him that he is in fact the loser: He loses his life, which can be read as ours.
This grim intro sets the tone for the album wherein Kendrick ambitiously grapples with his and our damnation, and yet he doesn't leave us to linger in purgatory. He wants to deliver us.
His most religious album to date, its 14 tracks are populated with countless references to scripture, both direct and indirect, each conjuring the image of a wrathful god. On "Fear," the longest track on the album, he offers album's theme: "I can't take these feelings with me / so hopefully they disperse with 14 tracks / carried out over wax / searching for resolutions / 'til somebody to get back." That somebody is obviously Jesus, which maybe explains why the album was released on Good Friday. If this is the case, clearly Kendrick wanted to insert his words within the canon of religious literature. The title furthers these intentions as it can be read as a verb or exclamation but also in its other forms as a noun, damnation, or adjective, damned. And each of these interpretations are present in the album cover's simple imagery as he appears crestfallen in a plain white t-shirt, his posture stooped by his burdens.
If we were to view hip-hop as a grand church, replete with deacons and parishioners and priests, Chance would be the choir director and Kendrick its fiery preacher.
While Kendrick's reliance on religious symbolism is not a new occurrence in hip-hop—see Nas, Outkast, Tupac, Jay-Z, DMX, Common, Kanye, Wu-Tang, Rakim—there is a distinct freshness to his approach. After all, rap was spawned from the black oral tradition that originated in slave songs, many of which were ballads depicting scenes from the Bible. Yet Kendrick's inspiration is more complex than rote symbolism. Many of the songs on DAMN. are layered with samples from the thick, sonorous sounds of the '60s and '70s as well as the airy, expansiveness of electronica. And somehow it's still hip-hop, as these sounds are accompanied by the more traditional tropes—808 percussion, DJ voice-overs, and unabashed bravado. Even his most religious contemporary Chance the Rapper pales in artistic comparison. While Chance is an unquestioned talent, worthy of all his accolades and more, his tracks, to use his own words, are more "praise songs." But if we were to view hip -hop as a grand church, replete with deacons and parishioners and priests, Chance would be the choir director and Kendrick its fiery preacher. And this is what makes Kendrick special. He envisions the recording booth as his pulpit. In the process, he's creating a new brand of hip-hop that is at once gritty and uplifting and entertaining, not to mention marketable without trying to be.
While Chance invokes the traditional, organ-heavy sounds of classic gospel, Kendrick eschews this approach and offers an album of ambient, cinematic soul to inspire thought, self-reflection, and transcendence. It's veers from conventionality and is more inclusive. The sing-song chants he repeats on "Yah," for example, while clear abbreviations of Yahweh, the Jewish god, emerge as incantations instead of simple acts of reverence and are consistent with the chorus of voices that introduce many of the songs. These voices are more akin to Gregorian chant than Mahalia Jackson, which suggests that Christianity is not his sole focus. There is something more at stake. Kendrick alludes to this preoccupation in final verse of "Pride": "I'll choose faith over riches / I'll choose worth over bitches / I'll make schools out of prisons / I'll take all the religions / and put all in one service / just to tell them we ain't shit / but He's been perfect, world."
On its surface, the album's focus is maybe hard to digest because it lacks the sanctimonious self-aggrandisement that frequently attends religious posturing. It's intensely personal and lays bare his internal struggle for salvation but not uncomfortably. What's most impressive about Kendrick's teachings is his embodiment of this conflict. One of the more off-putting airs of the religious is the unwillingness to testify about one's transgressions, as if they were born perfect, devoid of sin. Kendrick is uninterested in this lie and prefers authenticity to illusion. "I'm so fucking sick and tired of the Photoshop," he declares on "Humble." Further, in a Ron Isley falsetto, over the steady rhythm of a sliding cross-fader on "Lust," he points an admonishing finger at us, pointedly critiquing the resignation that can beset us in this post-election aftermath, when millions are still troubled by Trump's victory but can just as easily become disaffected by the things we covet. But what's most significant is that he also turns this finger towards himself. He may be anointed, but he isn't above reproach, which makes it so easy to embrace his message. While "Love" and "Loyalty" are the most radio-friendly, upbeat R&B tracks, featuring an introspective Rihanna and velvety-voiced Zacari, the album ultimately speaks to the uncertainty of the present moment with the attendant aggression of classic hip-hop.
He doesn't offer his teachings from a vaulted cathedral, adorned with frescoes lining the walls; he occupies the corner of a cul-de-sac, where his followers are impaled by gang violence and poverty, where he speaks to them in a language they understand, sometimes profanely. The beats are still bass-heavy, the flow Compton, the synergy between the music and the lyrics still sonically Kendrick. The best example of this appears on "XXX" wherein he informs us, with no uncertainty, that he would murder anyone who harms his family as sirens pulse in the background. And then, in what seems to be one breath, the song shifts seamlessly to a slow, dirge-like crawl, and we are transported to a convention where Kendrick details the dangers of gun violence to a group of children. In this way, he assumes the persona of Saul in the bible: the once murderer, who upon being converted after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus became Paul, a fervent messenger of God who preached of his sinful past as a vehicle to salvation. This is the musical complexity that marks Kendrick's unrivaled genius.
In keeping with the conceit established in the intro, the album ends with the theme of repentance and redemption like the closing verse of Lamentations. On "Duckworth," he details what happens when a curse is reversed and one's damnation is relieved. "Take two strangers and put them in random predicaments / Give them a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it…" These two strangers are Kendrick's father and Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who on one fateful day spared each other's lives. If Top Dawg had killed Kendrick's father during a robbery of the restaurant where his father worked, both of their lives would have been ruined and the two would have never formed a friendship that would result in Tiffith signing Kendrick to his record label. It's a hopeful ending and a departure from the gloom that looms over the album. And yet despite it somber energy, one that will certainly shift your mood, Kendrick seems to suggest that the right time to consider one's salvation is now and forever.