The 10 Faces of Kendrick Lamar

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Few have upended the music world and the culture at large over the past decade like Kendrick Lamar. Since the release of good kid, m.A.A.d. city in the fall of 2012, Lamar has risen higher and received more acclaim than almost all of his peers, and he’s been fearless in confronting politics and race. It’s to the point now where his place on rap’s Mount Rushmore of all-time greats is but chiseled in stone. Reducing him solely to a rapper or famous person of interest, however, is selling his talents and impact short.

While he’s only been active in the mainstream for a relatively short time, the body of work Lamar has already assembled, from albums to music videos to live performances to interviews, is as multifaceted and complex as entire careers, if not more so. It could fill an entire book on the subject, and it’d probably be a page-turning read, too.

Is Lamar worthy of the attention, though? There will always be a debate about who the greatest rapper alive is, like in any competitive field, but that conversation has largely gone silent since 2013. That was the year Lamar took a verbal flamethrower to the scene on Big Sean’s “Control” by personally calling out nearly every popular rapper. Needless to say, nobody attempted a challenge to his claim, and the ones who eventually tried veiled potshots, like Big Sean and Drake, were swiftly dealt with.

The only rapper arguably more popular than Lamar at the moment is Drake, but technical rap skills have never been his strong suit, plus he’s more focused on being a global popstar these days, anyway. Meanwhile, talented upstarts like Chance the Rapper and Vince Staples have yet to reach the level of exposure or sway Lamar has amassed, though Chance is rapidly gaining. In other words, it’s safe to assume Lamar is rap’s Top Dawg for the foreseeable future and everything runs through him.

I’ve identified the 10 faces Lamar has established that make him both a fascinating artist in our modern age and so tricky to categorize. The focus will be restricted to his five major works, from 2011’s Section.80 through this year’s DAMN., with minimal emphasis on his myriad of guest spots, which vary wildly in quality and motivation. Let’s begin.

POET.

Sadly, poetry in the digital age is a dying art form. When was the last time you read a poem that was recently published or seen one mentioned? On the other hand, hip-hop has taken over the charts and cultural landscape on a wider scale than ever before. It’s not only the most lyrical genre of music, it’s also become the most popular that isn’t straight pop, and even that is increasingly hip-hop infused.

Not all rap music deserves to be described as poetry, but many of the most talented contemporary lyricists hail from the genre (Rakim, Nas, André 3000, and Jay Z and Eminem in their respective primes). A compelling case can be made rappers have become our version of modern-day poets, for better or for worse, and Lamar, as the current figurehead, is the strongest advocate for such an argument.

Take, for instance, the second verse on “FEAR.,” where a 17-year-old Lamar expresses anxiety over a death that feels increasingly imminent. It’s gripping by how raw and authentic it feels, made all the more foreboding by the repeated phrase “I’ll prolly die.”

I’ll prolly die anonymous
I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

In some ways, Lamar most closely resembles someone like the brilliant T.S. Eliot, one of the defining writers of the 20th century. Eliot had an unparalleled knack for incredibly dense wordplay, stuffed to the brim with quotations, historical allusions and biblical references. It’s nearly impossible to unpack for a modern reader without the help of an index of some sort.

Similarly, Lamar has a gift for cramming large amounts of information into small spaces, including his own laundry list of biblical knowledge. His general intent is easier to grasp than Eliot’s, which makes sense considering the different formats, but it’s also a challenge to fully understand his meaning without the help of a lyrical site like Genius.

Eliot did something else quite revolutionary for his time when telling multiple narratives in the same poem. In his career centerpiece “The Waste Land,” Eliot jumps between several vocal styles, creating new margins, speaking in other languages and writing in all caps. Later in “The Hollow Men,” Eliot speaks in the voice of a children’s nursery rhyme in his personal reading of the poem, most notably on its famous closing line: “This is the way the word ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Lamar encompasses a spectrum of chameleon-like voices as well, from shallow whispers to angry shrieks, sometimes even vacillating greatly within the same verse. This is most pronounced across To Pimp a Butterfly, especially on the chilling “u,” with Lamar’s character in a drunken mental breakdown by its end, but is a key component to “DAMN.” as well. By utilizing unconventional points of inflection and emphasis, both writers bring to the surface aspects in their work not possible with a simple blank canvas.

STORYTELLER.

Not every lyricist or poet is a storyteller. Some focus solely on conveying certain emotions, tackling big picture ideas or writing in the abstract. It boils down to a matter of personal preference, but storytelling, when done effectively, can both act as a gateway to a larger truth and allow one to view the world through a different lens.

What makes Lamar such an efficient storyteller hinges on two things—his aforementioned talents as a poet and his capability to think in scale. Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly are all intricate concept albums, complete with world-building interludes on the latter two. While the songs stand on their own, they also function as foundational blocks in a larger narrative.

In particular, good kid places the listener on the streets of Compton and inside the internal struggles of a young man caught up in gang culture. Throughout the album, there are no heroes or villains, only confusion and weariness, even for Lamar himself, and the details often force a rethinking of previously held beliefs rather than a passing of rash judgment.

But Lamar doesn’t limit himself to storytelling on a grand stage and is often most dexterous in smaller, self-contained stories. The previously mentioned “FEAR.,” which borrows the framing device from Best Picture winner Moonlight in relaying Lamar’s anxieties at ages 7, 17 and 27, is proof of exactly how hard-hitting Lamar can be, both on a technical and an emotional level.

On “How Much a Dollar Cost,” President Obama’s favorite song of 2015, Lamar spins a parable of brushing off a homeless beggar asking for money at a gas station, which later is revealed to be a test from God Incarnate and costs Lamar his spot in heaven. Another example off DAMN. is the standout closer “DUCKWORTH.,” a retelling of how Anthony Tiffith, the founder of Top Dawg Entertainment, almost killed Lamar’s father at a KFC drive-through 20 years ago.

Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives
One curse at a time
Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I’ll tell you why
You take two strangers and put ‘em in random predicaments
Give ‘em a soul, so they can make their own choices and live with it
20 years later, them same strangers, you make ‘em meet again
Inside recording studios where they reapin’ their benefits
Then you start remindin’ them about that chicken incident
Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?
Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight

While DAMN. doesn’t have as large a scope or connective tissue as found on good kid or Butterfly, the personal moments reverberate just as deeply. How Lamar has consistently worked at sharpening his ability to tell captivating stories over the years is a main reason why.

SOCIAL COMMENTATOR.

Lamar has talked about race as much as any artist in recent memory. It’s been a part of his music since his debut full-length Section.80, when he opened with “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” before making his overarching statement on To Pimp a Butterfly. Butterfly is overwhelmingly in its blackness, from its cover art, to the opening sampling of Boris Gardiner’s 1973 song “Every Nigger Is a Star,” to Lamar ending the album by dialoguing with Tupac about the state of America.

In fact, race is a factor on almost every song. “Wesley’s Theory” is about the difficulties of being a black artist in the entertainment industry, “King Kunta” deals with the negative stereotypes African-Americans have long endured, “Institutionalized” reflects on how the poor and disenfranchised are shackled by prison, race, class and corruption of wealth, while “Complexion” is about loving all people, no matter one’s color.

Perhaps Lamar’s most complex and controversial thinking on race is found on “The Blacker the Berry,” wherein he takes pride in being black but laments how violence hasn’t changed since slavery, before directing the blame squarely on himself. The message received mixed reactions, with some calling Lamar’s perspective on black oppression “misguided intention” and others more sympathetic to his painful answers.

I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
When I finish this if you listenin’ then sure you will agree
This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred
It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan
I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius
Excuse my French but fuck you—no, fuck y’all
That’s as blunt as it gets, I know you hate me, don’t you?
You hate my people, I can tell cause it’s threats when I see you
I can tell cause your ways deceitful
Know I can tell because you’re in love with that Desert Eagle
Thinkin’ maliciously, he get a chain then you gone bleed him
It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door
Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Hypocrite!

Race and politics might not be as prominent on DAMN., as the mood is introspective overall, but it’s still very much present. The record opens and closes with Lamar getting shot by a blind lady he’s trying to assist. Lamar has been coy about what the symbolism represents—is it that justice is blind, God’s punishment is unavoidable, life is a cycle and everyone ends up the same?—but it’s an ominous choice, particularly when immediately followed by Fox News criticizing “Alright” and the line: “And we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho.’”

Elsewhere, Lamar confronts the idea of America and its modern day hypocrisies on “XXX.,” asking the question: “Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” Surprisingly, Trump is only referenced on that song and the DAMN. prelude “The Heart Part 4,” although Lamar admitted material left on the cutting room floor expressed frustrations over the election and its wow factor in further detail. Even in brief supply, Lamar conveys the anger bubbling over the country’s current clashes.

The whole world gone mad
Bodies is addin’ up, market’s about to crash
Niggas is fake rich, bitches is fake bad
Blacks that act white, whites that do the dab
Donald Trump is a chump
Know how we feel, punk? Tell ‘em that God comin’
And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’
Electorial votes look like memorial votes
But America’s truth ain’t ignorin’ the votes
It’s blasphemy, how many gon’ blast for me?
I prophesized on my last song, you laughed at me
But when the shit get brackin’, don’t you ask for me?
How many leaders gon’ tell you the truth after me?

Eight years ago Lamar was hopeful, like many of us, that an African-American in the White House would mark at least some small step forward for progress. Yet Obama’s presidency was mired in the highest levels of racial tension and police brutality America has experienced in decades, while the nation is as politically fractured as it’s ever been.

Lamar was fortunate to spend time with Obama before he left office and one of the lessons the president instilled was the true fight for change would start after he left. While the optimism in songs like “Alright” is an essential component of Lamar’s, and is important to never let go, he also has gone through a period of self-evaluation in the wake of all that’s happened recently.

There is a slight shift on DAMN. where Lamar starts to strap in for what the fight is going to be like over the next decade. It might be more in the subtext than Lamar’s past material, but it’s there, and there’s a high probability he’s going to get a lot more blunt and louder the further into Trump’s presidency we get.

SYMBOL.

Over time Lamar has become a dual-edged icon for his work as a social activist and the political messages in his music. “Alright” is the clearest illustration. It became the unofficial theme for Black Lives Matter and was chanted in marches across the country, which Lamar considers a crowning achievement.

“The success of that record didn’t come from the accolades and the awards,” he said recently to Apple Music’s Zane Lowe in the only in-depth interview he’s done for DAMN. “It came from people going out there and singing ‘Alright’ in the middle of these streets, taking pride in where they come from and where they want to go, and expressing themselves. A lot of people don’t have voices out here. So to see them actually express themselves through song, through lyrics that I wrote, that’s confirmation for me that the passion and the insight, the thoughts that I put into these records, is far beyond me.

To Pimp a Butterfly gave me a different type of fire to know that music is not about putting your lyrics and saying cool things on a record. It reaffirmed that what I do is not for Kendrick Lamar. It let me know that there’s people out there who go through real things and they want to hear this.”

The primary belief on “Alright” is that everything will work out in the end, despite whatever violence and discrimination life and/or the government sends your way. It’s a needed offering of hope in today’s turbulent times. The video takes the message a step further, ending with Lamar being shot by a white cop and then opening his eyes and smiling while lying on the ground, echoing the “We gon’ be alright” refrain.

Lamar additionally spends a lot of effort giving back to his Compton hometown and trying to improve local communities, including his Pay It Forward mentoring campaign, and even received the Generational Icon Award from the California State Senate in 2014. As the story arc from good kid, m.A.A.d. city made clear, his roots are never far from his heart.

However, Lamar has also become a symbol to the conservative right to attack as an embodiment of what they believe is wrong with hip-hop culture and those who exploit issues like police brutality. His 2015 BET Awards performance, where he performed “Alright” on top of a vandalized cop car, was specifically singled out as a target amid claims that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”

Lamar, understandably, was not pleased. “I thought it was a trip. I thought it was clickbait, because anybody that know me knows that I represent my people and the culture the right way. So to try and attack my character and make it an actual stunt, I wasn’t for it.” Two clips from Fox News show up on DAMN., including the Hulk Smashing “DNA.,” and Lamar directly addresses reporter Geraldo Rivera on “YAH.”

Fox News wanna use my name for percentage
My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’
See me on the TV and scream, “That’s Uncle Kendrick!”
Yeah, that’s the business
Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition

Lamar has never been one to mince words or shy away from making a political statement, and while nothing from DAMN. has generated as loud a national pushback of yet, it’s only a matter of time before something is set off again.

MAN OF FAITH.

Lamar was saved as a teenager in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less by a friend’s grandmother, who approached him after a different friend had been fatally shot. From that moment on faith has played an integral part in Lamar’s life, both as an artist and an individual. He frequently describes himself now as “God’s vessel.”

“We all spiritual beings, and that’s something I can never run from in music,” he told Lowe. “I’ve always felt like God’s used me as a vessel, whether to show my flaws, whether to show my intellect, to show my pain, to show my hurt, to share my stories, to share His message. All across the board, for me personally, that’s always been a vessel.”

But Lamar doesn’t express his faith like a traditional, Christian-industry approved artist. Buzzfeed delved into the topic in “The Radical Christianity of Kendrick Lamar,” coming to the conclusion that there is a balancing act Lamar straddles between salvation and transgression. As we’ll see a bit later, this dichotomy is a central tension in much of his music.

Lamar is undeniably well versed in Scripture, and allusions course through every album he’s made. Memorably, the narrative culmination on good kid, m.A.A.d city is the 12-minute-long “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” where the character’s grandmother (sound familiar?) leads a Sinner’s Prayer alter call. It’s as powerful a song as any in Lamar’s arsenal.

Apart from his lyrics, faith also fuels why Lamar has such a strong yearning for social justice and using his music to affect positive change in the community. After dressing up as Jesus for Halloween in 2014, which created a minor stir of its own, he offered The Fader a glimpse into where his drive comes from:

“If I want to idolize somebody, I’m not going to do a scary monster, I’m not gonna do another artist or a human being—I’m gonna idolize the master, who I feel is the master, and try to walk in his light. It’s hard, it’s something I probably could never do, but I’m gonna try. Not just with the outfit but with everyday life. The outfit is just the imagery, but what’s inside me will display longer.”

A spiritual prompting after good kid compelled Lamar to “take it to the next level—being underwater,” he told the New York Times in 2015. What’s appeared in his music since has been as anguishing a depiction of faith as any found in the Bible, positioned around a strong “walk through the valley” journey akin to the Psalms. To Pimp a Butterfly in particular is a dark record spiritually (more on that in a moment), and Lamar is unafraid to directly question God about its aftermath on “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.”

I swore I seen it vividly
A moniker of war from heaven that play the symphony
Thunder like number four, then I heard
“What have you did for me?”
I fell to my knees, pulled out my resume
That dated back to June 17th, 1987
My paperwork was like a receipt
I was valedictorian, I was fearful of judgment
But confident I had glory in all my past endeavors
Close my eyes, pray to God that I live forever
Dark skies, fire and brimstone, some of us sent home
Some of us never did wrong but still went to hell
Geez Louise, I thought you said that I excel
I made ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ for you
Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you
Say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for you
I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you
Who love you like I love you?
Crucifix, tell me you can fix
Anytime I need, I’mma start jotting everything in my diary
Never would you lie to me
Always camaraderie, I can see our days been numbered
Revelation greatest as we hearing the last trumpet
All man, child, woman, life completely went in reverse
I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church

The weighty discourse continues on DAMN. where Lamar compares himself to Job, who was famously tested by God like no man before or since. While he can claim “if God got us, then we gon’ be alright,” no false assurances are given of overnight transformations or fairness in this life.

Instead, his faith is a continuous grinding-out process meant to shape and sharpen at every turn. There is a distinct sense of right and wrong, and nobody will be granted amnesty from God’s coming final judgment. The phrase “What happens on Earth, stays on Earth,” repeated throughout, echoes Lamar’s certainty in an eternal reckoning.

MAN OF DOUBT.

As we’ve seen above, Lamar’s devotion extracts a harrowing price from his soul. The other lyric that shows up across DAMN. is “Ain’t nobody praying for me.” There’s an increased wavering that no matter how hard Lamar tries or what he does, maybe it will never be enough and he will always be alone.

In addition to being a meditation on race, To Pimp a Butterfly interweaves in a strong “dark night of the soul” element. While in the past Lamar spoke about the dangers of vices like alcoholism (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), now he succumbs to the bottle and brutally takes himself to task while contemplating suicide (“u”). He fails God’s test on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” struggles with survivor’s guilt on “Hood Politics,” and even though “i” is a positive embracing of self, “Mortal Man” ends as a question mark if Lamar will measure up to the greats of old like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Moses.

The poem that runs through Butterfly, adding additional lines every time it’s repeated, captures Lamar’s helplessness towards his spiritual battle and whether the new lessons he’s learned will make any discernable difference.

I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth, trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man
Maybe I’m just another nigga

DAMN. continues that line of questioning and is framed around the yin-yang of contradictory human emotions. On “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” Lamar wonders if his material lifestyle and arrogance will be the death of him, while “LUST.” and “LOVE.” tries to figure out which of the two is more existing in his own life. On “FEAR.,” he lays bare the insecurities his 27-year-old self has now that he is a star.

When I was 27, I grew accustomed to more fear
Accumulated 10 times over throughout the years
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
Scared to spend money, had me sleepin’ from hall to hall
Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin’
Thirty shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus
What is an advisor? Somebody that’s holdin’ my checks
Just to fuck me over and put my finances in debt?
I read a case about Rihanna’s accountant and wondered
How did the Bad Girl feel when she looked at them numbers?
The type of shit’ll make me flip out and just kill somethin’
Drill somethin’, get ill and fill ratchets with a lil’ somethin’
I practiced runnin’ from fear, guess I had some good luck
At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged
How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city
What they say ‘bout me reveal if my reputation would miss me
What they see from me would trickle down generations in time
What they hear from me would make ‘em highlight my simplest lines

Even though Lamar confesses the deepest fears he’s fought over the course of the song, the catharsis is short-lived and “FEAR.” concludes on a haunting decree of God’s condemnation: “Goddamn you / Goddamn me / Goddamn us / Goddamn we / Goddamn us all.” Lamar has lived long enough to he realize he can’t change the world without first changing himself, so he takes a mirror to his imperfections and tries to come to grips. More often than not, it would appear, he doesn’t like who is staring back.

There’s never an overbearing sense that Lamar’s dark side will win out, a future redemption will be found, but deep down the danger is real and forever lurking. It’s what makes his spiritual combat so human and relatable.

OLD TESTAMENT PROPHET.

Prophets in the Old Testament were ambassadors sent on God’s behalf to deliver warnings of a forthcoming wrath and judgment if Israel did not repent from its wicked ways. Since Lamar considers himself God’s vessel, one of his primary objectives is to magnify disobedience has consequences and will not go unpunished. He unpacked his philosophy in an email to DJ Booth:

“I went to a local church some time ago, and it appalled me that the same program was in practice. A program that I seen as a kid the few times I was in service. Praise, dance. Worship. (Which is beautiful.) Pastor spewing the idea of someone’s season is approaching. The idea of hope. So on and so forth.

“As a child, I always felt this Sermon had an emptiness about it. Kinda one sided, in what I felt in my heart. Fast forward. After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I’ve finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline. Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that’s close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected.

“Hence the concept ‘The wages of sin is Death.’ It shall be corrected. As a community, we was taught to pray for our mishaps, and he’ll forgive you. Yes, this is true. But he will also reprimand us as well. As a child, I can’t recall hearing this in service. Maybe leaders of the church knew it will run off churchgoers? No one wants to hear about karma from the decisions they make. It’s a hard truth. We want to hear about hope, salvation, and redemption. Though his son died for our sins, our free will to make whatever choice we want, still allows him to judge us.

“So in conclusion, I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”

This is genuinely surprising to hear in 2017, much less from someone who seemingly gets bigger with every fire and brimstone proclamation. As he alluded, it’s in direct opposition to what American Evangelicalism is known to preach, and makes for a sharp contrast to Chance the Rapper’s approach, the other popular religious rapper in the mainstream.

And Lamar is not done self-evaluating. In addition to referencing numerous Old Testament verses, including the oft-avoided Deuteronomy, on DAMN. he no longer identifies as black but as a Black Hebrew Israelite: “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’” (“YAH.”).

Carl Duckworth, Lamar’s cousin, expounds on the ideology in the outro of “FEAR.” In short, there is a subset of African-Americans who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites, God’s new chosen people, and have been bearing the brunt of His punishment in modern times for straying from His commandments. Whether that’s true or not is obviously up for debate, but it does raise eerie parallels and overlaps between the two groups.

Lamar also has a strong fixation on the end times, telling Billboard in 2015 he believes we are currently living in the last days. Outside of Revelations, the only other place in the Bible where apocalyptic imagery is concentrated is the Old Testament prophets, most notably in the second half of Daniel. It’s a favorite motif Lamar returns to, especially striking on “untitled 01,” and is peppered throughout DAMN. (“I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin.’”)

Lamar even includes a whopper of an Easter egg at the beginning of “FEAR.” If you reverse the audio where he talks backwards, Lamar sounds close to the prophet Isaiah foreshadowing the words of Christ on the cross, creating yet another prophetic parallel.

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
Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?
Earth is no more, won’t you burn this muh’fucka?

CONTRADICTION.

As someone who professes to being a Christian, Lamar indulges in language that seems to run counter to his faith. He is no stranger to profanity or sexually explicit imagery and disappointedly appears to have a blind spot with some of hip-hop’s worst tendencies, like its derogatory portrayal of women.

Whether he asked for it or not, Lamar is held to a higher standard because he’s regarded as a “conscious rapper,” a bar which admittedly is already low. As the recent feminist backlash against “HUMBLE.” revealed, it’s an expectation he has not always met. Lamar anticipated the criticism of a career rapping about “Sex, money, murder—our DNA” on Section.80, addressing the matter on “Ab-Soul’s Outro.”

See a lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes
God and history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I’ve spent 23 years on the Earth searching for answers
Till one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m not on the inside looking out
I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around
You ever seen a newborn baby kill a grown man?
That’s an analogy for the way the world make me react
My innocence been dead
So the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes
God and history all in the same sentence
Just know I meant it, and you felt it cause you too are searching for answers
I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper
I am a human mothafuckin’ being, over dope ass instrumentation
Kendrick Lamar

Lamar has always been one to carefully imbue his words with meaning. So much of the time when he’s talking about “money, hoes, clothes,” as he puts it, it’s not meant to be taken at face value and there are deeper implications in play. On “Backseat Freestyle,” the real Lamar isn’t literally praying for his “dick to get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.” It’s meant to illustrate the naïve braggadocio his character learned growing up in Compton. But what can linger is the glamorization taking place, intentional or not.

On “These Walls,” Lamar uses the “walls” of a woman’s vagina to double as the “walls” of a prison cell and the “walls” of his conscious in what Genius describes as an “allegory for a cycle of murder, lust, seduction, revenge and guilt.” Similarly, DAMN. is full of a push-pull between the excesses of Lamar’s sinful nature warring against his desire to live a righteous life, a constant since early songs like “Kush & Corinthians (His Pain).”

For example, Lamar’s most well-known verse probably remains “Control,” where as you’ll recall he says he is murdering the rap competition. But on DAMN., the struggle to keep a level head and not be boastful, despite all his recent success, wealth and praise, is now a prominent theme (“PRIDE.,” “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.”). Lamar also confesses he would kill the person responsible for murdering his hypothetical son instead of extending forgiveness (“XXX.”).

It’s a remarkable contrast to whom, by all accounts, Lamar is in real life—a soft-spoken individual with a small inner circle, who likes his personal life out of the celebrity limelight, who has been with the same woman since high school, and who gave up drinking, drugs and partying in his youth. Then again, Lamar has always shown the ability to flip his own shortcomings (“I am a sinner who’s probably going to sin again / Lord, forgive me”) into an examination on humanity and cultural excess.

“You need to hear that because I can’t sugarcoat the reality of what’s going on out here. I can’t sugarcoat the reality of my imperfections, period,” he told Lowe. “So when you hear certain things and certain things you may not like, you may have discomfort from. It’s out of my hands. These words, they’re not just made-up words. When I say I sit and I live with them, I really zone into them. These are ideas that are coming way beyond me.”

However, there is a difference between calling attention to an idea or attitude that is wrong and reinforcing those situations by partaking in the same language and behaviors. There’s a fine line between being in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said in John 17. To be fair, Lamar has always been open about his limitations, and his raw honesty on records exposes those imperfections like we’re hearing him work out his diary in real time. But it remains a murky area.

ATHLETE.

Hip-hop and sports have been entwined from the outset. “Rapper’s Delight” is generally recognized as the song that initially introduced rap to a worldwide audience in 1979, and on it Big Bank Hank raps about the Knicks and Rucker Park. Rappers have compared themselves to athletes ever since, usually NBA players, and Lamar is nothing new in that regard, recently to His Airness himself, Michael Jordan (“FEEL.”), and Russell Westbrook (“The Heart Part 4”).

The comparison is apt in a couple ways. The Ringer argued last month Lamar has moved beyond being “lyrical” into something best described as “athletic.” When you envision the times Lamar can breathlessly turn his flow on a dime into a completely opposite direction, it resembles a filthy Kyrie crossover more than anything else. Or how LeBron and the Cavs thrashing the Celtics by 44 points in the East Finals feels similar to DAMN.’s release week.

Even Lamar, when describing what he loves about writing, uses athletic imagery. “I just love words,” he said to Lowe. “I love how to bend them. I love how to break them. I love how to twist them, turn them, make them in couplets. You can manipulate it and that shows the true craft. Taking things that don’t necessarily rhyme, how to take this couplet and make it a double entendre at the end. It’s all acrobatics, and that excites me.”

Lamar has added a fresh wrinkle lately by turning those verbal agilities into a physical manifestation. Lamar’s persona on DAMN. is Kung Fu Kenny, named after Don Cheadle’s character in Rush Hour 2, and it’s carried over into his live performances. ‘70s-style Kung Fu videos were interspersed in his Coachella set, showing Lamar training and fighting as Kenny. During “PRIDE.” he even impressively held his body parallel to the ground as if levitating, just like an actual acrobat.

Lamar also shares a similar mindset to a high-performance athlete. An insatiable will dominates to always challenge yourself, always strive for greatness each time out, always want to beat the best and always quick to defend your crown, which comes from a deep respect for the game and its history. Jordan, Kobe and LeBron have it, and each won multiple world championships as a result. Lamar has the disposition running through his veins as well and aspires to be on that same pedestal.

HISTORIAN.

Lamar is never going to be the type of trendsetter someone like Kanye is, obsessed with innovation and conquering untouched heights. Lamar still wields influence, obviously, which last year showed up on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and David Bowie’s Blackstar, but that’s not his M.O., and probably never will be. Instead, Lamar tries to reshape sounds of the past in his own image.

good kid, m.A.A.d city is Lamar’s version of West Coast ‘90s gangsta rap that was often centered around Compton. Uncoincidentally, it’s where the album takes place, and local legend Dr. Dre serves as an executive producer. To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered. have more in common with free jazz and ‘70s funk than anything on the airwaves in at least a generation, with Lamar wearing the inspiration on his sleeve on the Isley Brothers-sampling “i.”

DAMN. is as straightforward and modern sounding as anything Lamar has done, but even then he avoids current trends like mumble rap and trap in favor of a more timeless core. That’s usually what he uses features for, like Maroon 5’s tropical house attempt “Don’t Wanna Know,” to varying degrees of success. By incorporating call-outs from legendary DJ Kid Capri on several tracks, Lamar makes DAMN. almost feel like a lost underground mixtape from 20 years ago.

The majority of Lamar’s main influences—Tupac, Ice Cube, Jay Z, Eminem—reside more in the past than the present, which is what he grew up listening to. Tupac especially is the figure Lamar looks up to and resembles most. He “interviews” Tupac at the end of To Pimp a Butterfly and references him on DAMN., admitting Tupac’s spirit will always live in his music.

“From physically seeing him, to hearing him on record, to him applying himself in the community and actually being around right there with us, is something I hold dear,” he said in the Apple Music interview. “It will always be in the back of my head to never forget that. No matter how big the hit record gets, no matter how big the album gets, I will always have that compassion. That’s why his memory and his legacy in my music will never leave.”

Lamar isn’t so much threatened by anybody in today’s rap world as he is trying to live up to the legacies of legends, what he considers to be his true measuring stick.

As seen across these 10 faces, Kendrick Lamar is a riveting figure whether you separate his words from the music or not. With almost everything he creates, he’s thinking from multiple angles and trying to infuse multiple interpretations. This is how he summed up DAMN. to Zane Lowe:

“It’s an album about my own self-discipline. That’s my favorite word this past year, discipline, obedience and how to control your own emotions. And how to even speak that truth on a record to expose yourself even more, to have that closer connection to another human and have them relate to it. It’s not easy telling your truths and things that you fear from when you were 7 to 17 and even a couple years ago.

“But I know that at the end of the day, the music’s not for me. It’s for somebody else that’s going through a fucked up day to listen to and progress in their lives. That’s the reason why I always choose to have that dynamic when approaching it, to be selfless in the whole situation.”

It’s rare to hear a person of Lamar’s stature speak about discipline and selflessness in such terms, no matter genre or craft. But as we’ve discovered, Lamar fits in no standard box. He’s riding an unbelievable hot streak, off to about as strong a career start as any artist, not just rapper, has ever enjoyed. And at 29 years old he has somehow avoided making a major misstep thus far, a handful of guest appearances withstanding.

The music is largely not made for instant consumption, a common complaint even from his fan base, but lends to being picked apart and wrestled with in finer detail than perhaps any other 21st century artist. What he seems to desire most is to transcend music entirely.

“What are we doing it for? This is culture. This is not something you just play with, get a few dollars and get out. People live their lives to this music, period. My partners in the hood listen to rap every day because it’s the only thing that can relate to their stories and their tribulations. They live and breathe it. You can’t play with this. You have to take in consideration what you write down on that paper. If you’re not doing it to say the most impactful shit or doing it to be the best you can be for the listener to live their daily lives, then what are we doing here?”

So is Kendrick Lamar a poet and storyteller, a man gifted with the ability to bend words to his will? Is he a social activist out to change the world? Is he a man of faith and vessel of God, or are his inner demons and struggles too powerful to overcome? Is he a contradiction in what he says and how he acts, ultimately doing more harm than good? Or maybe he is someone who has been caught up in the hype machine the whole time and we’ll look back on this as a wasted exercise.

Ontology is a fancy, academic word for the “nature of being,” or something having its own existence separate from its creator, and Kendrick Lamar’s music is very ontological. Therefore we could try to let the man speak for himself and the music speak for itself. That sounds like a start.

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist

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