To the afterlife and back: How America killed Kendrick on ‘DAMN.’
I love music, and when an album with as much music packed into it as “DAMN.” I can’t help but overanalyze everything in it. “DAMN.”—in addition to the quality of the music itself (which is amazing)—is so full of symbolism and metaphor that each song could have an entire paper written about it. I’ll summarize my thoughts on the symbolism in the album and the story that Kendrick Lamar paints through his music in “DAMN.,” but everything from here on out is pure speculation.
“DAMN”. begins with Kendrick meeting a blind woman on the street looking for something, and he asks if he can help her find what she’s lost. She then shoots and kills him. In this story, the blind woman likely is a representation of Lady Justice, who is often depicted with a blindfold. Kendrick is therefore killed by justice, specifically the warped justice system in this country.
After his death, he begins a journey of sorts through the afterlife. As a Christian, Kendrick’s journey through the afterlife is heavily influenced by Christian scripture and, in my opinion, the “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri. The songs in “DAMN.” are divided roughly into two themes, with the song “XXX.” acting as a transition between the two themes. Where some songs have a classic hip-hop beat, others have a more psychedelic beat, but in “XXX.,” both types of beats collide in a sort of interference.
Along with the two kinds of beats in his songs, Kendrick explores the duality of man. His songs come in pairs; there are the obvious ones like “LOVE.” and “LUST.” and “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” but there are other more subtle pairing of his songs such as “FEAR.” and “FEEL.” and “LOYALTY.” and “XXX..” In each of these pairs, the two songs deal with similar topics through different points of views. These pairs represent him confronting events and ideas in his life: The first song represents his life to date and the second represents his struggle to confront and move past the first of each pair.
“FEAR.” is one song that is greater in significance than its partner. “FEAR.” is, in my opinion, the center of “DAMN..” In “FEAR.,” Kendrick confronts everything in the album up to that point, and the song references every other track in the album preceding it. In confronting everything, Kendrick can finally move past the trauma of his death and all of the baggage of his life. He even states in the song, “Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth/And I can’t take these feelings with me/So hopefully they disperse/Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax.” Once he confronts, and is able to move past, everything, he is able to escape from the afterlife. The next song is “GOD.,” and while he doesn’t necessarily meet with God in the song itself, he describes himself feeling like God. What he means is that he has transcended his fear and everything from the world that he brought with him.
The final song is the album is “DUCKWORTH.,” which is Kendrick’s actual last name. “DUCKWORTH.” deals with the coincidence that led to Kendrick becoming a rapper. The final lines say “Because if Anthony killed Ducky/Top Dawg could be servin’ life/While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” After the word “gunfight,” a gunshot sounds off, followed by the entire album in reverse and sped up. The album ends with the line, “So I was taking a walk the other day,” which is also the first line Kendrick says in the album. “DUCKWORTH.” is all about Kendrick seeing his own life as a product of other factors. In this song, he lets go of everything that he still has with him. In the moment after he lets go, the gunshot sounds and he begins falling back to earth, returning to the critical moment that ended his life.
“DAMN.” is the story of a journey through the afterlife, and although it doesn’t take place on Earth, it is filled with commentary on the state of the world, specifically of the U.S.. Kendrick paints with metaphor and creates a world where each song can tell its own story with its own message. All in all, “DAMN.” is one of the best written albums that I have had the pleasure of listening to.