Douglas Martin can’t fake humble because your ass is insecure.
How much prayer is required to lead a happy, stress-free life? There were many nights of my youth spent kneeling by the bed trying to honor the words of my maternal grandmother. Praying for my salvation from a clamorous and desolate environment, praying for God to forgive the sins of others, praying for world peace, praying for a deacon’s wife who slipped on ice checking the mail and broke her ankle. To serve all the people in the world who could use prayer could take up a full night of sleep. My grandmother once told me very ruefully that God knows when you don’t pray every night and when you don’t make your praying time count.
On DAMN., Kendrick Lamar—regardless of who likes it or not, assuredly the most prominent authorial voice in hip-hop music today—struggles with whether or not anybody is out there praying for him. He has a chip on his shoulder, the pressure of his status and all his experiences are weighing him down. Both of his grandmas are dead. Like the series of voicemails from his mother asking after her minivan on good kid, M.A.A.D. city, DAMN. is centered around a family member’s voice on the other side of the phone’s receiver. His cousin Carl calmly breaks down the toll being taken on him with a verse from scripture, Deuteronomy 28:28, to be exact.
The verse from the Old Testament carries a stark similarity to the first verse of “FEAR.,” where Kendrick adopts the voice of his stressed out mother, from a time long before he’d be tall enough to reach the pedals of that storied minivan. Some of the threats of discipline from his mother (“Better not hear about you humping on Keisha’s daughter, better not hear you got caught up, I’ll beat yo’ ass / You better not run to your father, I’ll beat yo’ ass”) are starkly reminiscent of the words of God filling the parts of the Bible before Jesus turned water to wine and hung out with hookers (“This and this and this is a sin, I’ll beat yo’ ass”).
Even those with intermediate knowledge of Kendrick Lamar’s music know religion is a thread which weaves through his catalog; good kid, M.A.A.D. city opens with, you guessed it, a prayer. Don’t be surprised if “what happens on Earth, stays on earth” becomes the slogan of your local hipster church. On “FEEL.,” Kendrick’s lament of not hearing a voice in prayer to help save him finds him suffocated, until the tension builds in his bones and releases in his voice: “I can feel it, the screams that haunt our logic!” As I mentioned in the inclusion of “Alright” on Passion’s Best Songs of 2015 list, Kendrick has always been at his best when putting himself at the forefront of the tumult reflected in his music. “FEEL.” is a laundry list of grievances underscored by the one providing the thematic weight of this album, how that lack of prayer for him extends itself to all the anxieties swirling around the song and, by proxy, his mind.
While a lot of Kendrick’s work is made a little disposable by him circling a point several times in red Sharpie (“Lucy is a metaphor! See how smart I am?”), one of the more impressive things about DAMN. is his willingness to trust the intelligence of his listeners, like when he runs the chorus of “DNA.” (as in “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”) over the audio of Geraldo Rivera’s laughable decry of hip-hop as more detrimental to young black people than racism. Through his back-and-forth with Geraldo, so-called beef with you-know-who (only referenced on DAMN. through the conduit of generic sneak-disses), and Top Dawg origin narratives, Kendrick adds to his ostensibly growing self-mythology without riding any of its points too hard. The smartest people know better than to strike their intelligence with a brightly colored highlighter; they let their brilliance speak for itself.
“FEAR.” chronicles three significant points in the life of young Kendrick Lamar, in childhood (age 7), in adolescence (age 17), and in young adulthood (age 27/28). On the second verse, Kendrick rifles through all the ways he could lose his life being seventeen in Compton, getting his bones broken on concrete by police or breaking up a fight between his friends. I think sometimes people feel young black men coming up in rough neighborhoods expressing astonished relief from making it to age 25 is just rap music gimmickry, but I don’t and shouldn’t expect people who didn’t come up in those environs to understand the discipline it takes to stay alive in the face of gang violence and police brutality, in the mouth of an unforgiving monster made of concrete and chrome. But when you’ve been through it and you hear it, you know when it’s real.
On the third verse of “FEAR.,” Kendrick feels the dull stinging of anxiety over his career, his fear of all his success being revoked (“Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin’/Thirty shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus”), befalling the same fate of his friend Rihanna at the hand of a dirty accountant (“How did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers?”), and ultimately, the judgement of others. Sometimes it feels as though there are few weights heavier than the words of others, what they say about you when you’re not around.
The beginning of “FEAR.” signals a question levied at this higher power continually alluded to: “Why God, why God, do I have to suffer?” But isn’t Kendrick Lamar blessed? Doesn’t he have the gift of LeBron James hassling Top Dawg for as much of Lamar’s music as he can get his hands on? Wasn’t To Pimp a Butterfly “a superlative excursion of a century of black music,” or whatever (mostly white) music critics said about it when lavishing praise upon its supposed genius? Why does he need prayer?
As a comfortable agnostic, I cannot speak on what security prayer provides or if it truly yields results. Maybe to say “I’m praying for you,” is to say “I’m thinking of you, I’m actively casting energy out there to help you find peace of mind.” With all the stress zinging through his mind—about where he’s come from, about where he hopes to go, about where he is as a black man in an America no less hostile to us—maybe the thought of someone wishing peace of mind for him is enough.