DAMN. and the Black and Catholic vision of redemption, part II

DAMN. and the Black and Catholic vision of redemption, part II

I, like many, am struggling with reckoning with the world and with the Church in the wake of another round of unnecessary death in America. For a long time, I've loved Kendrick for both his other-worldly artistry and for his religious vision. I am finally writing out my thoughts on his work to cope with the world.

If you end up reading this and you are coming from mainstream Christianity or Catholicism and don't typically listen to rap, I suggest starting by listening to the album in its completeness and following along with the annottated lyrics on Genius. Don't attempt it if you aren't willing to commit to at least two listens. After that, read part I. Then dig in.

"ELEMENT." and "FEEL.": highs and lows of live divorced from the Other

"YAH.", the previous track, highlighted a feint-hearted acknowledgement of God. In "ELEMENT." and in "FEEL.", Kung-Fu Kenny[1] truly pulls a Sebastian and pays no attention to it, instead seeking to satiate his own innate desires for God by his own merits. In "ELEMENT.", the Kid Capri intro says: "Y'all know, what happens on Earth stays on Earth". It is, shortly thereafter, broken by Kendrick's own voice:

I don't give a fuck, I don't give a fuck
I don't give a, I don't give a, I don't give a fuck

This is a song characterized by nearly every single stanza either using exclusively first-person pronouns, "I" or "we", or insulting the shit out of Kenny's competition for the throne as the next King of Rap. Some falsely argue that this is what all rap is (it is not), but on this track, Kendrick does what he does best: he takes an ironic song about doing life wrong and making it a radio hit, an invitation into his greater tale of conversion. And this is a gaudy one, only for a second recognizing the emptiness of this life:

'Cause most of y'all ain't real, most of y'all gon' squeal
Most of y'all just envy, but jealousy get you killed
Most of y'all throw rocks and try to hide your hand

But, alas, it doesn't last, and he goes on, only to collapse into "FEEL."

In "FEEL.", the vibe is completely reversed, but one motif stays the same: the first person. "Ain't nobody prayin' for me", he starts the track, and again, Kendrick uses "I" or "me" in every single line of the song through the first half of the second verse. This is Kenny depressed, lost, Godless. No longer even "we", but perfectly alone.

Kendrick doesn't spare social commentary in the doldrums, though, but brings their hopelessness to the surface:

Feelin' of fallin', of fallin' apart with
Darkest hours, lost it
Fillin' the void of bein' employed with ballin'
Streets is talkin', fill in the blanks with coffins
Fill up the banks with dollars
Fill up the graves with fathers
Fill up the babies with bullshit
Internet blogs and pulpit, fill 'em with gossip
I feel like this gotta be the feelin' where 'Pac was
The feelin' of an apocalypse happenin'
But nothin' is awkward, the feelin' won't prosper
The feelin' is toxic, I feel like I'm boxin' demons
Monsters, false prophets schemin'

Kendrick doesn't pull punches; he spares neither society nor a hypocritical Church. Nor, does he have an answer. With an eye to history, especially that being made today, this resonates. But in the track, Kenny has no answers. He cannot make an answer for himself, no matter how much he wants to. Kendrick, an artist whose vocal range and signature use of voice-as-character reaches the most despondent he's been on record in the outro:

Ain't nobody prayin' for me
Who prayin' for me?
Ain't nobody prayin'

"LOYALTY.": the transcendental Good

A lesser artist than Kendrick might have used Deus ex Machina here, but, for Kendrick, as most of us, recovery from spiritual desolation is not borne from grand spiritual gestures from on high, but an encounter with a lesser good. For Kenny, it comes with another radio banger and collaboration with Rihanna. In the song, Kenny discovers self-sacrifice, and a virtuous loyalty, albeit one that is only indirectly oriented to the divine: a love interest.

The same Kendrick that wrote two tracks back about his rightful heirdom to the rap throne throws himself under the bus, when in verse 5, Rihanna's character is uninterested in him, questioning his loyalty:

Tell me who you loyal to
Do it start with your woman or your man?
Do it end with your family and friends?
Are you loyal to yourself in advance?
I said, tell me who you loyal to
Is it anybody that you would lie for?
Anybody you would slide for?
Anybody you would die for?

Kendrick, taking the mic away from Rihanna answers, in a lyric that feels more absentminded than intentional:

That's what God for

With that, another twitch on the thread, and the hook, changing voices, takes on new meaning, and for the first time Kendrick's voice takes a divine air:

Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty
10-4, no switchin' sides
Feel somethin' wrong
You actin' shifty, you don't ride
With me no more, I need
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty

He floats back to Earth and sings the outro, trading lines with Rihanna:

It's so hard to be humble
It's so hard to be
Lord knows I'm tryin'
Lord knows I'm dyin', baby

If it's not clear already, he will fail in this struggle, just like Waugh's Sebastian.

"PRIDE.": the confession

The failed relationship of "LOYALTY." gives way to "PRIDE.", a track of pure self-reflection begins Kendrick's rise toward redemption:

See, in a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches
I'll choose work over bitches, I'll make schools out of prison
I'll take all the religions and put 'em all in one service
Just to tell 'em we ain't shit, but He's been perfect, world

This is one that should just be listened to; the music, the melody say more than it's really worth punching into a blog.

"HUMBLE.", or a garbage attempt at humility

My wife hated this track when it first came out. It was and remains a banger, and immeadiately ripped through the charts. She listened to it, and didn't like that it was espousing, uh, the literal exact opposite of humility. I was like, "nah, it's a banger, and it's ironic." I was glad to be redeemed after multiple listens finally getting the point. I won't lie though, at first I was worried she was right. Nonetheless, in "HUMBLE.", Kenny is 100% backsliding; he's missing the point of his confession in the last track entirely. And the song that espouses his failure absolutely bops. He does that.

Continues in part III.

  1. as previously, I'll use Kung-Fu Kenny- Kenny for short- to denote the fictional version of Kendrick that narrates most of the album. Kendrick's full name, then, will refer to Kendrick the man, as the author of the piece. ↩︎