NPR

The Prophetic Struggle Of Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'

With faith and fate hanging in the balance, the most celebrated album of the year dares us to grapple with the politics of personal responsibility in America. But is anybody really listening?
Source: Rich Fury, Kevin Winter (2)

"Do you pray at all?"

It may as well have come in all caps, the way it landed like an accusation instead of a question. It wasn't the first time I'd received a text from my mother dripping with good ole Christian guilt. The only sin greater than letting God down is allowing your parents to find out your faith walk is no longer patterned after their footsteps.

Her text wasn't about Kendrick Lamar's album, DAMN., per se, but without knowing it she'd just triggered an existential debate I'd been having with myself since its April release. I was in the middle of laying down some definitive thoughts about the LP when the realization hit me. Just like her nagging text, the Compton MC had spent the better half of a year forcing me to reckon with my doubts about the wrath of God.

I've developed a love-hate relationship with DAMN. In some ways I suspect this is the response Lamar set out to provoke. I imagine I'm not alone. In order to have your LP debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart — then remain in the top 10 for more than 25 consecutive weeks, while racking up double-platinum sales and seven Grammy nominations to boot — all of God's children, or a close approximation, must be listening hard.

Between its chart-topping success and cultural dominance, DAMN. is easily the most celebrated album of the year. It snatched the top spot on NPR Music's list of the best albums of the year by a long shot. It's clearly made for such a time as this — one in which politics and personal accountability are colliding with unprecedented force. The question is whether or not we're grappling with DAMN. -- and being convicted by it — like Lamar no doubt intended.

This is an album that requires much of faithful listeners. It suggests even more about his relationship with his audience, and the ways in which he envisions himself as a prophet more than a pop star. Like a lot of fans, I've found myself meditating's verses like scripture, dissecting the text forward and backward in search of holy discernment. Lord knows I'm no biblical scholar. Hell, I can't remember the last time I set foot inside a church. (Trust, my mother reminds me of this often.) But Lamar's magnanimous LP has me wrestling with the nature of my supposed cursed existence as a black man in the bowels of Babylon — and the ways in which I may be complicit in it.

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