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Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t

A lot has happened since Donald Trump became president. Aside from some questionable political decisions, much of the controversy has not actually been about what Trump has done, but rather what kind of response he’s garnered. It’s almost as if everyone was waiting to pounce on the opportunity to state their political philosophy over and over again, and some guy with a strange inflection and orange hair said “Go!” The combination of his bombastic personality and the growing dependence on social media has led to a kind of mass hysteria: everyone has to have their own grand opinion of what is wrong with the world and how to fix it.

Besides providing some heated dinner-table debates and drawn out Facebook comments on news articles and videos, the past few months can be simplified as a constant chatter that shows no signs of slowing down. The question that might arise from looking at this moment from afar may be, what is everyone actually trying to do? Few debaters give a satisfying answer, but you’ll usually hear “we need to implement this” or “everyone needs to be aware of so and so” so we can all achieve happiness, stability or whatever else you want to call it. In many ways, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), predicted this moment perfectly, as it remained uncomfortably political and took listeners through the most unpleasant realities of North American life. It was energetic and exasperating: a dense masterpiece that bombarded listeners with open-ended questions of where we are now.

Kendrick’s latest album, Damn can be seen as a response Kendrick gives himself, and may be his own take on today’s hysteria. From just a quick glance at the cover art, it becomes apparent that something’s different. We see a disheveled Kendrick, his hair grown out looking blank with the bold letters “Damn” above him, almost as if he’s too overwhelmed to say anything else. If TPAB was a methodical political commentary, Damn is its alter-ego, an assortment of fleeting emotions, going nowhere.

Hearing this album is a particularly scary experience when it becomes clear how jaded Kendrick sounds. His poise and older-brother-like authority are no longer there and a man who has guided millions of millennials for the past 6 years sounds like he himself is giving up. Moments of confidence are overshadowed by insecurity and self-loathing, as Kendrick focuses his attention inwardly and explores his deeper self.

Confronting Kendrick’s uncertainty is a revelation to listeners that’s similar to when you beat your dad in a sport or notice you’re giving your mom life advice. It’s the realization that growing up might not actually be about learning how to live, but instead consists of pretending to know what’s going on and a game of “I can pretend to know what’s going on better than you!” It’s also a game that Kendrick doesn’t want to play anymore.

Each song’s title is one word, many of which are core human feelings, while others simply encapsulate the track’s greater meaning. Throughout the album, Kendrick juxtaposes different emotions, as “PRIDE.” precedes “HUMBLE.” and “LOVE.” comes after “LUST.,” but at times these words delve deeper than what’s on the surface. On “PRIDE.” for example, Kendrick sounds particularly insecure, while “HUMBLE.” is almost humorously arrogant. These shifts of meanings may be Kendrick’s way of showing the hidden connection between feelings we often consider polar opposites, namely that pride is often expressed to overcompensate feeling insecure, while those who are humble don’t need to go around proving their worth to others.

After asking the unsettling question “are we going to live or die?” which can be roughly translated as, “throughout all that’s wrong with the world, are we going to be okay?” in the intro, the next 50 minutes remain contemplative of both possibilities.

As Kendrick’s done before, Damn is littered with religious imagery. In fact, in one of the more striking moments on the album, we hear Kendrick’s cousin ranting in what sounds like a voicemail, comparing minorities to the ancient Israelites who received God’s Commandments in the desert and are now being punished for moral transgressions. While many secular-minded listeners may disregard any talk of God as nonsense, it would be a mistake to think Kendrick’s simply telling us we’re suffering for not being religious enough.

If taken symbolically, we may interpret God’s punishment as self-inflicted wounds from being dishonest to ourselves. Throughout Kendrick’s assertions in Damn, there is often a sense of guilt and self-doubt in his words. On “PRIDE.” he questions his own hidden motives for seeking social change: “seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays,” while on “FEAR.” he comes to terms with the sinister side of catering to the needs of a faceless audience: “the shock value of my success puts bolts in me/all this money, is God playing a joke on me?” From this perspective, Kendrick’s greatest threat is not what’s wrong around him, but his own guilt for deceiving listeners to think he’s capable of leading them. If we take this message seriously, some self-reflection may show us that we do the same thing, specifically that our opinion of what’s wrong and how to fix it might just be another way of playing the competitive game of “my opinion is better than yours,” but nothing else beyond that. While it always might be more convenient to point the finger, Kendrick reminds us that denying our flawed selves may really be what’s contributing to the mess in the first place.

The sentiments of Damn may leave listeners in a catch-22: if our efforts to change the world for the better are in vain, is ignoring it any better? Although seemingly bleak, Damn seems to offer a third option. The album as a whole espouses the socratic notion of wisdom coming from knowing that one doesn’t know anything, and after years of societal stagnation Kendrick knows better than to pretend to know what’s best. To put it bluntly, we might be overlooking the obvious question of how to expect to help anything if we can’t help ourselves.

Damn may be Kendrick warning listeners that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” or as one philosopher put it more eloquently, “It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.” Introspection may do little to change what we see is wrong around us, but sitting with uncertainty is better than pretending it isn’t there.

Just someone who likes writing about the philosophy of music and the music of philosophy.

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