Review: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN | Tanmay Raj Anand

A few days ago Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino released his track “This is America” highlighting problems of racism that Black Americans bear the brunt of. The video made waves all across the world with the numerous symbolisms it projected. Another song that so vocally spoke against gun violence especially against the blacks is XXX. Kendrick Lamar no doubt made his name when his album good kid, m.A.A.d city came out in 2012 and has since then risen to fame, winning the best Rap Album 2017 at the Grammy’s for DAMN, and then becoming the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music 2018 again for DAMN. The Rolling Stone magazine hailed him as “The Greatest Rapper Alive” on their August 24, 2017 issue cover.


In an interview with Zane Lowe, Kendrick Lamar spoke about XXX (pronounced ‘X-Rated’), and how it represents the idea of complete chaos or organized chaos and madness and how we deal with that madness.

XXX features a sample from ‘American Soul’ by legendary Irish rock band U2 with Bono  featuring in the chorus.

The impeccable lyricism(which is Kendrick’s signature style) in XXX describes beautifully a situation where his friend’s son has been shot and the friend has called Lamar for help.

The song begins with:

Kid Capri and Bekon:

America, God bless you if it’s good to you
America please take my hand
Can you help me underst-


These lines highlight the ideal of the “American Dream” which is the idea that the U.S. Constitution protects every American citizen. Kendrick believes that the reality is still not close what these lines represent. There are many problems and impediments that different groups of people be it the blacks, Hispanics, or the immigrants face in the country and the understanding of these problems is not complete yet and that’s why the word understand has been broken off in the lyrics.


Throw a steak off the ark
To a pool full of sharks, he’ll take it
Leave him in the wilderness
With a sworn nemesis, he’ll make it
Take the gratitude from him
I bet he’ll show you somethin’, whoa
I’ll chip a nigga little bit of nothin’
I’ll chip a nigga little bit of nothin’
I’ll chip a nigga little bit of nothin’
I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”

Johnny don’t wanna go to school no mo’, no mo’
Johnny said books ain’t cool no mo’ (no mo’)
Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin
Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin’
God bless America, you know we all love him


The first four lines here signify the violent and poverty-stricken atmosphere in which young black men are raised and they are compared to sharks.

Chip means “to kill” and blower means a “gun”. The person that Kendrick describes has no regard for human life and adopts a very cavalier attitude after taking the life of a black person signified by the line; Walk myself to the court like “Bitch, I did that!” The gun control controversy is also symbolized by“…throw the blower in his lap…” parallel to the way Childish Gambino hands over his gun to a man who carefully takes it away.

The last five lines employ deep symbolism to take a dig on U.S. media that shows black youth excelling at hip-hop and sports and thus tries to distract black children from studies. Kendrick has used “Johnny” as a symbol multiple times before in many of his songs, which is also the name in slogan that the U.S. Army employed to attract the youth to enlist.


Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk
Talkin’ out his head, philosphin’ on what the Lord had done
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?
It’s been a fucked up day for me
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”
He was lookin’ for some closure
Hopin’ I could bring him closer
To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch

I’ll wait in front a niggas spot and watch him hit his block
I’ll catch a nigga leavin’ service if that’s all I got
I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial


Kendrick starts rapping with utmost ferocity in this verse about how a friend’s son has been shot and he gets a call from him. In the background sirens play and give this sense of urgency perfectly matching with the violent scene depicted by the lyrics. This interplay of music and words to create a grim picture of ruthless violence and the hurt that people feel is beyond doubt Lamar at his best.

The friend reveres Kendrick as pointed out by “I know that you anointed show me how to overcome”and asks “K.Dot” (Kendrick’s former stage name) to pray for him.

Lamar suggests that he (the friend) should take revenge and asks him what he’s willing to do for loyalty and love (titles of two other tracks in DAMN), he emphasizes that memories of loved ones whoare lost will continue to haunt and despite being a believer of non-violence, Kendrick speaks about revenge. This highlights how the justice system is failing the people especially the blacks and the government is failing to put in place the correct measures to aid the people, and how disparity and discrimination are widening. Poverty and violence have been a constant topic in Lamar’s tracks and he is disappointed with how things still haven’t changed including in his hometown Compton that serves as the backdrop for a lot of his songs.

“Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward”: Perhaps one of the strongest lines in the song, Kendrick signifies the fact that the Blacks Rights Movement and Black Power are meaningless when incidents of blacks being shot by blacks come to light. In good kid, m.A.A.d city Lamar talks about “Pirus” and “Crips”, which are two rival gangs in the West Coast whose members are predominantly blacks. They are involved in a lot of criminal activities and were present in Compton. Kendrick had been a witness to many criminal activities including a murder as a child.

“Ghetto bird” means a helicopter used by the cops to surveil an area or to spot crime, which will be in the air because of the increasing amount of violence and “paramedics on the dial” i.e. lives are being lost in the streets.


Let somebody touch my mama
Touch my sister, touch my woman
Touch my daddy, touch my niece
Touch my nephew, touch my brother

You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Matter fact, I’m ’bout to speak at this convention
Call you back-

Alright, kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control
(Pray for me) Damn!

The first four lines indicate the passion with which Lamar is protective about his family and how he is willing to kill anyone who would hurt them.

The next lines explicitly point out the hypocrisy in Lamar’s words as in the previous verse he supported murderous revenge but now at a convention he’s going to talk to kids about gun control. This lyrical expression of hypocrisy is inherent in many of Lamar’s songs, a great example of which is “The Blacker the Berry” from his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015). In this song he grieved over the death of Trayvon Martin despite having shot a black man many years ago when he was involved with gangs. Kendrick thus questions his ability to be a role model for his community asks his people to pray for him.

It’s not a place

This country is to be a sound of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

The chorus by Bono is open-ended and has no direct literal interpretation. The last line depicts the paradox of looking at eh world with closed eyes.


Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag
Is wrapped in drag with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!
It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets
Wall Street, corporate offices
Banks, employees, and bosses with
Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?
Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood
Then bash him in, you Crippin’ or you married to blood?
I’ll ask again-oops-accident
It’s nasty when you set us up
Then roll the dice, then bet us up
You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us
Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does

Kendrick uses the Hail Mary prayer as a religious motif to absolve all Christians from their sins. ‘Hail Mary’ is also a very popular song by hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur that talks about revenge on the faulty justice system of America. Lamar calls Tupac to be the greatest rapper ever along with Jay-Z and Eminem.

Lamar follows up with how America acts a beacon of democracy and a model country, but to fulfill its interests it is willing to wage war against any nation. He says this has become an attitude of Americans, and is passed along to their “sons and daughters”. “Barricaded blocks and borders”, refers to the wall that Donald Trump promised to build along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigrants, continuing the idea of aggressive strategy employed by the America (although this was more of Trump’s twisted vanity to gain political mileage in an atmosphere of growing resentment against immigrants and refugees.)

He talks about people in power especially in finance and corporations that don’t literally have “homicidal thoughts”, but rather the tactics employed by them to strip the common men and women of their resources or to enslave people in a consumerist circle to propagate their capitalist agendas. Murder acts as a metaphor for how badly we have begun treating one another.

Donald Trump’s in office now, and we Kendrick feels we have to deal with it. Over a few lyrics that Lamar talks about Trump, he believes that he doesn’t need to speak more of him in his songs, but rather act; in his community and to bring about a change by changing oneself, which is the whole idea of DAMN as a complete album.

They now realize how important and better was Barack Obama for the Black Community and the country as a whole. Kendrick also shares a personal relationship with Obama, with the latter naming Kendrick’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” from his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” to be his favorite song of 2015. Obama also invited Lamar in 2016 at the White House.

obam lamar
Obama and Lamar at the White House in 2016.

Then he asks a philosophical question again: whether we’re honest or “do we bask in sin?” He then proceeds to take a shot of gin and mixes it with the American blood, which is a euphemism for assaulting someone. Alcohol and violence are symbols of sins and thus these lines present the irony of Kendrick holding to his values dear but acting the contrary.

“…you Crippin’ or you married to Blood?”: Crippin’ is a reference to the Crips and Blood is a reference to the Pirus (who wear the color red). In this line he’s asking where does the person’s loyalty lie. The rival gangs have been controlling the West Coast crime and the line “oops-accident”, where Kendrick stops his verse for a second, gives the aural sense of the occurrence of another major crime such as a murder.

The following lines in Kendrick’s last line couldn’t have been better described in the following words:

“Kendrick calls out the hypocrisy of American politicians and the media, stating that they like to portray African-Americans as “violent gang members” or “terrorists,” even though the government “overnights” or ships the weapons and drugs to the African-American communities. This criticism isn’t new for Kendrick—he previously blamed the government for the proliferation of weapons and violence on “Wesley’s Theory.”

As Kendrick also points out, the American government has a pattern of “setting up” African-Americans by implementing policies like Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targeted African-American men. Politicians metaphorically “roll the dice” to make financial gains off of their hardship; together with the “War on Drugs,” the privatization of America’s prison system made the over-incarceration of African-Americans a profitable industry.

Kendrick references FOX News multiple times throughout this album, most notably on “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” Here, Kendrick addresses the fearful rhetoric FOX uses during its discussions about the black community.

Rather than blaming FOX for perpetuating fear, Kendrick recognizes that this fear is inevitable. Just like a mirror can distort someone’s features so that they appear unattractive, Lamar’s reputation can be distorted as well—a point he highlights by pronouncing “that’s what a mirror does” to sound like “that’s what Ameri-does.”

It’s not a place
This country is to be a sound of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look ar-

Bono’s chorus again reminds us that America is not just a land but represents lot more than that. The paradoxical line of the chorus ends the song where around is cut off to represent the chaotic disturbance that is the idea of XXX.

Tanmay Raj Anand is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University.

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