Merely hours after Kendrick Lamar released his masterful new album, DAMN., a rumor surfaced that set the internet ablaze. It is unclear who the original author was, but the theory was Kendrick actually had plans to release 2 albums that weekend. The details were wildly creative yet also stunningly detailed…all the ingredients to make what would typically be dismissed as a fanciful rumor stick.
The key elements of the theory were as follows. DAMN. was released on Good Friday and represented Kendrick’s death. Speculators suggested he would release another album titled NATION. on Easter Sunday, representing his resurrection. When put together, the entire project would thus be DAMNATION. Kendrick has had an element of spirituality in much of his music, dating back to his album Section.80, which had songs like “Kush & Corinthians” and featured a bible on the artwork. He also said in an interview with The New York Times leading up to the album’s release that “We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system. This is what goes on in my mind as a writer.”
The details supporting the theory were plentiful. The last letters in each song were capitalized, ended with a period and spilled onto a white background to highlight them. Theorists speculated they were intended as an anagram. When re-arranged, the letters spelled out a couple of phrases that bolstered the concept, such as “Earth led 2 death” and “Death 2 the leader.” Beyond that, the “M” in DAMN. was positioned over Kendrick’s head, such that it could be seen as devil’s horns. The belief was that on the cover of NATION., the “O” would be over his head, representing a halo. The cover of DAMN. was red, and the conjecture was NATION’s artwork would be blue. Kendrick, himself, added fuel to the fire by changing his Spotify profile picture shortly after DAMN’s release, going from one which had him in front of a red background to another that had him in front of a blue background. Soon, fake artwork for NATION. appeared.
For 2 days the music world waited with bated breath to see if NATION. would be released. When it wasn’t, the theory died down, only to be rekindled days later when Kendrick said, during an album signing session, “I got some more music.” Those words caused such a furor that he later had to issue an official statement saying “KenFolk. ThankU 4 the desire of always anticipating new music of my own. None is coming. My work will be in our future TDE dates tho.”
Naturally, fans were disappointed because it was a mind-bending concept, and Kendrick was just the type of artist to pull it off. Well, two weeks after digesting DAMN., it turns out the rumor was true. Kendrick Lamar DID release 2 new albums. Most of us just didn’t realize it.
In an interview with Zane Lowe, the only one Kendrick has done since DAMN.‘s release, Kendrick was extremely cagey about the overall concept for the album. He did drop 2 major hints, for those listening closely. In discussing the opening song, “BLOOD.,” Lowe asks “Is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?” “I can’t tell you that. That’s what I can’t tell you,” Kendrick says with a grin. “Come on, now. That’s the whole thing!,” he continues.
It turns out that was one of the most meaningful exchanges in the entire 44-minute interview. “BLOOD.” opens with “Is it wickedness. Is it weakness. You decide. Are we going to live or die?” That is the key to the entire sonic journey that Kendrick has architected with DAMN.
The theme of “wickedness or weakness” is one that plays out through the entire project. Kendrick asks the question multiple times. It is a deeply philosophical question akin to whether our paths are determined by destiny or whether we have free will to make our own choices. We all sin. There’s no debate about that. What Kendrick wants to know is are our transgressions a result of wickedness that is native to us or do we just have moments of weakness that can be overcome by choosing to walk the righteous path. Kendrick never gives us a definitive answer to the question, but he made 2 albums with 2 different endings—one where the answer is wickedness, which leads to his death, and another where the answer is weakness which finds him alive and flourishing because weakness was overcome. When Kendrick says “You decide. Are we going to live or die,” on “BLOOD.,” those words are deeply intentional. He is literally telling us as listeners that, as many of us did as kids when we read books that allowed us to pick from multiple endings, we have the choice to experience DAMN. 2 completely different ways.
The other critical hint Kendrick gave in his interview with Zane Lowe was in describing how to experience the album. “You have to listen to it over and over and over and over again to fully understand the direction and the message.” When Kendrick says “direction” it’s easy to assume he means the tones, themes, etc. However, for a man who makes a living using words extremely precisely, and often with double meanings, Kendrick may have been being quite literal when he chose to use the word “direction,” in connection with how to listen to DAMN.
When we listen to the album in the order in which it was released, it takes us down a path of gradual enlightenment. The question of “wickedness or weakness” is explored through several contrasting themes. Kendrick seems to make several choices that show he is not wicked and is often able to overcome weakness. The order of the song titles suggest the evolution. Kendrick moves from “LUST.” to “LOVE.,” “PRIDE.” to being “HUMBLE.,” having “FEAR.” to feeling like a “GOD.”
He struggles, for sure. He articulates his difficulty staying righteous on “FEAR.,” where he raps “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride, ’cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God. I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone. I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more. I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness. Fear, whatever it is, both is distinctive.” It is also on that record where Kendrick’s Uncle Carl gives him the answers for which he’s been searching. He tells Kendrick that people have been punished by God for not following God’s commandments, but they can lift God’s curses by living righteously.
The album culminates with “DUCKWORTH.,” the ultimate example of how curses can be reversed when people overcome their weaknesses and live righteously. In the song, Kendrick lays out the real-life story of how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Kendrick’s mentor and the owner of his label, and Kendrick’s father, Ducky, knew each other as young men. Top had robbed the restaurant where Ducky worked before he started working there, and Top intended to do so again. Ducky sensed that Top was dangerous, and rather than treat him hostilely, he chose to act kindly by offering him free food. Top eventually decided against robbing Ducky. The two men would not see each other again for 20 years, and did not realize their profound connection through Kendrick, until the first time they met in the studio. Had either Top or Ducky acted differently 20 years prior, there lives may have been fundamentally different. As Kendrick raps:
“Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives, one curse at a time
Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I’ll tell you why
You take two strangers, and put ’em in random predicaments
Give ’em a soul, so they can make their own choices and live with it
Twenty years later, them same strangers you make ’em meet again
Inside recording studios where they reapin’ their benefits
Then you start remindin’ them about that chicken incident
Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?
Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”
Kendrick lays it all out in that one passage. We have souls and can make choices. Top Dawg could have chosen to rob Ducky, but he did not give in to the weakness of temptation. As a result, both Top and Ducky have prospered and Kendrick is thriving.
In addition to providing a mind-blowing end to the story of DAMN., “DUCKWORTH.” is also instructional. Near the beginning of the song, DJ Kid Capri says “We gonna put it in reverse.” Like most things on the album, that phrase can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. In listening to DAMN. from front to back, it could simply mean the album is going to go back in time. After all, most of “DUCKWORTH.” is about Top and Ducky’s lives decades ago. However, soon after the DAMN. and NATION. theory surfaced, another theory arose that suggested DAMN. was actually meant to be experienced in reverse order. Thus, in saying “let’s put it in reverse,” Kid Capri was being instructional rather than descriptive. That interpretation of Kid Capri’s words also unlocks the significance of Kendrick’s hint about listening to the album “over and over and over again to fully understand the direction.”
When listened to in reverse order, DAMN. takes on a completely different feeling. From the beginning of “DUCKWORTH.,” the wickedness (or destiny) theme begins to take shape. The song opens with “It was always me vs. the world. Until I found it’s me vs. me.” Right off the bat, Kendrick is telling us that in this journey he is not battling the choices that the world presents that allow for weakness. Instead, his battle is internal, likely with wickedness.
Aside from Kendrick progressively moving down a path of wickedness in the song titles–going from feeling like a “GOD.” to “FEAR.,” moving from “LOVE.” to “LUST.,” and going from being “HUMBLE.” to embracing “PRIDE.”–the album has a very different sonic arc, as well. In its original order DAMN. gets progressively more introspective and melodic, ending with the deeply soulful “DUCKWORTH.” In reverse, the album gets increasingly aggressive, culminating in the ultra hostile “DNA.” Where “DUCKWORTH.” is about choice and overcoming weakness, “DNA.” is all about Kendrick’s wickedness being hard wired into him. He literally ends his last verse by forecasting his death and acknowledging his inherent wickedness. “Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate, gonna be your fate, gonna be our faith. Peace to the world, let it rotate. Sex, money, murder—our DNA.”
Of course, the last song on the album in reverse is “BLOOD.,” and the final occurrence on the song is Kendrick dying from a gunshot. In reverse, Kendrick’s death is foreshadowed a number of times, starting on “DUCKWORTH.”–which culminated in a gunshot after the album is replayed at hyper-speed, backwards–and continuing through “DNA.” The person who shoots Kendrick is a woman, and that also likely not a coincidence. On his album To Pimp A Butterfly, he makes a number of references to “Lucy,” short for Lucifer. Lucy is a temptress, always luring Kendrick into destructive situations and, just as Kendrick had an in-person encounter with God on TPAB‘s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” it’s not far fetched to believe that his walking down a path of wickedness would end with his death literally at the hands of the devil.
In addition to the dramatic ending “BLOOD.” provides the album, as the last song, other parts of DAMN. start to fit together differently when it is played in reverse order. For example, going back to “FEAR.,” the last thing Uncle Carl says on the record is “Until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us. We’re gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today, in the United States of America. I love you, son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.” In reverse order, the next song is “XXX.” which opens with Bekon singing “America, God bless you if it’s good to you. America, please take my hand. Can you help me underst…”
With nuances like that unlocking, it’s easy to start to believe that the “right” order in which to play DAMN. is, indeed, in reverse. But, again, the very first words we hear on the album, when starting with “BLOOD.” are “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” “DUCKWORTH.” ends with Kendrick living and thriving because Top resisted weakness and made choices that broke the curses of which Uncle Carl spoke in “FEAR.” “BLOOD.” ends with Kendrick dying because the wickedness coded into his DNA has caused him to fall from grace into the hands of the devil. Is “BLOOD.” the beginning or the end? “That’s the whole thing!”
Kendrick’s response to Zane Lowe and “BLOOD.’s” opening words suggest that the album is meant to be experienced in both directions. A tweet by Sounwave, Kendrick’s longtime collaborator, also supports the theory. Before the album was released he posted a cryptic tweet. It was simply a picture of Laurence Fishburne’s character “Morpheus,” from the film The Matrix. The picture is of Morpheus seated in the chair when he offers the main character the choice of which existence he wants to have. “You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”“You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes,” Morpheus says. Red and Blue. There are those two colors, again.
Kendrick did release two albums on April 14. The first album, the forward version, is the Red album, since it is one of enlightenment. Humans succumb to their weaknesses at times, but are also able to overcome them and live righteously. The second album, which plays in reverse, is the Blue album since it ends in death (and was the second color Kendrick uploaded on his Spotify profile). It is one in which wickedness is fateful and fatal.
Besides the song order and bookends/beginnings of “BLOOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.,” there are loads of other themes and occurrences that take place throughout the album, that change its arc and meaning depending on which direction it is played. Kid Capri’s role is one of the most readily accessible examples. When played in its original order, he does not appear until the third song, “YAH.” He simply says “New sh*t. New Kung Fu Kenny.” He appears several other times, and his presence feels like a throwback to his mixtape days in the 90s and 00s, where his drops were an integral part of setting the energy for the tape. When played in reverse, however, Kid Capri’s words seem more like they are advancing the narrative of the story, rather than ad libs to set the mood. In addition to his directions to put it in reverse on “DUCKWORTH.,” transitions like the one between “FEEL.” and “ELEMENT.” start to seem more like commentary. After Kendrick has repeated his refrain of “Ain’t nobody praying for me multiple times,” Kid Capri affirms it on “ELEMENT.,” saying “New Kung Fu Kenny. Ain’t nobody praying for me.” However, he also says “Y’all know what happens on Earth stays on Earth,” foreshadowing Kendrick’s death.
Other examples include the role Kendrick’s Uncle Carl plays on the album. In forward order, Kendrick briefly references him on “YAH.,” but it isn’t until “FEAR.” that we understand his huge significance. After Kendrick has said “ain’t nobody praying for me” a number of times throughout the album, we learn that his Uncle Carl actually literally is praying for Kendrick, and Carl’s revelations seem to be what allow Kendrick to become righteous and thrive.
When played in reverse, however, by continuing to go down a wicked path after receiving Uncle Carl’s knowledge, Kendrick seems to rebuff his words of wisdom. It leads to an increased sense of isolation, which is heard on “FEAR.,” and he outright rejects Carl on “YAH” where he says “My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth. Said know my worth and Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed. I know he walks the Earth, but it’s money to get, bitches to hit.” His disregard of Carl’s teachings causes him to remain cursed and it ultimately costs him his life.
There are certainly several other examples. DAMN. is as dense as it gets…both versions. In his interview with Zane Lowe Kendrick said of the album “I want it to live for the next 20 years.” Given the unbelievable originality of is double album within an album, it seems very likely DAMN. will live for a long, long time.