Music

How Kendrick Lamar’s Family Continues To Shape His Musical Progression On ‘DAMN.’

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“Some times I wanna say f*ck rappin’ / I need money now, should I start trappin’? / If what I write down / Don’t collect this very moment then I’m on it, no question” — Kendrick Lamar, “R.O.T.C.”

As DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s latest and most direct audio sample comes to a close, the idea of family once more stands out. “Duckworth.” is a whirling dervish of an album finale, a conversation about fate and divinity between two men who’ve become father figures to Lamar. There’s Top Dawg, the label boss who helped him tell his story with the same steely glances as a ‘90s Suge Knight save for the violence and eye-sore red suits. Then there’s Kenny Duckworth, the Chicago dad turned Compton resident who only attempted to steer Kendrick down a path that would ultimately keep him safe from the streets.

Naturally, the streets and Lamar’s salvation decided to meet in the middle. Lamar’s biggest gift as a rapper isn’t his voice; a nasally instrument that tweaks itself ever so often. Rather, his biggest strength is his storytelling, his overthinking, as if no plot point need be left open. As he argued in his interview with Zane Lowe before his Coachella headlining set, Lamar believes that DAMN. is about the centering of himself, the next step after he wanted to save the whole world on To Pimp A Butterfly. Whether he realizes it or not, his family has been attempting to center him ever since he started recording music.

“What is my purpose?” — Kendrick Lamar to God, 2009

Paula and Kenny Duckworth are the most direct influences to Lamar’s music. Listen from the beginning of 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP and the idea begins to build from there. Here was Kendrick, still rapping with a lower registered rasp believing he could be king of the world. The only grounding he would ever get didn’t come from his friends at Centennial High School in Compton or by watching Aaron Affalo make it pro. Instead, it came drilled down from Kenny, affectionately known as Ducky and Paula. He dreamed big on “Wanna Be Heard” rapping, “I used to wanna rap like Jay Z until I finally realized that Jay wasn’t me.”

Being Jay Z was bigger than being the son of Ducky, in his eyes. Kendrick would later admit to mimicking flows and adlibs from the Brooklyn emcee, though the two wouldn’t cross paths for another four years. While Kendrick held ideals for how his rap career would go, Ducky saw different. Even if Paula was adamant in watching her son’s dream go sky high, Ducky was hesitant as most fathers are. Kendrick and his mom’s van have been intertwined for years, the first vehicle to lead him to the high of chasing success. “Even though she know her tank is empty, that’s who I do it for,” he rapped on “Wanna Be Heard”. Yet in the very next stanza, he juxtaposes his mother’s dreams with his father’s curiosity and penchant for comparison.

Fathers always want best for their sons, I know the feeling personally. If I hadn’t chosen a path to write, my father wanted me to spend my first four years out of high school in the Naval Academy. Ducky wanted Kendrick to get a job, even if he wondered aloud why his oldest offspring hadn’t accomplished at 22 what he had already accomplished at 22? Ducky had two cars, he didn’t need somebody else’s van because he had his own. He lived on his own. He survived, on his own. Even if he wanted to shield Kendrick away from the dangers of what Compton offered, he couldn’t completely kill his boy’s biggest aspiration (“I ain’t tryna kill your confidence or forcing you to quit”).

Two years later at 23, Kendrick would reproach his father on “Poe Man’s Dreams” from Section.80. His pops still worked that same job and Kendrick understood why he was getting pushed so hard. Ducky wanted Kendrick’s rap dreams just as bad as he did. So he worked that job, unbeknownst of the reality that the moment Kendrick was anointed next — both of their lives would change.

Kendrick fears God. He’s admitted as much with the kind of candor usually reserved for his music, but on “Fear.” he gives way to the mortal things he feared the most as a child — the wrath of his mother. When you’re a child, the only Gods you know are the people who teach you right from wrong. And even though they love you unconditionally, there is punishment for your actions, even after an apology. The sentiment translated downward as Kendrick got older. His sisters and younger brothers would look at him as a God because he was the oldest; their peaks and valleys growing up tied to his own.

When his younger sister got pregnant, he lashed out at himself as if he had any power in stopping it. “You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her,” he said on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “u”. He wore a teenage pregnancy on his sleeve like Tupac did with Brenda’s little girl, angry at himself as if God had punished him and him directly. It took a moment for him to reassess the problem though. His niece is a muse now as evident by DAMN.’s “Yah.”. To him, it was another way of his faith readjusting his worries; the divinity putting in motion a path that would make him better.

“My momma said, you’re judged by the company you keep,” he rapped on 2010’s “Average Joe” from (O)verly (D)edicated. He described himself then as someone who wrote rhymes next to gunshots, even shot back a couple times himself. “His Pain” from BJ The Chicago Kid’s Pineapple Now-Laters is as candid as Kendrick may get in his storytelling, whether personal or third person.

“I analyzed on how a saint can play the villain,” he says in the song’s third verse after letting the listener in on a weaving tale on stashing pistols, bullets mistakenly hitting kids and him learning his true power. His cousins and uncles all bit pieces of gang life, some as young as elementary school. What else was there to escape to? He watched his Uncle Bobby get sent away on his third strike, told his friend Jason Keaton to hold on to God while he did a long stretch as a 21-year-old. Yet his Cousin Carl on his father’s side tries to steer him back in place. His favorite Bible verse to wield in Kendrick’s head? Deuteronomy 28:28.

We all have family members who attempt to swing us further towards the cross than away from it. We feel lost when we lose them too. What separates Carl from any of Kendrick’s other friends? There’s a much stronger discipline attached to him, rooted in his faith in God. All Carl wants for Kendrick is to realize that the perils he faces on Earth — whether it be by disappointing his main influences (parents), those he influences the most (his siblings) or those he touches (his fans) — will mean nothing compared to what God may have in store for him should he waste it.

Eight years ago, Kendrick Lamar told us who he was. He was, “a good kid from Compton” that wanted to rap. That he didn’t represent Blood or Crip but “his little sisters and brothers.” His sister and mom review his albums like day one fans. His father nods while Cousin Carl prays for him and his friends beg him to never hit the shenanigans again. DAMN. showed us that regardless of faith crises or the days he believes he could be the modern day Job, Kendrick still has a center. And it resides in Compton.

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