AMERICA: GOD BLESS YOU IF IT’S GOOD TO YOU

Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-awarded fourth studio album, DAMN., is a narrative of vicious self-reflection in the face of America’s ever-present, ever-awful racial climate. In his past work, Lamar has often dealt with themes of police brutality, poverty, racism, spirituality, and the realities of hood life. DAMN. continues to explore these same themes, but with a heavier focus on self-reflection. The album is essentially an evaluation of his morality and inner conflict as it applies to the world around him—and his track XXX. is, in many ways, the culmination of these ideas all working together. The track, as the eleventh of fourteen, functions as the album’s literary climax. At this point in the narrative arc, the speaker encounters a moral crisis that ultimately causes him to lose his faith, lose his desire to be better than the world around him. In XXX., the “wicked Kendrick” wins out over the “weak” (or vice versa, given the album’s innovative “backwards listen” feature), and so this track could be described as the axis around which the album revolves. Through his choices in melodic structure, the historic significance of his lyrics, and the specific, vulnerable experience he showcases in XXX., Kendrick Lamar is able to both validate the experiences of listeners growing up black in America and to make these experiences known to his listeners from other backgrounds without either group feeling condescension.

I. DISCONNECT THROUGH SOUND & LYRIC

Lamar’s careful use of changes in beat and vocals are key to XXX.’s emotional success. The song begins with a slow, ambient melody that eases the listener in: “America / God bless you if it’s good to you / America, please take my hand / Can you help me underst—” This intro is swiftly interrupted with an abrupt change in tempo and dissonant piano chords—an auditory reality check, the song’s way of telling the audience that this is not a peaceful coming-of-age story. This sudden, disorienting shift is accompanied by a verse that focuses specifically on the expectations placed on young black people in the United States; he argues that black children, especially black boys, rarely receive the support and resources to succeed in school.

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.

Young black men in America are taught from a young age that no matter how well they abide by the rules, they will be overlooked and profiled. Because of this, black youths tend to feel discouraged from focusing on their academic achievements, and are then shamed for not doing “better.” Lamar’s first verse highlights the double-edged sword that America’s black population faces; however, by not directly stating that it is an issue, he allows his audience to form their own opinions. This is a powerful rhetorical move—by stepping back without giving his own overt opinion, Lamar’s message is clear: he doesn’t have to. The situation speaks for itself, and no persuasion should be necessary. Whether or not the listener has had the experience he describes, they should be able to empathize with those who have and to recognize the unfairness of the situation. This is the underlying expectation which Lamar silently presents for his audience—that they understand and empathize, regardless of whether or not they have been there.

In the second verse, which focuses on the issue of gun violence, Lamar employs a variety
of vocal, metric, and instrumental shifts in order to create a sense of chaotic urgency. The beat is
punctuated with loud sirens, and Kendrick’s tone changes from a low, controlled drawl to a
shout. During this transition, he also switches from a loosely dactylic structure to strict trochaic
octameter, a much faster and more intense meter. The effect of this combination of melodic
changes is actually scientific in nature, as it has been proven that one’s heartbeat is directly
influenced by the tempo of the music one listens to (Peeples). To speed up and intensify the beat
is to effectively accelerate the listener’s heartbeat as well, subconsciously creating a sort of
physical fear within them. It’s the same technique used, to some degree, in haunted houses or
scary movies—a more subtle source of adrenaline than jumpscares, perhaps—but a source
nonetheless. In this way, Kendrick employs not only a lyrical explanation of the feelings he grew
up with, he also includes audio techniques to help the listener to actually feel the injustice and
anger which is described in the verses themselves.

II. HISTORY, MORALITY, AND CYNICISM

The second verse, in addition to its sonically-brilliant strategies, also draws from the philosophies of prominent Civil-Rights-Era revolutionaries—a choice that both provides the listener with historical context and anchors the song in its foundational theory. In this verse, the speaker details a conversation with a friend whose son has just been fatally shot. The friend seems to expect a response from the “good Kendrick” seen in the album’s earlier tracks, saying to him: “I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.” But Lamar responds with, “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel: / if somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.” This shift in morality, emphasized by a sudden lapse in the song’s previously-complex beat, is a pivotal point in the structure of the entire album and brings forth some of the important questions that had been addressed earlier, in the song’s first verse: how can we expect people brought up in harsh, unforgiving situations to be forgiving, who gets to decide what is “owed” to the world in terms of goodness, what will the world give you in return if you are good?

These questions are each reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement, reminiscent of the views of Malcolm X and Angela Davis. Both of these revolutionary radical figures maintained that violence was justified in protest, as it was the only way to be taken seriously…that revolution is what truly incites change. In a 1972 prison interview, Davis says that she finds it “incredible” when people ask her what her opinions on violence are, “because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country, since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa” (“Angela Davis on Violence”). These are questions that the audience encounters over and over again throughout the course of Lamar’s album, and arguably throughout the majority of his discography.

III. SHOWCASING THE UNIVERSAL THROUGH THE INDIVIDUAL

Lamar’s choice to have this song written in the style of a personal monologue is an appeal in itself. He could have written it as a hypothetical, could have written it with the intent of capturing the feelings of an entire community. Instead, the perspective is restricted to the speaker, and the specificity of his situation and his moral uncertainty grounds the piece significantly. In addition to this, Lamar’s choice to have one verse be framed by conversation with someone who has just lost his son makes the speaker’s words all the more relevant and all the more powerful for it. The use of repetition and rapid delivery in sections such as—

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

—is incredibly effective as well: these strategies hammer in the scale at which gun violence can and does occur, and lasts for just long enough that a listener can grow accustomed to the pattern. The audience begins to anticipate the listing-off of more family members—before realizing the meaning, and how twisted it is to have that auditory anticipation.

The credibility established in XXX. is one of experience. By providing dialogue, description, raw emotion and vulnerability, he shows the listener that he is intimately familiar with the concepts displayed in this song and in the rest of the album. Though it may seem counterintuitive to describe Lamar’s clear spiraling mentality and self-doubt as traits that build credibility, that is exactly what they are: the listener is more inclined to trust him as a speaker, because he is transparent about everything that he feels throughout the song. The implementation of something resembling a stream-of-consciousness style is deeply effective, and this narrative choice is supported by lyrical repetition as well as rapid changes in musical structure, from dissonant, stretched notes to a rapid, siren-led beat, to slow drums.

The perspectives XXX. highlights are meant to subvert ongoing narratives that romanticize life in the hood (especially those perpetuated by people who had never experienced poverty), and to bring to light the pain and loss that is so often felt in the black community. It seeks to both comfort and validate listeners in this community, while informing its non-black listeners. Through the use of meter, lyrical repetition, and melody, Lamar conveys emotions that would not be nearly as effective to the audience were this a written text. Through his references to historically relevant principles, he provides a solid foundation for the more modern ideas he addresses; and through his own vulnerability and the personal nature of the track, makes those ideas accessible to any listener.

Works Cited

Iasimone, Ashley. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ Was Meant to Be Played in Reverse, Too.”
Billboard, Billboard, 25 Aug. 2017, www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/7941917/kendrick-lamar-damn-played-backwards-reverse-order

Peeples, Lynne. “Heart Beat: Music May Help Keep Your Cardiovascular System in Tune.”
Scientific American, Scientific American, 24 June 2009,
www.scientificamerican.com/article/music-therapy-heart-cardiovascular/.

Davis, Angela. “Angela Davis Prison Interview, 1972.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Jan. 2012,
www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIDgDFvyeS8.