He’s here to indict America, himself, his community, and more than anything, human sinfulness (possible thesis quote: “I feel like I'm boxin' demons, monsters, false prophets, schemin' sponsors, industry promises, niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton, Church, religion, token blacks, and bondage, lawsuit visits, subpoena served in concert, fuck your feelings, I mean this for imposters”). As listeners pick apart the album over the weekend, the first round of fighting in the broader media landscape may be about the overt politics of the album. Lamar’s pushback to conservative commentators and his Donald Trump references should, but likely won’t, be evaluated in the context of the rapper’s larger message about human nature.
In the very first track, “Blood,” Lamar puts a clip of Fox News recoiling at the “Alright” line “we hate popo, wanna kill us dead in the street fo' sho'”—“Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it,” we hear the pundit Kimberly Guilfoyle saying. At the time the Fox segment aired, Lamar told TMZ, “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred? The overall message is ‘we’re gonna be alright.’ It’s not the message of ‘I wanna kill people.’” In “Blood,” the Fox sample comes after a spoken-word tale about Lamar going to help a blind woman in the street only to be shot by her. That parable is possibly about black Americans finding the promise of blind justice to be false, or it’s possibly more generally about the precariousness of life. Either way, the notion that Lamar might stop addressing the reality of black death because it unsettles some people on TV is quickly dismissed.
As always with Lamar, though, his scorn is not simplistic. The towering late-album cut “XXX,” which improbably features Bono doing his least cloying croon, catalogs how the world makes it seems impossible to live up to the Christian imperative of forgiveness. A friend of his calls Lamar after his son is murdered asking for spiritual counsel; “I can’t sugar coat the answer for you,” Lamar replies. “If somebody kill my son / That mean somebody's gettin' killed." A verse later, he’s describing “the great American flag” “wrapped and dragged with explosives,” mentioning “barricaded blocks and borders,” and saying that “Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again,” all capped with a question: “Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”
The rest of the album seems to offer a clear, if bleak, answer; its title is meant both figuratively and literally. The spooky “Lust” offers a fascinating take on original sin, implying that the problem with lust isn’t that it can cause harm but that it encourages complacency, a quality that lets Lamar’s characters spend every day getting high. It also has political ramifications. He mentions the shock of election night spurring him and his neighbors to “parade the streets with your voice proudly.” But then: “Time passin', things change / Revertin' back to our daily programs / Stuck in our ways / Lust.” A change isn’t going to come.