The literary merit of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN”

Just like its name, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album, “DAMN.” is both an exclamation of his energy and a condemnation of the conventional within the world of music.

Touching issues on race, religion and society, “DAMN.” made headlines for Lamar’s no holds barred lyricism as the Billboard Year-End number one album and Best Rap Album at the 60th annual Grammy Awards in 2017. Soon after, “DAMN.” became the first non-jazz or classical work to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018.

However, the lasting impacts of Lamar’s album don’t stop at accolades alone. Originating from Redditor cactusxmark, a circulating social media post that “DAMN.” could now be taught as poetry in International Baccalaureate (IB) English classes brought the album back into the spotlight last March. Although this information remains unconfirmed, it drew attention to the public’s burning question: Can rap music really be considered poetry?

Since its introduction, rap music has long held a reputation as materialistic. Without a doubt, “DAMN.” fulfills those characteristics with ease. But what makes its discography so groundbreaking isn’t just the popular appeal of Lamar’s rapid-fire rhymes, but Lamar’s underlying exploration of his dark relationship with God in the context of race that permeates all 14 tracks.

Give lines like “This is my heritage, all I’m inheritin’ / Money and power, the makin’ of marriages” from “DNA” or “Everything I do is to embrace y’all / Everything I write is a damn eight ball / Everything I touch is a damn gold mine / Everything I say is from an angel” from “GOD.” to an IB English class, and I’m sure students could write an in-depth analysis about Lamar’s man vs. self and divine conflict. Religious and pop culture allusions, repetition and symbols are rampant throughout the album. Lamar’s premeditation and intentionality is found even in the album’s carefully constructed order that, when heard in forwards and reverse tracklist order, changes in meaning to its listener—which I confirmed by listening to the album for six straight hours.

Take out the heavy trap beat or recurring melodies ringing in the background, and “DAMN.” is a soul-searching, chaotic representation of Lamar’s mind. Although not every line or expletive sounds as if it could be from a typical ode or sonnet, “DAMN.,” stripped from its musicality, is a blend of free verse, wordplay and a pulsing rhythm. Its ability to stir emotions such as anger and heartbreak in its listeners goes beyond the power of rap music alone. “DAMN.” delves into the realm of the written language and unapologetically so.

That’s why the album’s Pulitzer Prize, multiple awards and potential curriculum in the IB don’t come as a surprise to fans of “DAMN.” Rather, the honors validate the idea that rap music should have a space in schools worldwide.

The redefinition of “DAMN.” and similar albums as poetry sets a precedent for how the English subject may look like in the future. By labeling rap music as poetry, classes open themselves up to the inclusion of more modern artists and writers of all genres. For high school students, having the opportunity to study the voices and work of this generation like Lamar’s may encourage them to foster a passion for literature. Moreover, it promotes the discussion of current sociocultural issues that are often referenced in rap music.

By learning about rap music in an academic context, schools promote the idea of an active listener, whose analytical skills are applicable beyond the scope of a classroom. Simply put, it can redefine the way we understand and listen to music.

Thus, “DAMN.” merits not only recognition for its overall artistry, but also respect for the poetry embedded in its verses. The album makes it clear that the quality and content of rap music has evolved past its dangerous and abrasive stereotypes. It’s time our education adapts to the culture of this era and rewards Lamar and rap music with the appreciation they deserve.  

It would be a “DAMN.” shame to give them any less.

By Amy Lo, Media manager
Photo courtesy of www.blogs.davenportlibrary.com