We know that Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album DAMN. is a masterpiece of lyricism and storytelling. The album is dense, impactful, beautiful and haunting, standing head and shoulders above anything else that came out this year. Lamar spends 14 songs baring his soul about death, spirituality and insecurity while flexing rhyme schemes and vocal manipulation that’s rendered him peerless in rap.
Still, K. Dot fans ended their Easter weekends disappointed; they were expecting Kendrick to drop another album a mere 72 hours after the release of DAMN.
Neither Kendrick Lamar nor his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, promised a second album or promote DAMN. as the first half of a full project. No, the idea that Lamar was dropping a second album grew wholly from a series of conspiracy theories and conjectures that took a life of their own in the 24 hours since DAMN. hit streaming services.
This is just one of the theories that spawned out of seemingly nowhere:
THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE AND IMA DIE pic.twitter.com/ajTRonzTFi— Grant Stonex (@grantstonex17) April 14, 2017
The gist of the theories revolved around the idea that Kendrick “dies” at the beginning of DAMN., which dropped on Good Friday. Naturally Lamar, whose albums all have spiritual overtones, would be “resurrected” on Easter Sunday. Some fans thought the name of the second album would be Nation creating a full project called Damnation. Others thought the second album would be called God to create Goddamn. One fan even realized that the last letter of every song title was an anagram for “Death To The Leader.” Seriously.
Their theories, as improbable as they may seem, have a base. Since Lamar released his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he’s inserted self-referential nuggets, hidden messages and Easter eggs throughout his work. That album, of course, told a narrative of a run-in with gang members on the other side of town, resulting in the death of one of Lamar’s friends. The story wasn’t immediately recognizable, only becoming evident when fans gathered on social media and message boards to piece the narrative together. The same goes for his follow-up album To Pimp a Butterfly and decoding the mythical “Lucy” (a metaphor for Lucifer and rap music… or something).
So fans were ready to do some deep diving by the time Kendrick’s latest was released. DAMN. is a dense record, like all other Kendrick Lamar albums. It’s full of callbacks, repetitions and a final track that acts like a twist ending to a thriller. Now, fans are decoding the music and trying to figure out the narratives and meanings behind Kendrick’s constant searches for prayers, lyrics recorded in reverse and the repeated phrase “whatever happens on Earth stays on Earth.” Not to mention any subtle jabs at rival Drake. For what it’s worth, my read on the album is that it’s a life story told in reverse. As Kendrick’s character strays further from his religion and faith, he comes closer to death. But what do I know?
My theory is just one of many. Fans treat Kendrick Lamar projects the same way Reddit threads dedicated themselves to TV shows like Westworld, Lost and Mad Men. What TDE and Kendrick seem to have realized is that a vibrant online conversation drove those shows’ popularity. For some, half the joy of tuning in is to see online theories confirmed or proved false. It’s an organic form of marketing that doesn’t require any money.
Nobody associated with Kendrick spoke out dispelling the rumors, because they seem to understand the marketing power behind the pontifications. In a music industry that’s decades removed from the standard rollouts of music videos, singles and finally a finished album, creativity is a must in order to gain buzz for an album. Rap that prizes image above all else; losing authenticity means losing fans. That means that corporate partnerships to sell records (a la Taylor Swift packaging albums with Papa John’s) runs the risk of alienating core fan bases more than anything.
Lamar’s move is the latest in a trend of rappers turning to seemingly organic viral moments for promotion. Kendrick Lamar certainly isn’t alone. Rae Sremmurd rocketed to the top of the charts with their song “Black Beatles” thanks to the song being played in the background of the hyper-viral “Mannequin Challenge” videos. Drake makes music videos and album covers that are instantly meme-able. You didn’t think he danced like that on the “Hotline Bling” video because he was trying to make a foray into Juilliard did you? These are all calculated attempts at virality and promotion for albums and songs.
Of course, that’s nothing new. Since the beginning of hip-hop, MCs played backyard parties, sold mixtapes from the backs of their cars and stopped people in Times Square to ask if they, “like real hip hop.” Soulja Boy called his first album Souljaboytellem.com. Diplo’s Mad Decent label started the “Harlem Shake” dance craze to sell records. Houston rapper Mike Jones gave his music to strip club DJs and rapped his phone number throughout even his biggest hits. If you called him, he would answer and try to sell you some CDs.
As for Kendrick? We wouldn’t be shocked if someone in his camp is floating these theories on the internet to light the fires for a barrage of tinfoil hat guesses. Remember, the long explanation leading to the theory of a second album in the first place, seemed to come out of nowhere: a picture of a series of notes typed up by some anonymous Matlock. Lamar himself tweeted today to squelch the rumors, apparently having had enough of the amateur internet detection.
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. 💯#DAMN— Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) April 21, 2017
At the very least, Kendrick Lamar and his label are providing music that’s multifaceted enough to warrant such investigation. And when those investigations lead to more listening, buying and streaming, it can only spell good things for Kendrick Lamar and DAMN.