A standout at this year’s turbulent VMAs, Kendrick Lamar performed a moving show and won several prestigious awards. Here’s a reflection on his latest album, written by Mocking-friend Sam Guthrie. 

Turning on Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album DAMN. is like tuning into a boxing match. You don’t just listen to single songs; you experience the different rounds of a fight where Kendrick and his demons pummel each other.

One of the most compelling bouts on DAMN. is between “Lust” and “Love”. “Lust” begins with a tired, end of the road Kendrick on the verge of falling prey to lust: “I need some water/somethin’ came over me/Way too hot to simmer down/Might as well overheat”. The intro alludes that Kendrick, aware of his building desires, is about to let lust take control (“heartbeat racin like a junkie/I just need you to want me/Am I askin’ too much?”). The song describes all too clearly the embodiment and emptiness of lust and the sexual urge we usually associate it with. Some of the lyrics are enough to make you squirm as Kendrick nails the guilty, shameful nature of his subject matter. But for Kendrick, the need for satiation is not simply an act of gluttony often attributed to lust. Kendrick also speaks to the desires that fester from a life of discomfort, adversity, and injustice. He speaks of the challenges and uphill battle the disenfranchised face in America. Kendrick creatively describes lust as both sexual and platonic as it seeps its way into our lives and habits: “we lust on the same routine of shame” and “lately, I lust over self/lust turns to fear”.

Kendrick’s thirst imagery on “Lust” isn’t the first time he’s used the metaphor to describe the trials in his life. In his debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, water and thirst are pivotal to the album’s narrative arch. One of his most popular songs, “Swimming Pools”, describes a night where Kendrick’s friends coax him into drinking too much. Like “Lust”, “Swimming Pools” functions as an example of the lengths people go to find relief to drown out demons. Kendrick demonstrates extreme self awareness over the course of the three pivotal tracks on GKMC. He admits (confesses) to the vicious cycle he is in (“All I have in life is my new appetite for failure”) and pleads for some type of relief for his thirst (“Too many sins, I’m runnin’ out/Somebody send me a well for the drought”).

Kendrick’s narrative reminds me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. She was a slave to promiscuity with a trail of ex-lovers that marred her reputation in that day. She approached the well alone with all of her baggage, doubts, fear and shame as she longed for something to satiate her thirst. The imagery of her bringing an empty pitcher to the well reminds us that our sinful routine, whether it’s lust or not, demands to be quenched. And yet we constantly go back to guzzle whatever gives us temporary relief; only to return again with a bigger appetite. With the torturous cycle spinning on, we can only hope for an intervention from what will surely be the death of us.

In Kendrick’s case, the intervention comes in the form of a love song. If “Lust” broods and boils in one corner of the ring, “Love” patiently waits for its turn in the other. “Love” serves as a haven as Lamar respectfully and honestly raps about his girlfriend (“I don’t wan’ pressure you none/I want your blessing today”) and speaks of a love that quenches and is satisfied by her presence  (“All feeling go out, this feeling don’t drought/This party won’t end”). “Love” is one of few Kendrick Lamar songs virtually free from profanity which provides a sharp contrast to “Lust” as something pure and untainted. The essence of the song implies that something has been fulfilled and even prompts Kendrick to sing which he rarely does on any of his albums. “Love” is simple, unassuming, and genuinely easy listening. Contentment is laced into its fabric; the lightness is not just heard, but felt.

The abrupt ending of “Lust” and the sudden beginning of “Love” echoes Christ’s intrusion in our lives right when we feel like the battle with our sin will never end. The same is true when the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at the well. Except the comfort and fulfilment doesn’t come from the reciprocal love of a partner, but from God himself. Jesus meets her at the well, the source at which the woman routinely went for her daily need. He steps in and names her mess and offers what Francis Spufford calls  “a love that never shudders at the state we’re in, never hesitates to check what it can bear”. This is the Gospel—that though we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He sees to it that we do not overheat, reminds us that we will never thirst, and promises that the well of living water will never run dry.