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A Tale Of Two Kendricks — The DAMN. Music Videos Decoded

Kung-Fu Kenny has been trying to tell us something

By Charles Holmes

Kendrick Lamar is a general at war.

On Sunday, August 27, he'll march into The Forum leading the pack at the 2017 MTV VMAs with eight nominations, including the coveted "Video of the Year" for "HUMBLE."

For more than a decade the Compton, California, rapper has told the tale of a good kid living in an environment that's at turns brutal and unforgiving. The Kendrick we've come to know is a man constantly at war with himself: In song, he wrestles with what it means to be a good person who can't help but commit horrible deeds. Recreating those vivid lyrical descriptions for a music video, though immensely challenging, has always been important to the multiplatinum rapper. This year though, with the release of DAMN., something clicked.

The Little Homies, comprised of Kendrick and TDE President Dave Free, upped the ante with videos for "HUMBLE.," "DNA.," "ELEMENT.," and "LOYALTY." Focusing on the themes and motifs that have become cornerstones of Kendrick's visual identity, the four clips represent a single narrative about the damnation of Kendrick Lamar the man and, ultimately, the salvation of his spirit through faith. To really appreciate the story you have to decode videos that got The Little Homies here.

First, Lamar’s current cycle of music videos revolves around three pillars: Showcasing the chaotic world of Compton; exploring how we frequently fall or sin in a society full of external pressures; and understanding the push and pull of good versus evil. The duo first began to visualize these ideas back in the summer of 2010 with the release of "Ignorance is Bliss."

In an interview with MTV News, Free described the impact of “Ignorance is Bliss” on their creative development:

"That was a turning point for Kendrick, when he identified with the sound that he wanted to go with. And visually, we were trying to match that as best as possible with the resources we had, which wasn't much ... No budget for that video!"

Kendrick’s opening bars — "Lord forgive me ... kill him where he stand and stand over him/Shake his hand then jump back in that mini van" — contain the entire plot of the video. In less than two minutes, Kendrick shows the cycle of loss and death growing up in Compton. The video opens with a bottle of Old English being poured and ends with the pulling of a trigger. There's no glorification of Kendrick’s deed, just reality and truth.

“Ignorance is Bliss” would provide a foundation for Kendrick’s visual palette. It would also show how Lamar’s use of visual repetition was one of the most powerful tools of emphasis in his arsenal. He falls, drowns, or sinks in some capacity during “Swimming Pools,” “God is Gangsta” and “Alright.” Kendrick fights inner and outer demons in videos like, “I,” “ELEMENT.,” and “LOYALTY.” There is religious symbolism throughout “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” and “HUMBLE.” MTV News spoke with Professor Adam Diehl, a lecturer at Augusta University, who has incorporated albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly into his English classes about the commonality of Kendrick’s music videos. He shared:

"Each one is telling a very specific story, like the 'Poetic Justice' video or the video for 'LOYALTY.' There are narrative elements to certain videos. Then there is a strong sense of aesthetic ... There are these motifs that recur in all these videos. It’s falling and dying, fighting or witnessing other people fighting. There are obviously women in many of the videos. Sometimes he’s connecting with one and sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he’s the observer and sometimes he’s in the middle of the action."

The duality Professor Diehl speaks of connects every music video from DAMN. In each visual, Kendrick fights opposing emotions and actions, like peace versus aggression or love versus hate. These ultimately lead him to both kill and be killed. The release of “HUMBLE.” marked a consolidation of ideas. The Dave Meyers and Little Homies-directed video is a seamless four-act play. Within the video, there is religious imagery (Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” Pentecostal flames), the battle between good and evil (multiple versions of Kendrick dressed symbolically in black and white), and Kendrick's implied death as he raps covered in sniper beams.

The subsequent videos — “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.,” and “LOYALTY.” — build upon the story of Kendrick traversing different layers of hell like a modern day Dante. The Little Homies, along with the directors of each video, built a world not only indebted to DAMN. as an album, but to the years Kendrick and Dave Free spent pushing Lamar’s vision forward.

The 2017 VMAs touch down at the Forum in Inglewood, California, on Sunday, August 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. See the full list of nominees here and vote for Best New Artist now!