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An Impossibly Detailed Breakdown of All the Hidden Meanings on ‘Damn.’

If you look hard enough, you can figure out exactly who Kendrick Lamar is dissing. (Hint: It’s the Pope, and also Joel Embiid.)

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I. The Hunt

A Kendrick Lamar song is never just a Kendrick Lamar song. It’s always a puzzle, a riddle, a murder mystery, a quandary, an enigma. It’s a maze so tightly wound that it’s nearly impossible to find its center. He says a thing, and it means the thing it means, yes, but also it means a different thing, but actually it means a Different Thing, but really it means a different thing, but truly it means a d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-t thing. And it’s not just the songs, either. It’s all of the surrounding pieces, too. It’s why people spend so much time perusing his stuff and TDE’s stuff (that’s Kendrick’s label) looking for Easter eggs. Was that a shot at Drake? Was that a shot at Sean? Is there a secret album coming? On and on. I’ll give you a recent example, which I read about in the sidebar of the Genius page for “Humble.”

Shortly after the video for “Humble.” came out, Dave Free (the president of TDE) tweeted “No interview.” It seemed simple enough — it was probably a preemptive “Hey, media, don’t ask to schedule an interview with Kendrick right now because we’re not interested in doing one” thing. That’s an easy thing to understand. BUUUUUUUUUT, maybe not. Because there’s also a way where, if you squint a tiny amount, it looks a lot like it’s a sneaky shot at Big Sean (a frequent sparring mate for Kendrick), given that Sean released a song called “No More Interviews” last year that took a not-that-subtle shot at Kendrick.

But that’s the kind of stuff that happens when Kendrick does a thing, like release a new song or appear in a commercial or tweet or breathe or exist.

Or put out a new album.

II. The Spoils

Not including his usual targets (rappers, I mean), Kendrick took shots at 51 people/things/ideas on Damn., many of them so slick and so smooth that they’re almost impossible to grab hold of. They are all included below.

  • “So I was takin’ a walk the other day” on “Blood.”
    Two victims here: (1) The casual nature with which Kendrick mentions that he was taking a walk here is a shot at Jared Tallent, an Olympic gold medalist in race walking who trains incredibly hard to walk. (2) He’s also taking a shot at golden retrievers, who, in my experience, are very fond of walks and would like to go on a walk, but cannot do so on their own, at least not in the manner that Kendrick, a human with human privilege, is allowed to.
  • “I was born like this / since one like this / immaculate conception” on “DNA.”
    A shot at the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catholic community has mostly been able to avoid rap beefs, but this particular holy war seems unavoidable. Count me among those excited for the pope’s clap back that’s coming.
  • “I transform like this / perform like this” on “DNA.”
    A shot at Optimus Prime, the main Transformer.
  • “This that put-the-kids-to-bed” on “DNA.”
    This is a shot at Mary Poppins, literature’s most beloved nanny. It’s a layered attack. First, it takes a shot at her being a nanny, part of her job being that she has to put the kids to bed. Second, it’s a response to her song “Stay Awake,” which she’d sing to kids as a reverse-psychology-type move at bedtime.
  • “I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon” on “DNA.”
    A shot at tennis player Andy Roddick, who was great and wonderful and beautiful but never managed to win a Wimbledon title. (A continuation: Roddick lost in the Wimbledon finals three times to Roger Federer, who is the tennis version of Kendrick Lamar.)
  • “The reason my power’s here on Earth” on “DNA.”
    A shot at Superman, who derives his powers from the glow of Earth’s yellow sun.
  • “Eat at Four Daughters” on “DNA.”
    Four Daughters Kitchen is a place to eat in California. You know what else is a place to eat in California? Five Guys, a burger place. This line is a shot at Five Guys. It’s a new kind of beef for them, I’m assuming.
  • “Phone never on” on “DNA.”
    Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone for us to not have it on.
  • “I got so many theories and suspicions” on “Yah.”
    A shot at the nearly half a million people subscribed to the Conspiracy Theories subreddit.
  • “I’ma make it look sexy” on “Element.”
    A shot at ugly people, many of whom will never be able to make anything look sexy, including but not limited to slapping “a pussy-ass nigga” and going “hard on a bitch.”
  • “I’m allergic to a bitch nigga” on “Element.”
    There’s no such allergy as the one Kendrick mentions here, meaning this is a shot at immunologists, who are responsible for diagnosing actual allergies.
  • “Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option” on “Element.” Many will assume that this is an allusion to Tupac, but actually it’s a shot at Fidel Castro. Kendrick is pretending to die and then pretending to live in Cuba. Fidel Castro for real died and for real lived in Cuba.
  • “Next time they hit the 10 freeway, we need [to see a] receipt” on “Element.” 
    A shot at toll booth workers, given that toll booth workers work on roads that are not freeways, which are the most prestigious of all the city roads.
  • “Because it’s all in your eyes” on “Element.”
    Eyes. EYES. Plural. That’s a shot at Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who was born with a paralyzed left eye.
  • “They won’t take me out my element” on “Element.”
    A shot at Captain Planet and the Planeteers, who were tasked with wielding the five elements of Earth.
  • “I feel like I’m losin’ my focus” on “Feel.”
    A shot at people who have ADD.
  • “I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow” on “Feel.”
    A shot at all of the tomorrows that have yet to come.
  • “I feel like friends been overrated” on “Feel.”
    A shot at Ross, Rachel, Monica, Joey, Chandler, and Phoebe.
  • “I ain’t feelin’ your presence” on “Feel.”
    It’s actually not “presence.” It’s “presents.” This is a shot at Santa.
  • “But nothin’ is awkward” on “Feel.”
    Teenagers. All of them.
  • “Fuck your feelings” on “Feel.”
    This is a shot at that little girl from Inside Out, the movie about the feelings in her head. She didn’t deserve this. She was just trying to settle into her new life.
  • “I can feel it, the dream is more than the process” on “Feel.”
    This is a shot at NBA superstar Joel Embiid, otherwise known as the Process. Kendrick is saying he’ll never live up the legacy of Hakeem Olajuwon, otherwise known as the Dream.
  • “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” on “Feel.”
    This is a shot at Pastor Tony, who was in charge of the youth ministry where my uncle used to make me go when I’d spend the night at his house on weekends. Pastor Tony used to end every session with something close to, “And finally, let’s all say a prayer for everyone who isn’t here right now who thinks that nobody is praying for them.” I honestly had no idea that Pastor Tony was so thick in the rap game. Mostly I just thought he was a guy who thought it was cool to tuck his shirt in while not wearing a belt.
  • “A better way to make a wave” on “Loyalty.”
    Waves are caused by gravity. It’s been that way for more than 4 billion years. Here, Kendrick is basically saying, “Fuck gravity. There’s better ways to make waves.” This is a shot at gravity.
  • “I’m a asshole” on “Loyalty.”
    This is a shot at literal assholes, or the “rectum,” if you’re a doctor, or the “poop shoot,” if you’re an uncle, or the “bum-bum,” if you’re a mom.
  • “I know the walls” on “Pride.”
    This is a shot at the windows and the doors. Kendrick does not know the windows and the doors. He does not respect the windows and the doors. He knows only the walls.
  • “A perfect world is never perfect” on “Pride.”
  • “Race barriers” on “Pride.”
    Kendrick is name-dropping race barriers. He’s willfully ignoring all the other barriers. This is a shot at reef barriers, physical barriers, communication barriers, systemic barriers, attitudinal barriers. No barrier is safe, save for race barriers.
  • “Sit down” on “Humble.”
    A shot at standing up.
  • “As blood rush my favorite vein” on “Lust.”
    (I’m going to break character for a second here. Maybe my favorite part of writing an article is the research part of it. It’s just fun to learn a new thing. While working on this Kendrick article, I got to this vein line and then got lost down a veins-based research hole for a solid 45 minutes. Veins are incredible. Some things I learned: (1) Veins are one of the three types of blood vessels. They carry blood to the heart. (2) The other types of blood vessels are arteries, which carry blood away from the heart, and capillaries, which connect veins to arteries. (3) The smallest blood vessels are more than three times thinner than a single strand of hair. And the most impossible-to-believe one … (4) If you took all of the blood vessels out of an adult human and arranged them in a straight line, that line would be more than 100,000 miles long! WTF. Shout-out veins. Y’all are so dope.)
  • “Backstroke oversea” on “Love.”
    This is a shot at Matthew Webb, who famously swam across the English Channel in 1875. Webb actually didn’t make it across successfully until his second attempt. It was a harrowing, thoroughly taxing swim for him. Kendrick, by mentioning the backstroke — easily the most disrespectful swimming stroke to use if you’re challenging someone to a swim race — is saying he could complete the swim easily.
  • “I know connection is vague” on “Love.”
    This is a shot at Cricket Wireless, which has very spotty coverage.
  • “Curves and your hips from yo’ mammy” on “Love.”
    This is a shot at Curves, a weight loss center franchised across the country.
  • “I bought the big one to prove it” on “Love.”
    A shot at the small one.
(Sean Mack)
(Sean Mack)
  • “Throw a steak off the ark” on “XXX.”
    A shot at cows.
  • “Walk myself to the court like, ‘Bitch, I did that!’” on “XXX.” 
    Kendrick is taking a shot at lawyers here. Who needs them? is what he’s saying.
  • “You overnight the big rifles” on “XXX.”
    This one actually isn’t a dis. It’s a nod of respect to the United States Postal Service. It’s illegal to send handguns through the mail. You can, however, send rifles through the mail if you’re sending it to someone who has a gun license. Kendrick takes shots at lots of things, but the USPS is not one of them. He has great respect for the USPS. He follows their rules.
(Sean Mack)
(Sean Mack)
  • “What happens on Earth stays on Earth” on “Fear.”
    This is a shot at astronauts. Things that happen on Earth affect them.
  • “I kill ’em with kindness” on “God.”
    This is a shot at anyone who has killed someone with anything other than kindness, in that killing someone with kindness would not result in jail time, meaning Kendrick is saying he’s smarter than anyone who has ever killed anyone any other way.
  • “My heart is rich” on “God.”
    This is a shot at Phish, who one time released a song called “Poor Heart.” It might seem surprising that Phish, the most nonconfrontational type of rock band, would end up in a rap beef, but there’s a long history of them helping shape rap, including the time Tupac rapped “First off, fuck your bitch and the clique you claim,” which was in response to Phish’s song “Reba,” and the time Jay Z rapped, “You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you,” which was in response to Phish’s “I’m a Big Fuck.”
  • “Two extra biscuits” on “Duckworth.”
    This is a shot at a guy I used to work with. One time he ordered a value meal for lunch from KFC, and a woman who worked with us and had an off period offered to pick up lunch because she was nice like that. When his food showed up, it was missing the biscuit that was supposed to come with it. The woman said that the employees must’ve forgotten to put it in there. She later told me she actually ate it on the drive back from KFC because she didn’t like him. I respected her so much for that move.

III. The Summary

Nobody is safe from Kendrick. May God protect us all.