A play in three acts, “FEAR,” the lengthy centerpiece of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, uses a storytelling structure that’s rare in music but common in theater and film. This seven-minute meditation on one of the most basic (and terrifying) human emotions gives us snapshots of seven-year-old, 17-year-old, and 27-year-old Kendrick in succession, showing how fear impacts each one differently.
Early in his life, Kendrick’s fear is a product of the physical punishment inflicted upon him when he disobeys his mother, whose perspective he adopts during the first verse. “I’ll beat yo’ ass,” she repeatedly warns, citing childish inflictions that range from universal-- jumping on the couch, dirtying new shoes-- to impoverished specifics-- “County building's on my ass, tryna take my food stamps away/I’ll beat yo' ass if you tell them social workers he live here.”
The second verse, perhaps the song’s most harrowing, unfolds when Kendrick is confronted with the many dangers of being 17 in Compton. This time, the refrain is, “I’ll prolly die,” and the causes he lists are either gang-related (“I'll prolly die 'cause these colors are standin' out”), police-related (“I'll prolly die walkin' back home from the candy house,” referencing Michael Brown’s death), or drug-related (“I'll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments”). In the album’s most heartbreaking moment, Kendrick raps, “I'll prolly die 'cause that's what you do when you're 17.”
Kendrick was 27 when he released To Pimp a Butterfly, considered by many to be an instant classic, but even that masterful album was the product of fear, according to his third verse. “My biggest fear was bein' judged,” he says, “How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city.” Is this what led him to concoct such a highfalutin concept album, rather than something more lighthearted and/or ignorant?
The structure of “FEAR” reminds us of Moonlight, the Oscar-winning 2016 film that’s similarly split into three sections-- childhood, adolescence, adulthood-- that follow one character as he progresses through life. Like the film, this song’s sections are linked only tangentially, with few recurring characters or subjects outside of the guiding theme, and like the film, that theme is trauma that haunts an individual for a lifetime. It’s a powerful structural tactic in theaters, and it’s just as powerful when compounded into a seven minute journey through Kendrick’s mind. Once again, Kung Fu Kenny proves he’s the best storyteller in hip-hop.