The stories contained within Kendrick Lamar‘s new album, Damn, are still in the process of being unfurled by his biggest fans. Crazy theories are popping up left and right, with a few people even convinced he’s going to drop a second project on Easter Sunday.
But the most powerful story of all might be on the album’s final track, “Duckworth.” Death is a constant theme in his work—both as a broader concept and an ever-present reality for a kid growing up in Compton—and it serves as the exclamation point on Damn.
The story told in “Duckworth” starts out as a re-telling of the life of TDE’s founder, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Kendrick bounces between autobiographical facts about Top (he’s the oldest of seven children) and tales of his misspent youth, highlighting his run-ins with police in his younger years. After beating a murder case and purchasing a flashy Mustang, Kendrick claims Top was a target for local cops from then on.
But as Top tries to break away from police, Kendrick says his path took him to a local KFC, where he met a man of some importance to Kendrick’s story:
He worked the window, his name was Ducky
He came from the streets, the Robert Taylor Homes
Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome
Drove to California with a woman on him and 500 dollars
They had a son hoping that he’d see college
Kendrick claims Ducky was aware Top Dawg robbed and shot up the very same KFC a year prior, so he did his best to get on Anthony’s good side by doling out free chicken every time he came through. For the cost of two extra biscuits, Ducky won Anthony over and evaded danger when Top Dawg robbed the KFC again.
So why does the story of Ducky matter? When Top Dawg stumbled into the KFC on that fateful day, he happened to run into the father of the man who would propel his record label to unforeseen heights:
You take two strangers
And put ’em in random predicaments
Give ’em a soul so they can
Make their own choices and live with it
Twenty years later them same strangers
You make ’em meet again
Inside recording studios where they reaping their benefits
Then you start reminding them ’bout that chicken incident
Whoever thought the greatest rapper
Would be from coincidence
Because if Anthony killed Ducky
Top Dawg could be servin’ life
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight
Devoted fans may have recognized “Ducky” as Kendrick’s father using earlier clues in the song. In 2015, Kendrick told Rolling Stone about his family’s move from Chicago to Compton and revealed his father had a job at KFC when he was growing up.
At the very least, Ducky’s job and the family’s story that brought him to the restaurant is certifiably true. And Top’s troubled history with the law is something he has never hidden from the public; he said in a 2014 interview that TDE’s creation was partly driven by admiration of an uncle who was thriving in the music industry. “I was out here dodging bullets and the police, and he had Bentleys and a big house. I thought, ‘Shit, I can’t go to jail doing music – let me try that.’ ”
But as far as the threat of death is concerned, we’ll take K-Dot’s word for it. Top may very well have run into Ducky a few times back in the day, but Kendrick’s origin story with Top Dawg tends to begin in his teenage years. Kendrick’s eventual boss only became aware of him after his partner (and now TDE co-president) Dave Free played an early K-Dot mixtape for Top while he was pretending to fix his computer. Top has a good relationship with the Compton rapper—Kendrick called him a father figure on “Untitled 2” and compared their relationship to the one between Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson—it just doesn’t necessarily mean he had any repeated interactions with his father back in the day.
Regardless, it’s fascinating story to add to Kendrick’s collection. The butterfly effect of this moment and how it would have altered his life forever can’t be overstated; if his father hadn’t built an understanding with Top Dawg, he could have easily been on the wrong end of a confrontation. Kendrick could have grown up without a father, more susceptible to the ills of the world around him, and the label that gave him his first chance would have never been created.
Damn centers heavily on introspection, and even in a song Kendrick penned about his father and his boss, he shows just how powerful small choices can be.