Kendrick Lamar is a 29 year old Compton, California native and unstoppable musical force. Since his impressive debut album Section.80, Kendrick Lamar has been setting not only the hip hop world ablaze, but the entire musical spectrum as well. Following up Section.80 with the exhilarating, conceptual rap opera Good Kid, M.A.A.D City Kendrick Lamar became a household name and crafted what some consider to be a modern classic. Broadening his horizons further, Kendrick went on to craft an album that is absolutely a modern day classic with the poetic, spiritual, genre bending masterpiece called To Pimp a Butterfly, an album so soaked with genius that even it’s B-Sides culminated into the fantastic Untitled Unmastered released last year.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kendrick Lamar, I really hope it’s not cold beneath that rock you live under because the universal acclaim and appeal to his music thankfully isn’t the product of overhype. This is a true artist, a hip hop virtuoso able to blend heady poetry and conceptuality with sincere unambiguity. Mixing that in with God tier production, carefully chosen features, and a unique, yet ever shifting eclectic style unmatched in modern hip hop, and Kendrick has rightfully earned his early spot in the G.O.A.T. arguments we here today. Now it’s 2017 and we have DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, yet another testament to the unbridled power of rap music.
Given Kendrick’s previous two releases between the straightforward storytelling of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and the cryptic poeticism of To Pimp a Butterfly, it was difficult to tell where Kenny was going to head next. DAMN., in some respect, meets us halfway with many of the songs here being open to interpretation, which is somewhat a blessing and a curse. The track list consists of one-word, all-caps song titles that seem to detail the topic of the song. “BLOOD.” opens with Kendrick telling a short story of his death, murdered by an old blind woman. “LOVE.” ft Zacari is a beautiful and frank love song. “GOD.” repeats the mantra of “this is what God feels like.” “FEEL.” has Kendrick repeating several lines about, well, how he feels. Etc, etc.
As uncomplicated as it may seem, DAMN. becomes intriguing when you take into consideration Kendrick might not be pointing his fingers in the direction it obviously seems he is aiming them at, for instance, the radio-friendly “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna. Some may view this track as loyalty to a lover, family, friends, or perhaps god, and all of these are plausible, however, given the Jay Z quote amidst the chorus “It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust,” I have my reservations. Kendrick is loyal to the game, to hip hop, and to his community; this has been exemplified from the faux Tupac interview which Kendrick masterfully weaved into the closer of To Pimp a Butterfly. “LOYALTY.” could likely be seen as a song about the burdens of loyalty, as well as its virtues.
This begs the question: how cryptic is this album really? Given the sound, emotions and textures of this album, it doesn’t seem all that complex, but considering Kendrick’s unique approach to identity, much of it is skewed. Throughout his career, it’s been hard to tell when we’re hearing the real Kendrick or a character/caricature used to epitomize the statements made in his music. “DNA.,” for example, is a song that literally made me fall out of my fucking seat upon first listen. It seems to describe the relationship to irrational thought/behavior and biology. Then, Kendrick does something really interesting by inserting clips of Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera saying that hip hop has done more to damage black youth than racism, which is obviously a preposterous statement, but it’s strategically utilized by Kendrick to sound menacing. The uneducated statement comes across as even more harmful and violent than the manic lyrics Kendrick delivers during the track’s second half after the incredible, brain-melting beat switch.
Is this simply a collection of songs that dive deeper into the psyche of its narrator, or is this something a bit more conceptual? Could it somehow be both simultaneously? Ultimately, I find DAMN. to be a rap album about rap itself; it’s about the redemptive power and influence on culture at large. “DNA.” is completely indicative of this. The fiery, piss-and-vinegar anguish is a total repudiation of hip hop’s detractors, a song that takes laser focused aim onto the people that just don’t get it. It’s a song for the people who say “Why do they cuss so much? Why do they say the N word? Why is it violent? BLUE LIVES MATTER!” “DNA.” and the rest of DAMN. is the appropriate, fuck off response to the uninitiated. Kendrick Lamar isn’t here to mince words. The lyrics are violent, sexual and depressing because he’s telling it how it is. He and other rappers make this music to detail the world through their own eyes. It’s hip hop that ultimately saves Kendrick’s life, which can be heard in the harrowing finale “DUCKWORTH.” Over the most direct, boom-bap beat of the album, Kendrick tells the fascinating story of how his father was nearly murdered by Top Dawg Entertainment founder years before Kendrick Lamar was signed by Top Dawg Entertainment. He wraps up the album with the riveting, final lines before looping the album back into itself and restarting the story from the beginning.
“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”
DAMN. makes for another gripping album in Kendrick’s discography. From the stellar production to Kendrick’s focused lyrics and song topics, DAMN. does a fantastic job of bridging the gap between the jazzy, R&B-tinged To Pimp a Butterfly and the grimy, street-life storytelling of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. The lead single “HUMBLE.” is a terrific banger that stands on it’s own as a single while taking on new life in the context of the album. Coming immediately after “PRIDE.,” which features some of Kendrick’s best singing and an almost Tame Impala inspired chorus, it’s apparent the plea for humility isn’t directed towards you, but towards Kendrick himself.
Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel like this brings up one of the album’s biggest flaws, or possibly it’s biggest strength, depending on how you look at it. So much here is open to interpretation it’s almost impenetrable. Kendrick’s Kanye-like God complex bring in the album’s weakest track by far: the glitzy, repetitive “GOD.” Then, there’s the strange Judaism allusions that are referenced a handful of times. Either way you look, it’s hard not to find it all a little fascinating. Kendrick’s talents for lyrics and beat selection are on full display, and his multiple personality and vocal stylings play an integral part of the messages he conveys, even if these messages are a bit muddy. I mean, it’s hard not respect a dude that made fucking Bono actually sound cool on the multi-faceted, barn-burner “XXX.”
DAMN.’s album art shows Kendrick peering into your eyes. He’s intimidating. His stare is disrespectful. His demeanor is haggard. This album lives up to that evil gaze. Still, it’s hard to tell if that’s really the message he’s trying to convey. Despite the brashness of “DNA.” and the intoxicating debauchery of “LUST.,” there’s also tinder moments such as “LOVE.” Even when he has to beat someone’s ass he makes it “look sexy” as he sings on “ELEMENT.,” another standout. This album does find Kendrick in his element, and his element is on shaky ground. He’s got a lot on his mind: God, Trump anxiety, and a determined, yet compromised allegiance to all things hip hop, which he beautifully recites on the cloud-rap inspired “FEEL.” For Kendrick, hip hop isn’t just a trendy style of music that has dominated the mainstream; it’s not enough that it’s influenced media, fashion, culture and even changed the goddamn dictionary. Hip Hop has genuinely saved his life and this is him extending his olive branch. Let’s pray for him… or pray to him, because it’s kind of hard to tell.
God Tier: “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “FEEL.”, “LOYALTY.”, “PRIDE.”, “HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.”, “XXX”, “FEAR.”, “DUCKWORTH.”
Damn… Tier: “GOD.”