Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. review — still powerful but smaller in scope DAMN. looks inward and finds a boundary-pushing artist fearful and anxious
I’ve been a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar since I first heard Section.80 in 2011 and was blown away not only by his technical rapping skills but also his artistic vision. When Kendrick released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in 2012 I thought “there is no way he can top this.” It was an incredible album. A conceptual album which told the story of the now legendary rapper and artist, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth growing up in the notorious city of Compton, California. On the record Kendrick told touching personal anecdotes of a life we’ve seen depicted in films such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society and heard about in the gangsta rap of the late 80s and early 90s from hip-hop artists such as N.W.A., Ice Cube and 2pac — the latter of which is Kendrick’s biggest influence. The album was very critically and commercially successful earning Kendrick five Grammy Award nominations and giving him the worldwide fame and recognition he deserved. The world eagerly (and anxiously) awaited what he would do next but no one could have predicted it would be 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Although, it was still a concept album as his past two albums had been Butterfly was radically different in sound from anything Kendrick had released before. The album drew its sonic influences largely from the dance-able politically charged jazz and funk of the 70s such as The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Fela Kuti and George Clinton, the latter of which was featured on the opening track “Wesley’s Theory.” The album was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, it earned Kendrick 11 Grammy Award nominations (five of which he won!) and one of its singles “Alright” became the protest anthem for Black Lives Matter marches across the globe.
Two years on from Butterfly and Kendrick Lamar has released DAMN., his fourth (third major) studio album. The album received very little build-up in promotion, Kendrick was already one of the biggest rappers in the game only really competing with Drake. On March 23, 2017 he released The Heart Part 4, the latest in his series of hard-hitting songs which asserted his dominance as the king of hip-hop. On March 30, 2017 he released “HUMBLE.“, along with an amazing music video, a braggadocious banger produced by Mike Will Made It. But I have to admit when I first heard “HUMBLE.”, I was a little worried that Kendrick would be going too broad and commercial with this album. I knew I would love it regardless because I’m a shameless Kendrick stan but I was still a little anxious. To Pimp a Butterfly had become my favourite album of all time (yes I really mean it) that album changed my life and opened my mind, made me alert, angry, sad yet hopeful. I also wanted more of the jazz and funk and more of the spoken word and poetry. But Kendrick never does the same thing twice. He’s always pushing himself to new creative directions and that’s what makes him one of the most important and talented artists alive. I shouldn’t have doubted at all, after two weeks of listening almost constantly I can say confidently that DAMN. is an exceptional album.
DAMN. opens with “BLOOD.”, it has some haunting vocals from Bēkon, who appears throughout the album. He sings “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” and this line recurs throughout the album and forms the premise of the album. The meaning I got from this line is that we all have the innate traits of wickedness and weakness inside of us that motivate us to do things and guide our emotions. And will it be wickedness or weakness which cause our ultimate demise, we the listener are encouraged to decide. Whether Kendrick is talking about all of humanity or black people specifically is ambiguous. Like the poem in Butterfly, this line makes the listener think deeper about the album’s themes however unlike the poem we don’t get an interview with 2pac at the end of the album explaining what it means. While, Butterfly was a really complex, intricate album which explored big socio-political themes and there’s a lot which can still be learnt from it, DAMN. albeit smaller in scope is an even more complex and perplexing album because it’s themes are more personal and internal, it’s lyrics often cryptic and ambiguous. Two years on from Butterfly, there are finer details of the album I still discover or hear afresh even after countless listens but I’ve got a good grasp on the album, with DAMN. I suspect it will take even longer. After two weeks there’s no way I will be able to unpack all the themes and meanings in DAMN. but I will try my best to touch on some of them. On “BLOOD.” Kendrick tells the story of how he was shot by a blind woman perhaps representing Lady Justice, a personification of justice. This I argue may suggest the betrayal of the criminal justice system against African-Americans as the track ends with a sample from FOX News reporters quoting Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET awards: “Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote: “and we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho’…” which leads into “DNA.”.
OMG, OMG, OMG “DNA.”!!!
DAMN, K-Dot you straight snapped on this one!! Kung Fu Kenny fly kicked this beat in the head. This is bombbbbb!! 🔥🔥🔥💯💯💯 Who got you mad, huh? 🤔 Sorry I had to do that haha. But DAMN indeed. This track produced by Mike WiLL Made-It is an absolute scorcher and Kendrick repeats the line “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” He deems himself as loyal and celebrates the African genetics in his blood, the royalty of black people as he did on “I” on Butterfly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kendrick was descended from the Yoruba, just saying. He viciously attacks FOX news reporter, Geraldo Rivera on the bridge, a sample of Rivera saying “this is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” before launching into a fiery second verse in a rapid fire machine-gun flow “tell me somethin’ you motherfuckers can’t tell me nothin’.” It is absolutely jaw-dropping.
“YAH.” is a chill track as Kendrick raps in a slow cadence and has some Jamaican sounding background vocals. He again attacks Fox news directly calling them out “somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition” however the lines that follow are more interesting. “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion / I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo.” Throughout the album Kendrick is struggling with his faith, Kendrick is a Christian and his faith in God has been explored on his previous albums but on DAMN. Kendrick is struggling to believe in God because he’s suffering so much. It doesn’t mean he’s not religious anymore but as someone who was religious but lost faith as I started to question it I completely understand why he feels like this. I don’t think Kendrick is denouncing religion or his black identity but his black identity has been attacked so he feels like identifying with the Israelites and his faith in God is shaken because he is struggling with so much fear and anxiety. Kendrick showed that he was conflicted and struggled with the temptations of fame especially on black artists in the music industry on Butterfly. On DAMN. Kendrick really reflects on the stress, fear and anxiety which he feels because the world is looking up to him as a (black) messiah.
This is fully explored on the track “FEEL.”, one of the most emotional tracks on the album. Thundercat’s bass and the production on this song gives the lyrics all the emotional power they needs. Like “U” on Butterfly, Kendrick is crying for help on “FEEL.” “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em. But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” this line hits hard because it shows just how vulnerable he is despite being seen by the world as a messiah. He is brutally honest on this track, listing all the ways he feels vulnerable. The line “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was. The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’” while there isn’t an interview with 2pac on this album Kendrick clearly still has 2pac in mind. On DAMN., Kendrick goes back and forth between bangers, poppy tracks and emotional tracks. Almost every track has a counterpart, “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.” and “LUST.”, “FEAR.” and “GOD..” “ELEMENT.” comes before “FEEL.” but is tonally very different. On “ELEMENT.”, co-produced by James Blake, Kendrick boastfully raps “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy”, it’s a really catchy hook. On “LOYALTY. FEAT. RIHANNA.”, “LOVE. FEAT. ZACARI.” and “GOD.”, three of the most commercial sounding songs on the album Kendrick proves that he can make pop songs as well as rap better than anyone in the game. With DAMN.‘s already stellar commercial and critical success he’s proved himself right. Although these are the weakest tracks on the album, there are still enjoyable songs with great production.
“PRIDE.” and “LUST.” has some of the most interesting production on the album. “PRIDE.” is co-produced by 18-year old The Internet (the band) bassist, Steve Lacy. “PRIDE.”‘s watery guitar make it sound like an lo-fi indie rock song (Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens collab anyone?) and frequent collaborator, Anna Wise’s sweet vocals on the hook are welcome. On “LUST.” co-produced by Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD, Kendrick raps in a soft smooth cadence and flow reminiscent of OutKast’s Andre 3000. Kendrick raps “I need some water” this could have the metaphorically meaning of needing some water for his thirst (lust) or it could also mean water representing spiritual cleansing and baptism.
As well as “DNA.” the two other standouts on DAMN. are “XXX. FEAT. U2” (I know) and “FEAR.” “XXX.” begins with Bono singing “America, God bless you if it’s good to you / America, please take my hand / Can you help me underst-” and DJ Kid Capri’s recurring tag “New Kung Fu Kenny.” The production on this track is ridiculously great! Co-produced by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, DJ Dahi, Sounwave & Mike WiLL Made-It, the song has so many different parts and layers. It begins with Kendrick rapping in a sinister cadence almost sounding like 21 Savage with a bass-heavy beat and scratching, then he switches into a more aggressive voice and police sirens become part of the beat. “I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap / Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!” / Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward” these few lines shows the violence and aggression that Kendrick lived in his youth but on this track he almost threatens it because America has disappointed him and he would be forced to resort to violence. This track and these lines also reflect on black-on-black violence , Kendrick has come under fire before for talking about black people respecting ourselves but I think this is often misunderstood. What Kendrick is talking about is self-love and community and in his community black people kill each other because of a system that has failed them. The second verse finds Kendrick talking explicitly about America, the line “America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does” perfectly sums it up and Bono’s outro is honestly beautiful.
“FEAR.” is possibly my favourite track on the entire album. It is also the longest track at 7 minutes. It samples 70s soul/funk group 24-Carat Black’s song “Poverty’s Paradise” and is produced by The Alchemist, it sounds more than any song on DAMN. like Butterfly. It begins with a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl who gives some advice and quotes scripture “Deuteronomy 28:28 says, “The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.” The bridge from Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr. has the lines “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle” which perfect describes how Kendrick has felt throughout this album. The entire track perfectly encapsulates the themes and emotions explored on the album. The second verse is truly incredible. Kendrick shows so much vulnerability and it’s seriously affecting. Like he did on “FEEL.” Kendrick repeats a phrase at the beginning of several lines “I’ll prolly die anonymous / I’ll prolly die with promises / I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house.” With the line “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges” Kendrick raps about his fear of dying from police brutality, a serious issue in the United States disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The line “I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17” hits really hard because it’s just so depressing Kendrick thinks he will die just because he’s a young black male because as statistics show the leading cause of death for black males between ages 15–19 was homicide (45.3%) in the United States. As a young black man living in the United Kingdom who was once 17, I’ve felt (sometimes still feel) the same way, though police brutality is much less on an issue here statistics show that a disproportionate number of those who die in or following police custody following the use of force are from black and minority ethnic communities. And as a nervous young black boy who had recently moved to the country I was very fearful for my life during the first few years of secondary school. I thought I’d die before I made it to 20 and now I’m 20 I’m fearful I’ll die before 30. That’s why this line affects me so much. In the third verse Kendrick then raps about how he felt when he was 27 and “at 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged / How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city” this was after releasing To Pimp a Butterfly and the spotlight being on him and Compton. In the fourth verse, Kendrick raps about how he feels now “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ creativity” and at his current age of 29 Kendrick feels fear even more because as 2pac said in the interview on “Mortal Man” on Butterfly “once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a [black] man.” The track ends with another voicemail from his cousin Carl and he talks about how “Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians, are the true children of Israel” and “until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us.” This statement has proved to be controversial online and I’m not going to unpack it but it isn’t clear it’s something Kendrick agrees with but it’s definitely something he’s thought about.
Finally, the last track on DAMN. is “DUCKWORTH.” which tells the riveting tale of how Kendrick’s father “Ducky” narrowly escaped death because he offered Anthony “Top Dawg”, the co-president of TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) Kendrick’s label, free chicken and two extra biscuits. It’s an incredible well told story with great production from 9th Wonder, the beat switch is great and the vocal samples give it a really satisfying concluding feel. The last lines encapsulates the premise of wickedness and weakness “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.” It was weakness that meant Anthony spared Ducky’s life and wickedness would have meant Kendrick would grow up without a father and likely die in a homicide. I’m grateful that Anthony offered Ducky free chicken and biscuits because it allowed me a young black man from England to relate to the music of another black man from America, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, the greatest rapper of all time.
Originally published at anxiousblackman.wordpress.com on April 29, 2017.