With his 4th studio album, Kendrick Lamar reconciles his fame with his faith.
When I first stumbled upon Section.80’s “A.D.H.D.” and its accompanying music video, I had just moved from a small village, tucked away on the Hudson River, in Westchester County, New York, to a bustling city literally 5x its size in New Jersey. I was in the middle of my junior year of high school, still going entire nine hour days without speaking to a single soul, still flirting with depression and anxiety. Kendrick Lamar’s distinctly nasal voice, sharp, dexterous rhyming that felt reminiscent of Outkast’s Andre 3K and, mainly, his own disillusionment with the status quo, all acted as a safety net for my own confused, near-nihilistic thoughts. His sound was cathartic: hard, fearless anthems found home next to more somber, jazz-influenced moments of self-reflection and societal observations. Having been born in south India, the context of K-Dot’s raps were vastly different from my own upbringing. When Kendrick spits, “Got a high tolerance, when your age don’t exist,” it’s a comment on the persecution of young black men in this country, a tongue in cheek realization that at 23, he’s defying odds by simply existing - I initially ate it up as fuel for my own angst. But, over time, as any great author should, Kendrick made me question my core beliefs, embody perspectives I may have never considered, and empathize with issues dissimilar to my own. Kendrick acted as a bridge between older storytellers like Rakim or Nas and newer, swaggering, linguistic magicians like Lil Wayne.
In that sense, nothing about the way Kendrick approaches rap is groundbreaking. If anything, he’s a traditionalist to his core, exhaustively studying past and current Greats and refining their skillsets without bastardizing the heart of this artform. From the jump, Kendrick’s music has been a dizzying mix of blunt determination, abstract existentialism, and prophetic self-mythologizing-- you know, real rap. At the age of 16, on a remix of Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Kendrick rapped: “I’m the best at this profession, I can’t help but bring it back to the essence, motherfucker.” Coincidentally, I discovered Kendrick when I was 16 - seven years after those prescient claims. And, by then, still a year prior to the release of his major label debut, Dr. Dre, Snoop and Game had already crowned him the new King of the West Coast. So before good kid, m.A.A.d city leaked fall of my freshman year at college, before I played “m.A.A.d city” and had a basement full white frat dudes going wild, I gorged myself on his earliest projects, strayfreestyles and stunningguestspots and streetsingles.
GKMC blew me away - the form was masterful and the content felt gripping and profound. It was a call to action (“Will you let hip-hop die on October 22nd?”), a modern soundtrack to a poignant coming of age story that highlighted his talents as a perceptive storyteller while simultaneously establishing his presence in the mainstream. (It also got Jay Z to deliver one of his best verses in years on the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)”). With 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, he went left - or so the established narrative would have you believe. If you ask me, TPAB simply takes common elements from S.80 and GKMC and convolutes the performance with expensive set design. In parts, the convolution works. Unlike the omnipresent rapping on GKMC, TPAB was all about unresolved, internal conflict. As opposed to the Hollywood ending the firstalbum got, the follow up offers no clean breaks - just mantras of self-love like “Alright” or “i”, meant to offset the overwhelming feeling of self-doubt and insecurity. You let out a sigh of relief when GKMC ends, thankful that a young K-Dot had escaped from the trenches. When TPAB closes, you feel winded. Admittedly, I was captivated at first, but the dense packaging made it difficult to revisit.
Since then, conversations surrounding the Compton bard have reached a fever pitch, fans and critics alike chasing their own hyperbole with each subsequent review. If a brief collection of teasers, such as 2016’s untitled unmastered, is somehow deemed the best rap album of a year that gave us YG’s Still Brazy, then maybe we’re getting ahead ourselves. In an age of wild, unchecked innovation, Kendrick’s continued role as a traditionalist rap messiah has made the conversation for “best rapper alive” start and stop at him.
Enter DAMN., Kendrick’s fourth studio album.
I’m sure Rap Genius has 30 paragraphs on how the Blind Woman from the eerie intro is actually an obscure Biblical reference or something, but, to me, it seems like a metaphor for his relationship with hip hop: Kendrick has devoted his life to this artform, become it’s heart and soul, but is worried it will eventually take his life. Fox News (you know, the station that recently let go of Bill O’Reilly after years of sexual abuse allegations) questions his character and chastise his art, cousins whisper ideas of Israelites and divine purpose in his ear, and his own grandparents are passing away. When Kendrick vomits his insecurities on “FEEL.”, it plays like someone who’s been asked one too many times if they’re “okay.” (“FEEL.” is like if “Heaven & Hell” had a 3rd verse about Purgatory.) When he travels back to select moments of distinct paranoia at the ages of 7, 17 and 27 on “FEAR.”, he realizes his woes have only become more impenetrable over time. Some of the album’s repeated motifs - “Wicked or weakness”; “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me”; “What happens on Earth stays on Earth” - make it appear as if Kendrick lives in a grim world of absolutes. A world where he’s constantly forced to reconcile his fame with his faith, his current fortune with institutional wrongs. The agitation and frustration on here eventually gives way to one unifying thread: Fate. “What happens on Earth stays on Earth” - as in, what you do here matters, now, in the moment.
One could argue that this is Kendrick’s most efficient and effective album to date. On “XXX.” he manages to reiterate all the grand themes of TPAB in one go: circumstance vs. accountability, self-righteousness, hypocrisy - all of it. (“Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward,” he scoffs, before an interlude places him in a classroom about to speak on gun control). Where GKMC and TPAB try to spoon feed you their lessons, DAMN. sees Kendrick become a more confident writer. For the first time since gracing the world stage, Kendrick truly places his trust in the listeners, opting to drive the narrative in more subtle ways. The rapping is as purposeful as ever, but the songwriting is less contrived. There are no tracks as clunky as “Real,” or as disappointingly on the nose as “No Make Up” or “How Much A Dollar Cost.” The internal wars waged on “DNA” and “XXX” become more therapeutic with each listen, as does the stream of consciousness waxing on “FEEL.” or “PRIDE.”. In fact, after multiple playthroughs, “LUST.” is the only one not sticking with me - Kendrick’s ability to weave a tale out of thin air is impressive, but the knock off Anderson Paak-crooning just feels awkward. (Contrastingly, Kendrick’s vocals on “PRIDE.” or “GOD.” are the most crisp and infectious they’ve ever been).
It’s like Kendrick realized his two best songs were “Cartoons & Cereal” and “Average Joe” - the same rapper who once proclaimed, “the hardest thing for me to do is to get you to know me within 16 bars,” is still hoping he can find salvation through his raps. On that note, I do feel like he’s gotten so good at detailing the paradox of his existence - the duality of his morals and his struggle with faith - that a part of me wishes he’d branch into other territory. But when I hear shit like the Top Dawg plot twist on the last song, I can’t help but appreciate the forethought and consideration that goes into properly writing and executing these narratives at the right time. It reminds me that this is the same man who had the concept of GKMC stored away in the back of his mind while doing Lil Wayne karaoke to pass the time.
Unlike the full-blown live instrumentation or the deliberate attempts at playing with song structure on TPAB, DAMN. sees Kendrick working within stricter parameters. He seems to have self-imposed certain restrictions as far as the sound is concerned, intent on making this album more accessible, but still manages to create a rich, textured world. With OGs like Top Dawg and Sounwave anchoring the overall aesthetic, Terrace Martin’s funk, 9th Wonder’s sample flips, James Blake and DJ Dahi’s understated range and Mike WiLL’s precise, programmed drums are all allowed to coexist. Even if he hadn’t paid homage to Juvenile’s “Ha,” or had the legendary DJ Kid Capri formally introduce “Kung Fu Kenny,” the album’s sonics would’ve married multiple, distinct regions of rap together. He also manages to bridge the gap between S.80 and the trends of the current rap scene by abstaining from chasing innovation and choosing to be in the here and now. He acknowledges no peers as far as rappers go, but surrounds himself with the likes of young phenom from The Internet, Steve Lacy, who threatens to steal the show on “PRIDE.”
As with his previous efforts, Kendrick’s mission statement is still one of religious and moral absolution, a highwire act of reconciling one’s circumstances with one’s choices. The 55-minute runtime flits by at an exhilarating pace, playing like a flipbook of the human soul. Defiant, rumbling tracks like “DNA.”, the U2-assisted “XXX.”, or “HUMBLE.” (all produced by the increasingly versatile hitmaker from Atlanta, Mike WiLL Made It) are positioned like landmines. The potential hits (“LOYALTY.” featuring a sublime Rihanna or “LOVE.”, the ballad with Zacari) are more polished. And the soul-searching seen on the last three-song stretch is his best closing sequence to date. DAMN. is as ambitious and layered as Kendrick’s ever been. Don't believe me? Try running the album backwards - "DUCKWORTH." to "BLOOD." - and watch Kendrick's hopeless self-reflection morph into ferocious resilience.
One of Kendrick’s greatest talents has been making earnest albums that feel Important. Even though it may not be some unparalleled magnum opus, DAMN. is a tightly wound album brimming with unflinching self-reflection and brutal honesty. It’s a grim project at times, but these are grim times, are they not? Maybe God has damned us all, maybe the world is going toend tomorrow - Kendrick’s prophecies haven’t been wrong yet. But if it does, I feel like Kendrick would be right there trying to help piece it back together. And it’s this sense of perseverance that ultimately resonates. Once again, Kendrick has effectively let us use his psyche as a yardstick for our own, and I’m thankful for his sincere voice.