Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
By Noah Franklin
Kendrick looks world-weary in the album art for DAMN. Understandable. Everybody is listening to him. Not in the sense of radio play-time — his only number one was “Bad Blood,” which isn’t even his song — but in the sense of cultural significance. Everybody is listening to him. His 2013 album Good kid m.A.A.d city told the story of millions. Two years later, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) struck a painful and hopeful national chord. Harvard is archiving it in their library; “How Much a Dollar Cost” was President Obama’s favorite song of 2015; “Alright” soundtracked black resistance to American oppression.
But now in “FEEL,” Kendrick raps “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em, but who the fuck prayin’ for me?” If you want to distill this sentiment to the trappings of fame, it’s not a novel concept by any stretch. In fact, Kendrick himself spent much of TPAB dealing with his loss of self amongst his newfound success. But this is no 808s Kanye whining about being stuck in first class on an airplane (no hard feelings Ye, but that was a bad look). This is Kendrick freezing himself in a moment in his life, and taking a good hard look: Where is he? Where is the rest of the world? Where is God?
Kendrick answers these questions with poise, poetry, and versatility. Throughout these 14 songs, Kendrick shows that he can do anything. On “YAH,” “LOVE,” and “GOD,” Kendrick proves once and for all that he can hold his own as a singer, while simultaneously dropping ridiculous rhymes like the almost syllable-for-syllable agreement of “If I didn’t ride blade on curb” and “If I minimize my net worth” on “LOVE.” Throughout, Kendrick showcases his infinite variety of voices and flows — and injects his trademark vitriol when necessary. As he states on “ELEMENT,” whatever he does — be it waxing philosophical, combatting systematic racism, or penning a catchy hook — he makes it look sexy. He concludes, “they won’t take me out my element” and he’s right.
The first barrier that Kendrick finds in his way on DAMN is Fox News, which seems like an odd target to shoot at for the first three songs on the album. But in a way, Kendrick has taken a battle to its source. Fox News dispatches “facts” to the whole world, such as hip-hop being worse than racism. Kendrick swiftly attacks this poisonous geyser of ignorance and plugs it before continuing with his album. And he does so with fireworks. “DNA” is the hardest track on the album. Kendrick sounds like he’s rattling off a bulleted list of reasons why he has a right to live, and a right to the throne. It’s a fierce presentation of Kendrick Lamar in the face of his foes. At the bridge a bass rumbles, Fox news turns on, and by the second verse, Kendrick has you by the throat, and he’s somehow howling at you from every direction.
There is a double-take-inducing moment on “XXX” that proves Kendrick has a death grip on his image. Kendrick is in the middle of spitting a verse in which he advocates for murderous revenge on those who harm his family when he hangs up the phone to speak at a convention — “Alright kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control.” Kendrick does not pretend to be a messiah. He does not weave utopias in his verses, nor does he always preach non-violence or anti-substance messages. For this, right-wing critics pounce on hip-hop. But is this what we want of hip-hop, rather than truth? Do we hold any other genre, let alone art form, to these standards?
“DAMN” often reads as diary entries. Songs like “FEEL,” “LOYALTY,” and “FEAR” come across as bits of thought and story orbiting around a central word. Kendrick has chosen the most penetrating, profound feeder words for a freestyle session for the ages. But they bleed into each other, because Kendrick cannot completely segment himself into vague concepts. God shows up in more songs than just “GOD.” On nearly every song, “FEAR” is somewhere, lingering in the background. There are also dualities at play. “LUST,” which features Kendrick rapping about quotidian vices over what sounds like flames licking a tape-recorder in reverse, feeds into the lush swirls of “LOVE,” the most intoxicating song on the album. In a conspicuous flip-flop, “PRIDE,” seems like it should be called “HUMBLE,” and vice-versa. Perhaps it’s a tricky division for Kendrick to manage in his real life.
As for his place in the world, Kendrick sometimes feels trapped. In the final verse of “FEAR” he states “my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God.” He juggles his heritage (his “BLOOD” and “DNA”) versus what he can become. Kendrick sometimes feels jaded. In “PRIDE” he raps “I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface, world/I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men.” But these fade in the big picture because what Kendrick does most on DAMN is zoom out. The phrase “What happens on Earth stays on Earth” prominently stamps a couple songs — a cliché spun into a truth. Human intrapersonal and interpersonal issues have no cosmic significance. “GOD” can be read as a divine brag — Kendrick flaunting that nothing bothers him from the height he’s reached — but it can also be read as God chuckling at the follies of mortals. Kendrick has just spent 45 minutes talking about how he feels, but to God: “You feel some type of way, then a-ha!” God laughs.
Kendrick ends the album with “DUCKWORTH,” a track that displays his masterful storytelling. But he isn’t a character in this story; it predates him. The track runs through a time when Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith (Kendrick’s current label-head) almost killed Ducky, Kendrick’s father. He ends the album: “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? If Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” It is a story of the fragility of success, of human life, of any chance trajectory that snowballs from nothing into something. Kendrick thinks his story, his two cents, are worth sharing. But his success has no grand import. You can listen or not.