There’s no better word to encapsulate the experience of listening to Kendrick Lamar’s latest epic, an album that cuts more precisely than its predecessors without sacrificing the vital narrative arc we’ve come accustomed to hearing from a K.Dot record. But DAMN. is far removed from anything else in Lamar’s discography; good kid, m.A.A.d. city told a fictional story of a kid growing up in impossible circumstances while To Pimp a Butterfly was an opus addressing the experience of being black in 21st century America, celebrating the strength, resiliency necessary to survive in such a space and time. DAMN., then, is the most internalized we’ve heard Lamar, as he opens up about his father, his beginnings with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) and his underlying fears – first as an unknown teenager susceptible to being relegated to a statistic of inner-city violence, then later as a twentysomething millionaire who could lose it all thanks to the greed of others. If his past albums highlighted the problems unique to the black experience in America, DAMN. is the reckoning. DAMN. is Lamar’s most aggressive record to date, taking the palpable anger from tracks such as “Backstreet Freestyle” and “The Blacker the Berry” and extending that over 14 tracks, manifesting itself in numerous ways.
Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?
Those are the first words we hear on “BLOOD.,” DAMN.‘s opening track, and the motif courses throughout DAMN.‘s veins. It’s also a stark left turn from To Pimp a Butterfly‘s opening “every nigga is a star,” which set the tone for that album’s resilient, formidable pride. His interaction on “BLOOD.” is also a reversal from his interaction with a homeless man on that album’s “How Much a Dollar Cost.” There, Lamar is antagonistic towards the homeless man, taking exception to him looking to Lamar for salvation. The twist comes when the man turns out to be God, forcing Lamar to re-evaluate his perceptions. Here, he sees a homeless woman, looking lost. Instead of turning a blind eye like he attempted to do on “Cost,” he goes to help the woman, only to end up another victim of gun violence. Either way, he’s damned.
Of course that’s not the true Kendrick Lamar origin story – that comes on the mesmerizing closer “DUCKWORTH.” – but it showcases Lamar’s magnetic ability to cause a friction and urgency in his music; we’re constantly aware of how rare it is to see someone truly rise from rags to riches, and how quickly those riches can evaporate. If there’s any contemporary rap album to compare DAMN. to, it would be Kanye West’s sharpened Yeezus, an album that dared its listeners to follow West to his darkest extremes, musically and lyrically. Like that album, there’s an unpredictable, combustable quality to DAMN., which we’re introduced to as soon as “DNA.” begins.
“This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”
We hear that infuriatingly dumb quote during “DNA.”‘s bridge, and throughout the entire song, both in Lamar’s deliver and Mike WiLL Made-It’s dexterous, hardened production, it’s as if the two are daring anyone who’d agree with such a vapid statement; you think rap is “harmful to young African Americans”? It’s going to be a lot more harmful to you. “DNA.” is somewhat of a false start, however. The following tracks find Lamar at his lushest musically, although “ELEMENT.” and “FEEL.” certainly up the stakes during their runtime. “Nobody praying for me” is a constant refrain throughout DAMN., and is central to “FEEL.” It culminates when Lamar questions “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for them / But who the fuck is praying for me?” It’s a cathartic, humanizing exhale from an artist in extremely rarefied air.
“America, God bless you if it’s good to you”
The “American Dream” isn’t quite that for most Americans, something Lamar painfully understands from his upbringing. “XXX.”, another masterclass Mike Will production featuring U2 – yes, U2, not just Bono (although maybe not The Edge) – opens with that line, and the song feels like a natural synthesis of Lamar’s grounded realism with U2’s wide-eyed idealism. When a friend calls Lamar inconsolable over his son’s death due to police brutality, instead of praying for him, Lamar is brutally honest. “If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed,” he raps over blaring sirens. Warning received.
As candid as that moment is, perhaps Lamar has never sounded more candid than on “FEAR.,” the album’s incredible centerpiece. The song chronicles Lamar’s journey up to the current day, and just how quickly fear can infect, inform ones being. At seven, Lamar is taught to fear authoritative figures, his parents most specifically. Ten years later, at 17, the state is his biggest fear, ending up a hashtag, another black life lost to police brutality. And after becoming an artist in the conversation for greatest rapper of all-time, his main fears lie in the legacy he leaves behind. As much as Lamar could follow a life of love, loyalty, and God, he could just as easily fall into a life of lust, fear, blind pride.
Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?
What if it’s both? What if it’s neither? What if it’s impossible to ever know?