Written by: The Bro
Nearly five months in, 2017 has rapidly marched along to the faint but familiar drumbeats of catastrophe. Black bodies still litter the street, gunned down by police. Lower and middle class jobs continue to disappear as corporate greed and automation rear their collective head. And Donald Trump is president. And yet despite it all, the sun is still shining and many if not most people go about their daily lives in a state of status quo blur. We may not be alright, but at least the wifi still works. On DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s stellar fourth album, the greatest rapper of his generation finds himself reckoning with his fate as well as that of society.
To Pimp A Butterfly was a brilliant portrait of Lamar, and black America, in 2015. Battling depression, addiction, and self doubt, Kendrick emerged victorious by the final track (Mortal Man), where he cast himself as a prophet. The Kendrick that emerges two years later is weathered and spiritually exhausted. The overarching narrative of perseverance on his previous album is gone, the survivor’s guilt replaced by PTSD. On BLOOD., Kendrick describes a chance encounter with a blind lady in need. He attempts to help her and is shot, as payment for his good deed. What follows is a news clip in which Fox News cynically attacks Kendrick, twisting lines from his seminal black anthem Alright into the violent work of a thug. The comparison between the gunshot and the news clip is hard to miss. The feeling is reminiscent of the first track on his 2016 surprise release Untitled Unmastered, where a repentant Kendrick found himself before God offering up To Pimp A Butterfly as proof for his soul only to still be judged harshly. That track ended with a deep voice ominously suggesting “whatever makes you happy in this bitch, just make sure you take it all back before the light switch.” But does it matter?
What follows are a flurry of thunderbolts. DNA. comes alive with a booming Mike Will beat and Kendrick declaring his greatness as predetermined by his primogeniture, climaxing in a beat switch that feels like two athletes in their prime challenging each other one on one. It’s the display of a master proving a point, or reclaiming a crown some may have thought he lost with To Pimp A Butterfly’s more conscious focus. The aggression continues on ELEMENT., which seems like a declaration of war over 808s. Four years after Control, he’s still daring someone to directly challenge him (“Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand/Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman.”)
However the bravado proves to be fleeting, and on FEEL. Kendrick returns to a familiar place: self doubt. Lamenting that no one is praying for him, Kendrick lists his insecurities with haunting precision, while also expressing frustration with the complacency of society while the world falls apart.
I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’
But nothin’ is awkward, the feelin’ won’t prosper
Are you really a prophet if no one believes you? Are you really a prophet when you’re as damned as everyone else? The sense of powerlessness is palpable, a jarring contradiction to the “Kung Fu Kenny” who slayed the previous trap beats. The intro’s gunshot seemingly reverberates through every line, a fatal reminder that the end is nigh and perhaps no good deed will go rewarded. DJ Kid Capri, who looms over multiple tracks almost like a cosmic figure, spins the vinyl of life on the previous track and declares “what happens on earth stays on earth.” In light of FEEL., the declaration feels like an omen.
LUST. further explores the sense of complacency as a monotone voiced Kendrick describes the fizzling reaction to President Trump’s election. Once spurred by calls to action, many people have given a collective sigh and returned to their normal routines. A comparison to Radiohead’s Fitter Happier seems apt here.
Almost entirely eschewing the jazz of To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. is more of an amalgam of sounds. From the boom bap drums of the Rihanna assisted LOYALTY. to the Pink Floyd-esque guitars found on PRIDE. (and the various interludes that weave throughout the album), the production shifts between styles and emotions. Much of the soundscape is as foreboding as Kendrick’s lyricism. On LOVE., Kendrick’s insecurities return as he examines his relationship over an ethereal soundscape punctuated by hard drums and angelic vocals from Zacari. It’s one of the few bright moments on what is Lamar’s darkest album yet.
Perhaps more than any rapper, Kendrick has a knack for theatrics and understands how to properly close an album. The final act begins with XXX. Over an urgent beat reminiscent of El-P, Kendrick recounts a conversation with a distraught father after the death of his son. Seeking comfort and answers, the father comes to Kendrick for closure. Instead Kendrick provides a manifesto of revenge before ending the call abruptly to make an anti-violence speech. The contradiction couldn’t be more clear. Backed by U2, the track’s outro finds Kendrick diagnosing the violence of the street as the symptom of America, a country built and sustained by it (“the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives”).
FEAR., perhaps the best track on the album, thumps with the weight of a terrified heartbeat as Kendrick relates three instances of fear: as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult. It also lays bear an apocalyptic view of damnation and curses, casting blacks and Hispanics as unfortunate souls being punished by God for waywardness.
The album climax occurs on the final track, produced by the legendary 9th Wonder. Over three separate beats, Kendrick pulls off his greatest storytelling feat yet: an amazing biography of TDE founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, and his fateful decision not to kill Kendrick’s father 20 years prior. “That decision changed both their lives, one curse at a time,” Kendrick declares, perhaps suggesting damnation isn’t as inevitable as previously stated. The song is a titanic triumph, and it’s even more amazing Kendrick waited until his fourth album to tell it.
DAMN. is a triumphant record, with minor flaws (the penultimate track, GOD., feels like something Future or Drake would be far better tasked to handle, melodically). As with previous projects, it offers little to no answers, but instead raises questions. Even the controversial Deuteronomy curse feels less like Kendrick’s answer than one of many offered to him by others, like a prophet crowd sourcing information. And much like the listener, he’s still searching for the truth.