Written by Jourdan-Reiss Rusell
When it comes to great art, it should affect the zeitgeist; invading every conversation, debate and argument. The subject since March 23rd, in this case, has been Kendrick Lamar and his now-released 3rd major-label album DAMN. ‘Is he the best?’ ‘Is this new album any good?’ ‘What even is ‘wickedness or weakness’?’ It’s undoubtedly his most divisive project, one that sees Lamar reinventing himself once again, offering a new perspective. The contrast is immediate looking at the artwork for To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN.. The former is a jubilant group snapshot of Black America, posing with hundreds and a slumped judge, not giving a f*ck while Kendrick lays in the cut grinning from ear to ear. The latter, however, has him up close and alone, in front of cold red bricks with a glazed stare. His smile has vanished, replaced with a dour scowl.
The solitude in the album cover suggests a keen self-awareness. Kendrick has strived to become a peerless rapper, but upon achieving his goal he must face his new reality. Nobody prays for you. You become the voice of not just your city, but your entire culture. Fox News talks about your music’s ‘negative’ impact on African-Americans. So what are you supposed to do? What are you meant to create? Kendrick said himself that “[he’s] no longer in a space to address the problem” facing his people and his country, so what next?
It’s these questions that produce the ever-shifting, expansive soundscape we hear on DAMN.’s 14 tracks. These internal struggles create songs like DNA., a banger that explores who and what Kendrick is before transforming into lyrical destruction of white conservatism. It’s schizophrenic and aggressive, a track that switches from proud to self-deprecating and vicious, with banging instrumentals from Mike WiLL Made-It that signal the departure from the epic jazz-rap journey on Butterfly. Instead, we get lavish, multi-layered production from veterans such as Alchemist, 9th Wonder and TDE’s Sounwave. Kendrick uses Juvenile from Hot Boys’ trademark flow on ELEMENT.. He even enlists the legendary Kid Capri. It gives DAMN. a more traditional feel, one that looks forward with DNA. and HUMBLE. but harks back with masterful deep cuts such as FEEL., FEAR. and DUCKWORTH.. Even the less topical, pop-rap singles are well produced; like LOYALTY. and LOVE., the latter of which amends Hotline Bling’s framework to fit DAMN.’s complex subject matter.
Lyrically, the album is remarkably dense. There are numerous motifs on DAMN., presented with the intent of each listener drawing their own opinion. LUST., for example, manages to address carnality, love and its reciprocation, worldly vices, and Trump all with a silky smooth flow but deadpan cadence, hammering home Kendrick’s apathy toward the world. This apathy is explored in the stunning FEEL. which asserts his dominance over the rap game while lamenting over giving his soul to the world when that love isn’t reciprocated. This is Kendrick taking on very Kendrick-esque themes, sure, but there is a difference; the bars are more poetic, the flows and cadences varied and considered. The album centerpiece FEAR. shows this best, a 7 and a half minute odyssey into Kendrick’s deepest fears at three stages of growing up. His use of perspective, repetition of phrase to establish a mood and command of his own voice accentuate the pained and introspective lyricism, pulling you deep into the psyche of someone who’s all too aware that everything he has could be taken away.
Coincidence is a funny thing, because this could have never happened. DAMN. ends with the stellar DUCKWORTH.; a milestone that marks his mastery of the art, one that wondrously depicts a too-strange-to-be-fiction story of how Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith robbed a KFC in Compton back in ‘88, deciding not to make Kendrick’s father a casualty. It shows us how close we were to not even having Kendrick and how important family was to determining his destiny. For someone who believes God’s been punishing his chosen ones, DUCKWORTH. sounds a lot like divine providence. Life really is one funny motherf*cker.
Listen to DAMN. below:
Credit: Kendrick Lamar