“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” opens Kendrick Lamar’s long awaited fourth album, Damn. The question he poses in “BLOOD,” the album’s first track, is answered by the rest of the album, highlighting the failings of man to meet his own expectations, burdened by fame, and still trying to make sense of his country, community and self. Dropped on April 14, Good Friday (which has sparked rather desperate speculation of a followup album on Easter), the 14-track album is a stripped down version of Kendrick, whose vocals and rich lyricism do the heavy-lifting, a welcome deviation from the instrumental, narration-heavy critically and popularly acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly.Though the album lacks the consistency of earlier concept releases, its purpose is to show the versatility of his storytelling, unbound by a single narration and style. In the face of a pre-release lead up that saw Kendrick checking his rivals, Damn. puts him over the non-existent edge displaying the various personalities, conflicts and manifestations of the man on the throne of the music scene, King Kendrick.
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Replete with biblical references, gangbanging, lilting samples and a tortured artist contemplating, critiquing, praising and chronicling, the album is born of a familiar formula that has made Kendrick such a popular and critical success. But this album is more personal. If his previous releases crowned him hip hop’s king and savior, Kendrick crucifies himself on Damn. cognizant of his own failings, following an examination his own sins on “PRIDE.” with the braggadocios “HUMBLE.” Confused in his own fame, Kendrick seeks to find a voice among his own canon, asking which part of him is the most authentic. And for a man who features prominently in the eyes of Barack Obama and The Game alike, the dichotomy is clear. Now that Kendrick has arrived at fame, where will it take him and will it poison the soul he has yet to find?
The album immediately reintroduces the listener to Kendrick’s world view of the precariousness of life in the album’s opening track, “BLOOD.” It tells the tale of Kendrick as he approaches a blind woman who seems to be looking for something on the pavement. After offering his help, the blind woman shoots Kendrick. Whether a symbol of the supposed “blindness” of Justice in America and its aberrant propensity to target black men, or just a tale of the bleak portrait he paints for human beings, the message is clear: Kendrick will not stop shying from the violence of his past or the poisoned soul of America that he has regaled us all about in the past.
Kendrick’s political references in Damn. are more overt than ever, emboldened by the increasing dissent toward the president and conservative constituency that placed him in the White House. He samples conservative commentators multiple times, the first in “BLOOD.” as Fox commentators recoil at his lyrics in “Alright,” specifically “we hate popo, wanna kill us idea in the street fo’ sho’.” He goes on to sample another Fox News clip in the bridge of his brash, unapologetic “DNA.” It features commentator Geraldo Rivera criticizing the lyrics from “Alright,” yet again, saying “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” A bogus claim that Kendrick lets speak to the ignorance and lack of understanding of many to the black condition.
The criticism of America is not just singular to our current situation. Kendrick has railed against what he finds wrong with the country in all of his work but he elevates his condemnation in U2’s featured track “XXX.” Bono helps expand the story of dissuading a young gangbanger by widening the scope to a greater American wrong. “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph/the great American flag/Is wrapped and dragged with explosives… Donald Trump’s in office/We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again/But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” The criticism is also personal, calling America “a mirror” on “XXX.” His own dark past, central to good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a platform for his latest installation of introspection, the conclusions of which resonate with so many others. Aligned with Bono’s refrain about questions unanswered and problems still developing, “It’s not a place/This country is to be a sound of drum and bass/You close your eyes to look around,” the track is an understated critique of a culture that keeps places like Compton down and praises their most achieved alum and a country that has lost itself in division.
In all of his work, Kendrick has tried to expand understanding of others’ truths and make his audience recognize the role that circumstances play in the development of a person. His “good kid” and “caterpillar” personas from his two previous albums respectively, are testaments to that. The “good kid” finds himself abused by the systems around him and people that bring him down in the community he loves. The “caterpillar” must fight off the capitalism of “Uncle Sam” and the indulgence and sin of the devil, “Lucy,” as he finds himself in the spotlight with grubby hands reaching inside him to cash out on his soul. If the two previous albums were Kendrick’s rise and then his arrival into fame and the conflicts he faced in each phase, this album is his tenure as tortured, reigning king, unabashedly including the new insecurities and external pressures singular to his established level of fame and distinction.
In “FEEL.” Kendrick illustrates this isolation in a burdened stream of consciousness illuminative of the recognizable torture that he endures, unresolved from even more recognition and the designation as “hip hop’s savior.” The track is reminiscent of To Pimp a Butterfly’s “u,” chronicling the disappointment he feels being unable to change the community he hails from and where his fame is heavily rested. And like “u,” the song changes mid-way to a brash, trance-like praise whose energy is matched only by the most reverent of Pentecostals. Unlike “u” the track lacks the emotional rawness of a crying, drunken and depressed Kendrick, rather it sees an all-too-familiar scene of a contemplative Kenny trying to make sense of the world, his situation and himself.
“FEEL.” is Kendrick’s most compelling statement of self. It is clear that Kendrick Lamar is burden by his critical distinction. Some call out his diss tracks as low-brow. Others criticize him for posturing on his “conscious shit.” His confusion is compelling, arguably the most raw confession of one’s own truth. Kendrick knows people look up to him, that he occupies the most coveted position in the industry but his humility in recognizing his own failings outweighs the unabashed pride of “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” Kendrick’s desire for fame tortures him because in his high regard he has yet to find himself.
Considering the heavy-handedness of his recent releases, “The Heart Part 4” and “HUMBLE.” it’s surprising the album is not chock-full of Kendrick flexing his lyrical genius and checking his rivals. While he does differentiate himself from his contemporaries with “DNA.,” claiming he has “royalty inside my DNA,” the album is full of the tender and gritty story-telling that characterizes much of Kendrick’s work. This is a welcome reprise from his diss tracks, as for some they seem below the artist. He is no longer the punk who dominated the 2013 BET Cypher calling out everyone in the game, or the self-assured hijacker of Big Sean’s “Control.” This Kendrick lets the others squabble for money and fame as he believes he is called to rap to serve a higher purpose. This album makes something very clear: this is King Kendrick and this is hip hop.
Though the album is a cohesive showcase of Kendrick’s ranging vocal styles and storytelling it does lack the consistency of his previous concept albums, good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. This is no way takes away from the mastery of the album, it merely differentiates it from his previous work. This album is Kendrick showing he doesn’t need to tell a 17-track story to be a good rapper. Lamar can tie love songs, prophetic parables, scathing diss tracks, lullabies and the sounds of a nightmarish environment for a young man, into one album with dissimilar instrumentals, inconsistent transitions and the lack of a singular narrator. And the album still thrives. Because the differentiating factor in all hip hop is the power of voice, and Kendrick’s rings the most true.
Kendrick’s array of emotions manifest themselves in different identities and vocal cadences that wax and wane throughout the album. Artistically, the standout feature of the album is the vocal range that Kendrick exhibits. The singing on “YAH.” waxes and wanes, a mature, subdued vocal that still lilts, not quite the affected quality of “Money Trees” and free of the frantic energy of “untitled 08.” The fervor is held in “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” full of primal growls and Narcissus-like boasting. This contrast of personalities within his previous albums and throughout Damn. serves to show that the self is malleable and ever-changing. Kendrick wants to show that people bend to their circumstances, to survive in a “m.A.A.d. city,” and that they must undergo change to make themselves, like a butterfly. In Damn. that journey is not over, but it’s a development at the peak of his fame. He’s settled in his throne and displaying all the voices and inner machinations that got him to this point. This album is a meditation on everything that contributes to his self, searching for the authenticity within.
The hardship in his stories is reinforced in the album; themes of depression, self-hatred, isolation and societal injustice make an unwelcome return to the canon of Kendrick Lamar. Yet he way he tells these stories is entirely new. Kendrick adopts an increasingly raw presentation of self, vocal sophistication and bare bones instrumentation. His beats are stripped, his track titles bold and blunt and his style heavy on the vocality and lyrical genius that has gotten him this far. The lack of a lulling back-track or sophisticated instrumentation requires the audience to listen again and again, finding more on revisitations.
The familiarity of Kendrick’s messages is evident in this album. It’s still hip hop for a disillusioned liberal majority, especially in the face of a defeating and divisive election. It’s still hip hop for the modern condition of the black community, calling out injustices instead of gang references, illuminating the circumstances of violence instead of encouraging gang banging and voicing truth instead of mumbling about painkillers. In his own words: “I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton.” And though this album isn’t the instrumental-rich and earth shattering social testament delivered in 2015, it’s the welcome evolution of a conflicted, barebones and raw kid-turned-man from Compton, America’s most poignant and compelling storyteller, Kendrick Lamar.
Henry Graney is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org