Since dropping back-to-back classics in 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Kendrick Lamar has been relatively quiet and I would go as far as to say that, with the exception of a handful of artists, we’ve had to put up with polished mediocrity in his absence.
He did surprise fans with “Untitled Unmastered” last year (a compilation of unused demos which snuck on to my list of 2016’s top ten hip-hop albums), but this felt more like an extension of “To Pimp a Butterfly” as opposed to new material.
That’s why Kendrick had the rap game on red alert when, a day after teasing its release with a cryptic Instagram post, he released “The Heart Part 4”. “The five-foot giant woke up out of his sleep” to declare he’s reached “the legendary status of a hip-hop rhyme saviour”, denounce Donald Trump (“Donald Trump is a chump// Know how we feel punk”) and challenge his contemporaries (“Yellin’ “One, two, three, four, five// I am the greatest rapper alive!”). He even sends subliminal shots (supposedly aimed at Big Sean and/or Drake): “My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass and crush ya whole lil’ shit// I’ll Big Pun ya punk ass, you a scared lil’ bitch// Tip-toein’ around my name nigga, you lame// And when I get at you homie, don’t you tell me you was just playin’”.
Kendrick and Drake have had a subliminal beef since Kendrick took shots in his infamous “Control” verse in 2013 and it’s telling that Kendrick effectively ‘stole Drake’s thunder’ by dropping this on March 23rd, just five days after Drake released “More Life”. Having said that, it’s more likely that Kendrick was addressing Big Sean, who sneak dissed the “saviour of rap” on his track, “No More Interviews”. No offence to Big Sean but comparing his stardom to Kendrick’s is like comparing a candle to the Sun; there is simply no comparison. Kendrick ends “The Heart Part 4” by throwing down the gauntlet, warning the entire rap scene, “Y’all got ‘til April the 7th to get y’all shit together”. A week later, Kendrick released outstanding visuals for what became the album’s lead single, “HUMBLE”. With its catchy hook, “Bitch, be humble (hol’ up, bitch)// Sit down (hol’ up, lil’ bitch)”, Kendrick effectively tells Big Sean and the rest of his competition to humble themselves, all while using Sean’s “lil’ bitch” ad-lib. On April 7th, the album title, “DAMN.”, and the iTunes pre-order were released along with its official release date of Good Friday, April 14th.
Kendrick begins “DAMN.” with “BLOOD.” and we hear a story of him attempting to help a blind woman, only for her to turn around and shoot him. “BLOOD.” ends with a brief sample of Fox News reporters criticising his 2015 BET awards performance of “Alright”, from “To Pimp a Butterfly”. We then launch straight into the explosive second track, “DNA.”, and Kendrick relentlessly bombards us with bar after bar of pure heat. “DNA.” is undeniably an album standout and I’m not ashamed to admit that it gassed me so much on first listen that I was punching the air for no damn reason. The final verse is particularly breathtaking, with Kendrick using his signature double-time flow to seemingly fit more rhymes in each bar than sounds possible without coming up for air, breathlessly showcasing his pure lyrical ability. Ahead of the final verse, we hear a brief sample of Fox reporter Geraldo Rivera’s ludicrous claim that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years” in response to Kendrick’s 2015 BET awards performance. Kendrick directly responds to this criticism on the next track, “YAH.” when he says, “Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions// Fox News wanna use my name for percentage” and “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition”. Through repeatedly referencing their criticism of him and hip-hop in general on the first three tracks, Kendrick is telling Fox News (and mainstream media in general) that he sees through their deliberate manipulation of his name and image and misinterpretation of the positive lyrics from “Alright” to boost their ratings and push their agenda.
The album’s promotion had fans expecting a more aggressive Kendrick and Kung-Fu Kenny delivers on this promise with the fourth track, “ELEMENT.”. Like on “The Heart Part 4” and “HUMBLE.”, K-Dot comes with a militant vibe, going at all other rappers with the track’s chorus “If I gotta slap a pussy ass nigga, Imma make it look sexy”. With the line, “Mr. one through five, that’s the only logic”, Kendrick again asserts his dominance over the rap game by effectively saying ‘fuck your top five MCs list, I am the list’. He further disregards his competition when he says “I am legend, I feel like all of y’all is peasants” on “FEEL.” (the poignant fifth track on which we hear Kendrick discuss his negative feelings towards his stardom). Kendrick’s final verse on “ELEMENT.” ends with, “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists// But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists” and, with these bars, one thing is clear: gone is the Kumbaya Kendrick from “To Pimp a Butterfly” with the uplifting message of black empowerment. Instead, on “DAMN.”, Kung-Fu Kenny is coming at wack artists’ necks and nobody is safe.
A common criticism of Kendrick is that his conscious music requires too much thought, hence music from artists who churn out banger after banger is an easier listen for casual fans. Although I completely disagree, this could explain his lack of chart-topping hits (prior to “DAMN.”, Kendrick’s highest chart success was “Swimming Pools (Drank)” from “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, which landed at number 17). However, on “DAMN.”, Kendrick has noticeably reinvented his sound and moved away from the jazz/funk influences of his previous storytelling, conceptual albums. “DAMN.” has an overall more marketable, commercial sound and includes radio-friendly hits like the Rihanna collaboration, “LOYALTY.”, the smooth ballad, “LOVE.”, which features Zacari, and “HUMBLE.”, which became his first number one as lead artist. All 14 tracks from “DAMN.” charted in the first week and the album debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart with 603,000 units sold, making it 2017’s highest selling album. The album has since gone double platinum and its commercial success is proof of Kendrick’s ability to produce standalone hits as well as classic albums without abandoning his integrity by relying on shallow, materialistic subject matter. A further example of this is the eleventh track, “XXX.”, which raised eyebrows when the tracklist dropped because it features rock legends U2. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical at how the song would turn out and I slightly expected a semi-cheesy rap/rock crossover. Instead, I was surprised to hear Bono’s smooth vocals round off a track which is an almost chaotic cacophony of sound and sounds like three songs expertly blended into one, on which Kendrick discusses religion, politics and the American dream. With “DAMN.”, Kendrick is dominating the charts while continuing to convey a message through his music.
Although Kendrick has taken a new direction with “DAMN.”, that’s not to say that storytelling has been completely abandoned on this album. In fact, almost every track tells its own story. His storytelling prowess particularly comes to the fore on “FEAR.” (my personal favourite tune on the album) and the last track, “DUCKWORTH.”, on which we hear Kendrick effortlessly float over three distinct beats whilst recounting a tale about the shocking coincidental link between his father and Top Dawg, the head of Kendrick’s label. Kendrick is at his most reflective on “FEAR.”, as he explores experiencing fear at different stages in his life. Each verse is delivered from a different perspective, with Kendrick assuming the character of his strict mother on the first verse, instilling fear of authority into a seven-year-old Kendrick. Having grown up surrounded by gang violence and police brutality, Kendrick dedicates the second verse to his fear of an untimely death at age seventeen. In the final verse, Kendrick delves into his “fear of losin’ creativity” and paranoia around going broke despite his monumental success at age twenty-seven. With storytelling albums, the listener can easily get drawn in and there is a danger that the concept behind the album becomes stronger than its individual tracks. Kendrick avoids this expertly on “DAMN.” and takes fans on a journey from start to finish.
Throughout “DAMN.”, Kendrick repeatedly refers to feeling afflicted and he begins the first verse of “FEEL.” with “I feel like a chip on my shoulders”. Following a conversation with Top Dawg, Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg theorised that this chip on Kendrick’s shoulder is in response to those that continue to doubt his standing as the greatest rapper. Kendrick doesn’t believe he’s receiving the accolades that his accomplishments deserve and this could explain why Kung-Fu Kenny came so hard and with such aggression on tracks like “DNA.” and “ELEMENT.”. However, it’s more likely that Kendrick is expressing his frustration at feeling abandoned by those constantly looking to him for wisdom, guidance and prayer, whilst not offering him the same. We repeatedly hear Kendrick bemoan this throughout “DAMN.”, alluding to it on “ELEMENT.” (“Bitch, all my grandmas dead// So ain’t nobody prayin’ for me, I’m on your head, ayy”) and throughout “FEEL.”. He repeats, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” on its hook and the final verse of “FEEL.” ends with Kendrick pleading, “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em// But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”. Kendrick has never shied away from discussing religion in his music and this album is no exception. On “YAH.”, Kendrick says, “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’”. This is a reference to the Hebrew Israelite movement, a branch of Christianity which consists of people of colour who believe they are direct descendants of Jacob and the Israelites in the Bible. A few lines later, Kendrick mentions his cousin Carl Duckworth, who is a member of the Hebrew Israelites. At the start of “FEAR.”,we hear a voicemail from Carl: “I know you feel like, you know, people ain’t been prayin’ for you. But you have to understand this, man, that we are a cursed people. Deuteronomy 28:28 says ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart’. See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder”. He expands on this in the voicemail we hear at the end of “FEAR.” and effectively explains that Kendrick, and people of colour in general, feel afflicted because they are being punished by God. While some artists focus on God’s blessings, Kendrick prefers to focus on the ‘fire and brimstone’, jealous God of discipline from the Old Testament. Kendrick has since said that he feels it’s his calling not only to share the joy of God but, more so, the fear of God and, in his artistry, he frequently uses religious imagery to remind listeners of the consequences of disobeying God.
This ties in nicely with another of the album’s central recurring themes, the concept of ‘wickedness vs. weakness’. This concept reflects the battle between faith and flesh and it is immediately introduced by the album’s opening lines, “Is it wickedness?// Is it weakness?// You decide// Are we gonna live or die?”.Kendrick further refers to this on “XXX.”, when he tells us about a friend whose son was just murdered. He calls Kendrick saying, “K-Dot, can you pray for me?// It’s been a fucked up day for me// I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome”. Despite knowing better, Kendrick’s gut reaction is to seek revenge and he replies, “I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap// Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!””. Kendrick ends the verse with, “You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap// Matter fact, I’m ‘bout to speak at this convention// Call you back”, followed by a brief interlude: “Alright kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control// (Pray for me) Damn!”. By contrasting the violent sentiment from this verse with the non-violent message from the ensuing interlude, Kendrick gives an insight to his internal struggle with wickedness and weakness. “DAMN.” is a rebuke to the perceived “saviour of rap” position that he’s been given since “To Pimp a Butterfly”. The weight of expectation has become a burden and, by juxtaposing tracks like “PRIDE.” and “LUST.” (two of the seven deadly sins) with “HUMBLE.” and “LOVE.” respectively, Kendrick is showing us that, while trying to remain humble, show love and stay true to his faith, he continues to struggle with these sins of the flesh.
Kendrick’s music lends itself to controversy and, shortly after “DAMN.” dropped on Good Friday, the internet was rife with rumours of a second album dropping on Easter Sunday, not least due to troll tweets from TDE producer Sounwave. Although no second album came, it has been argued (and since confirmed by Kendrick) that, with “DAMN.”, Kendrick actually released two albums in one. When the album is played from track 1 to 14, we hear the story of the ‘weak’ Kendrick Lamar and, when the album is played in reverse, it tells the story of the ‘wicked’ Kung-Fu Kenny. This is hinted at throughout “DAMN.” and it’s telling that the album begins with Kendrick’s death on “BLOOD.”. On the chorus of “PRIDE.”, Kendrick croons, “In another life, I surely was there”, further hinting at the duality of character that he has previously referred to in his music. At the start of “DUCKWORTH.”, Kid Capri literally tells us “We gon’ put it in reverse” and the track ends with us hearing the whole album played in reverse before Kendrick’s first line from “BLOOD.” (“So I was taking a walk the other day”) is repeated, bringing the album full circle.
“DAMN.” has no skippable tracks, which is just testament to the strength of the album. Kendrick’s artistic innovation is matched by few and he always manages to surprise us. In his four studio albums, “Section.80”, “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, “To Pimp a Butterfly” and, now, “DAMN.”, Kendrick has delivered four completely different listening experiences. “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “good kid, m.A.A.d city” were met with widespread critical acclaim due to the visceral way in which they evoked the modern day black experience and “DAMN.” is almost an amalgamation of all his previous offerings. While “To Pimp a Butterfly” was concerned with the state of times, “DAMN.” is more concerned with state of mind and self. Kendrick is an ‘album artist’ in a ‘singles era’; he is a unique artist who focuses on delivering cohesive, thoughtful, classic albums in an era obsessed with chasing easily-digestible hit singles. He’s a selfless rapper in a ‘selfie’ generation and continues to tackle societal issues and ‘address the problem’ through his music. Kendrick has proved that he is, without a doubt, the greatest rapper alive. He is a league above his current competition and it’s now time to debate Kendrick’s standing amongst the all-time hip-hop greats. Time will tell where it ultimately lands in the ranking of Kendrick’s overall discography but “DAMN.” instantly feels like another classic to add to the greatest rapper’s impressive collection.
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