Damn, if 2015 doesn’t seem like the good ol’ days. You know, when Kendrick Lamar’s last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, stood defiantly, arms crossed, neck deep in America’s murky, seething quagmire of racial inequality, systematic cultural injustices, and institutionalized discrimination?
Remarkably, that record both encapsulated and foreshadowed a country’s turmoil over several high-profile killings of young black men by law enforcement, the counterbalancing force of the Black Lives Matter movement, and simmering accusations that a President’s skin color might be the real root cause behind all of the tension. To Pimp a Butterfly felt labyrinthine, daringly progressive, but painfully unresolved, much like the setting (that of Obama’s final presidential term) into which it was born. Yet there was an irrefutable integrity about both of these entities — a sense that the narratives being told (however grim, tattered, and torn they were) remained truthful, and as such, were tinged by a sliver of hope.
Follow-up DAMN. is a different beast; it feels more cornered, urgent, and personal, more inclined to battle the demons Kendrick Lamar harbors within than the ones he perceives without. It, too, quests relentlessly for the truth, but remains very much a product of its own oppressive era. The White House now likens segregated schools to “pioneers for school choice;” a mainstream media institution normalizes the disparagement of a black female senator via James Brown wig jokes; a new President (who once straight-faced asked African-Americans “What the hell do you have to lose?”) has since appointed an Attorney General with a three decade-long résumé of anti-civil rights rulings. The desire to look away from America’s gruesomely surreal political landscape is as much a catalyst for DAMN.’s intensity as is Lamar’s instinct to turn his merciless gaze inward.
DAMN. is ferocious reminder that all politics remain local; that real change comes from within, especially when the greatest enemy is oneself. Kendrick has always been more field general than backroom strategist, a street rapper whose reports from the trenches galvanize audiences, a writer whose circle of influence is commensurate with not only his astounding storytelling but his propensity for self-awareness. Lamar’s acclaimed song “Alright” became a de-facto “black national anthem” during desperate times because its anguished sentiment touched raw nerves yet still gave reason for optimism— that, damn, things sure are fucked up, but somehow, we are gonna get through this.
DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar getting through the struggle of simply being Kendrick Lamar — a socially-conscious, intelligent, young black man who just happens to be the world’s most important, and best, rapper. It’s a rigorous return-to-basics, a brutally rhythmic tour de force that marshals Lamar’s full strengths as an MC — the incendiary insights, peerless flow, and jaw-dropping ability to switch up tempo, tone, and cadence. It explores Lamar’s fears and faith, his prowess and parentage, his capacity for love and sin, and, of course, his relationship with Fox News. DAMN. is Kendrick’s devastating look in the mirror at himself and his immediate landscape; as its cover reflects, he’s burdened and beset upon, but not blinking.
The first and most striking observation this time around is how unrelentingly hard Lamar raps on DAMN.. Right from the jump, “DNA.” fuses frenzied vehemence with cranium-blowing flow, Kendrick’s staccato rhymes spraying like assault weapon fire. “I know murder, conviction/ Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption/ Scholars, fathers dead with kids/ And I wish I was fed forgiveness.” He dismantles the assertion that “hip hop has done more damage to your African Americans than racism” (uttered by Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera as condemnation of Lamar’s “Alright”) even while assassinating his own character defects: “I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA/ I got dark, I got evil that rot inside my DNA.” No duplicity goes unchallenged on DAMN., no weakness unexposed — especially Lamar’s.
“You overnight the big rifles then tell Fox to be scared on us” he proclaims on “XXX.,” a fiery examination of America’s hypocrisy around border security and terrorism, race and gun violence It’s not coincidence that Lamar gives Bono a cameo on the jazzy final verse (as soulful and self-assured as the U2 front man has sounded in decades), because for all the Irish rock star’s world-renowned celebrity, he remains at heart the archetypal immigrant, a hopeful outsider extolling America’s virtue not as physical place but as romantic notion. That utopia cuts a stark contrast to the track’s manic, panic-ridden first half that’s racked by police sirens, gut-punching bass, and Lamar’s rancorous decree: “They killed his only son because of insufficient funds”. “XXX” is a devilish exercise in dislocation — about feeling out of place in your own country, your own neighborhood, even your own skin.
Despite G-force-heavy societal burdens, newly-christened Kung Fu Kenny doesn’t forget how to play for the people. Rihanna-featuring slow jam “LOYALTY.” is built from summer breezes and sweaty nightclub fist-bumps. That cotton-candy vocal hook on “LOVE.” (crooned by pop/R&B newcomer Zacari) is Kendrick not just out hustling Drake, it’s him brazenly declaring “I do you even better than you do.” Lead single “HUMBLE’s” syncopated piano hook lurches in circles like some deranged movie monster, comically brutish yet unstoppable. Radio is going to gobble each one of them up. (The latter, whose video features Kendrick in papal robes and a Last Supper scene, has already become Lamar’s first #1 single.) Shrewdly, Kendrick tempers the album’s political and spiritual undertones with earthly pleasures. “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherfucka up/ And then I’d take two puffs” he fantasizes on “FEAR.” like some Alice-in-Wonderland, hookah-toting caterpillar on a Compton street corner. It’s hallucinatory yet lucidly poetic.
“FEAR.” anchors DAMN.; the four-part, multi-narrator epic is delivered in the spirit of good kid, m.A.A.D. city’s epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gil Scott-Heron album. Over wistful guitar and bass shuffling like sneakers over grimy pavement, Lamar plays himself at ages seven, seventeen, and twenty-seven as he buckles under society’s crushing anxieties. A new lyrical signpost christens each stanza like a mantra from Lamar’s stages of development — from the childhood dread of a mother’s tough love (“I beat yo ass”) to his teen-aged hood rat’s doomed inner monologue (“I’ll probably die”), until an adult Kendrick finally acknowledges fear has become secondhand to him. “My biggest fear was losing it all” he repeats desperately — the money, the prestige, the creative spark, and, ultimately, his legacy.
He needn’t worry. DAMN.’s excellence all but ensures the anointment of his last three albums as a veritable Holy Trio of hip-hop. Oddly though, they’ve unfolded almost in reverse, a psychological and spiritual dissolution rather than evolution. If the emotional epiphany of morality play good kid, m.A.A.D city was Kendrick’s superego, and the delayed gratification of To Pimp A Butterfly his ego coping with the harsh realities of Being Black in 2015, then DAMN. is Lamar’s unbridled id. His rapping has never been so on-point, his beats so pugilistic and murderously blunt, and his song titles condensed to such absolute concepts (among them, a few of the Seven Deadly Sins). In ruthlessly exposing his flaws, Kendrick inches closer to his essence as a rapper, stripping away all artifice.
Justly named, the album is both invective and exultation. DAMN. curses the myriad of personal maladies — self-doubt, insecurities, spiritual malaise — that plague Lamar at his apex, then celebrates his struggles to overcome them. It’s what you utter when the record ends and you discover that Kendrick has taken you right back to the beginning with that old lady packing heat in the street (“BLOOD.”), like some grand karmic loop in which he’s just another foot solider in life’s never ending battle to get it right, to attain Nirvana, to root out one’s weaknesses and right one’s wrongs. It’s what you utter when you realize that Kendrick isn’t just top five anymore or the latest face on rap music’s Mount Rushmore beside Biggie, Hova and 2Pac. He has become the mountain range himself, and each of his major-label albums (three in a row and counting) are now those imperious, masterful faces. Damn, indeed.