“Wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap.”
Kendrick Lamar entered a unique space following 2015’s acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly. He’d been a critical darling since his indie debut Section.80, and 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, his major label debut, was a mainstream hit that also indicated the young artist was at the forefront of his generation in hip-hop. But To Pimp a Butterfly arrived in the cultural and political hotbed of 2015: those closing 18 months of the Obama era when police shootings of black citizens sparked a spirit of activism that manifested in everything from Black Lives Matter protests to #OscarsSoWhite.
It also was evident in the music. Albums like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive closed 2014—blatantly topical and high profile releases that indicated where the culture was going musically. And in February 2015, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly seemed to capture the moment succinctly. From the powerful-but-problematic rhetoric of “Blacker the Berry” to the resiliency anthem “Alright,” Kendrick showed that he wouldn’t shrink away from the greatness fans and critics had thrust upon him.
But that weight tends to get heavy and on Damn., Kendrick sounds leery of any notions that he’s “the voice” of anything or that he has the answers.
“It seems to me that you have lost something, I would like to help you find it…”
Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album (third major studio album) opens with a cryptic monologue about a dream involving an elderly blind woman who seems to have lost something and immediately transitions (via gunshot) to a FOX News telecast during which Geraldo Rivera dismissed Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 BET Awards performance of “Alright”—wherein the famed Compton emcee rapped atop a police car. It’s a transparent way to paint himself as an American anti-hero, but throughout Damn. it becomes clear that Kendrick is struggling with that designation.
On Damn., Kendrick’s reaction to both the election of Donald Trump and the success of To Pimp a Butterfly inform his conflicted thoughts. Five years after good kid, Kendrick is near 30 and the most culturally significant figure in hip-hop. Drake may have the commercial clout and J. Cole may be rap’s favorite pseudo-underdog, but Kendrick occupies the kind of pop culture space that forbears like Chuck D, Ice Cube and 2Pac held: an extremely visible and popular rapper who seems to have a singular command of the genre’s most sociopolitical voice.
But he doesn’t seem to want that.
Lamar comes out swinging on the first full track “DNA.” Mike Will Made It contributes three tracks to the album, and these are where K.Dot flexes the hardest. “My DNA is not for imitation, your DNA is an abomination,” Lamar spits. Over trunk-rattling bass, Lamar unleashes a flurry of rapid-fire rhymes—frenzied but focused. “DNA” is a staggeringly breathless display of verbal virtuosity, with Kendrick furiously rhyming that “You ain’t sick enough to pull it on yourself / You ain’t rich enough to hit the lot and skate” before concluding “Sex, money and murder—our DNA.”
The woozy Sounwave and DJ Dahi-produced “YAH.” is the opposite side of the sonic spectrum. A worn-sounding Kendrick focuses a skeptical eye on the media. “I’m not a politician. I’m not bout a religion. I’m a Israelite—don’t call me black no mo. That word is just a color. It ain’t facts no mo.” “YAH.” sounds like a would-be anthem, but there’s an undercurrent of world-weary cynicism that suggests that it’s harder work for Kendrick Lamar to get to the silver linings than it was when he dropped “Alright” two years earlier.
The scratches and “I don’t give a fuck” mantra that opens “ELEMENT.” shakes the listener out of the haze of “YAH.,” with Kendrick’s introspection giving way to declarations of purpose and punishment: “If I gotta slap a pussy ass nigga, Imma make it look sexy.” Lamar has always walked a line between pensive and confrontational better than most, and when he claims that he’s” allergic to a bitch nigga, an imaginary rich nigga,” it doesn’t ever sound like empty posturing. “They wanna take me out my element,” he raps. His paranoia is justified.
Sounwave’s atmospheric “FEEL.” once again brings things back down to a crawl, as Kendrick raps about feeling like the walls are closing in on him. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he says—and he sounds like he believes it. It’s a sentiment Kendrick revisits on the album a few times: the idea that no one is looking out for his best interests. Over some of the album’s most fluid bassline and a soft bed of synths, Kendrick never pretends that he doesn’t need anyone. When he voices frustrations with the lack of true connections between his loved ones, he sounds wounded by the realization. Produced by Terrace Martin, the Rihanna-assisted “LOYALTY.” is a slinky duet that once again examines connections and dissects relationships within your circle: “Tell me who you’re loyal to?”
“Love’s gonna get you killed, but pride’s gonna be the death of you,” opens “PRIDE.” One of the standouts on Damn., his subdued lyrics ride the dense drums and ghostly vocals. “Last time, I ain’t give a fuck, I still feel the same now / My feelings might go numb, you’re dealing with cold thumb / I’m willing to give up a leg and arm and show empathy from / Pity parties and functions and you and yours.” Kendrick’s most confrontational voice always comes from a sense of judgment—but it isn’t that he positions himself as persecuted. It’s because he’s better than most of the people talking shit.
“I can’t fake humble just cuz yo ass is insecure.”
The Mike Will Made It-produced hit single “HUMBLE.” stands out on the album. It’s more bounce-heavy than anything else here and serves as a sort of counterpoint (or is it an affirmation?) of “PRIDE.” As if needing to reemphasize that he has no reason to pander to those who envy him anyway, the percolating production pushes the confidence of the lyrics. When Kendrick implores “let me put the head in” on “LUST.,” the song initially seems like a literal examination of sexual desire, but soon morphs into another heady examination of society and culture.
The ethereal “LOVE.” features Sounwave and BadBadNotGood production, recalling Prince at his most lushly seductive and boasting a winning Zacari guest appearance. “If I didn’t ride blade on curb, would you still love me? / If I made up my mind at work, would you still love me?”
Kid Capri’s presence is felt throughout Damn. and “XXX.” opens with Bono of U2 singing “America. God bless ya if it’s good to ya” before Capri snaps it back to the streets: “New Kung Fu Kenny!” The track is another bouncing Mike Will Made It production that features scratches and synth hits fresh out of 1991 over a skittering beat, with Kendrick’s flow once again downshifting before erupting: “Yesterday I got a call from my dog like 101 / Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds.” Asked to comfort his friend in the wake of violent tragedy, Kendrick raps his bloody response:
“He was lookin’ for some closure / Hopin’ I could bring him closer / To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him / ‘I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel / If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed…”
“XXX.” drew attention because of U2’s much-hyped contribution, but the most evocative moment—on an album that keeps its emotions frayed and at the forefront—is the stellar “FEAR.” Over a somber groove with sprinklings of muted guitar and wailing ad-libs, Kendrick lays bare how fear can be used to control us from childhood. “I’ll beat yo ass if you tell them social workers he live here / I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you still here / Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself? / Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else…” Seguing into how many different ways a black youth can die just in the average day-to-day, it’s a sobering reminder of just how those black youth are imprisoned by societal ills that manifest in virtually every walk of life.
But Kendrick takes the song a step further when he connects it to his fears of being Kendrick Lamar. He frenetically spits about his “fear of losing creativity” and his “fear of missing out on you and me.” As he breaks down his own insecurities, it becomes clear that those fears represent the overarching theme of the album. And he closes the track with an extended monologue via a phone conversation from his uncle Duckworth discussing the Old Testament and falling away from God.
Kendrick’s spiritual questioning culminates in Damn.’s penultimate track “GOD.” He begins with what initially seems like conflict: “Don’t judge me, my mama caught me with a strap / Don’t judge me, I was young, fuckin’ all the rats / Don’t judge me, aimin’ at your head for a stack.” But Kendrick isn’t seeking forgiveness—especially not from lames. Claiming that laughing to the bank and flexin’ on swole is “what God feel like,” Kendrick once again turns what appears to be a mournful rumination on spirituality into a chance to throw a middle finger at haters.
“DUCKWORTH.” continues Kendrick’s tradition of including starkly autobiographical moments to illustrate broader ideas. On the outro of this, Kendrick tells the story of a robbery at a KFC:
“See, at this chicken spot / There was a light-skinned nigga that talked a lot / With a curly top and a gap in his teeth / He worked the window, his name was Ducky / He came from the streets, the Robert Taylor Homes / Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome…”
The story twists and turns, as the young father working at KFC has a fateful encounter with a tough named Anthony. It becomes one of Kendrick’s most evocative lyrical performances and an epic closer for the album. Without giving too much away, “DUCKWORTH” stands as a startling study in serendipity.
Insecurity feels like the underbelly but not the overarching theme of Damn. It’s consistently a much more subdued and insular album than To Pimp a Butterfly, with its jazz and soul leanings; but Damn. is just as potent a statement, albeit a more personal one. Kendrick, like so many before him saddled with the dreaded Voice of A Generation distinction, backs away from any attempts to brand himself a spokesperson or sage; he’s as conflicted as we all are. And the results can sometimes be contradictory: a theme he makes plain via both the lyrics and the album sequencing. Not having the answers is a go-to response from artists who seem to have no hesitation in letting the world hear their perspective on the most pressing issues of their times, but here Kendrick makes asking questions sound even more enlightening and illuminating than pretending to know how to answer them. Unlike his celebrated elders of the ‘80s and ‘90s that defined hip-hop commentary for Generation X, Lamar is aware of what he gets wrong. He’s still figuring it all out, and his art is richer for it.
Confusion never sounded more compelling.