By Liam Menzies (@blinkclyro)
It seemed like Kendrick Lamar‘s ambitious feats in the world of music may become his own undoing. First, there was Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, the follow-up to Section 80 which essentially played out like Boyz N The Hood but without video: it explored domestic violence, inter-gang turmoil, and moral ambiguity, all backed up by an interesting narrative from the perspective of a naive young K.Dot, trying to make his way in the world when all of the societal odds are stacked up against him. Succeeding this was To Pimp A Butterfly, a record that may not have pushed the envelope for a story in hip-hop but arguably did so for poetry, intertwining an ever expanding verse around a beautiful love letter to black music. Jazz and funk weren’t merely gimmicky and giving a song or two a bit of a change, rather they simply added to evocative lyrics and performances on display, ending up in what many are already calling the best hip hop record of the 21st century.
Bar last year’s B-sides effort Untitled. Unmastered., which in itself only furthered everyone infatuation with the Compton rapper as he showed himself capable of creating gold from the scraps off the cutting room floor, everyone has waited patiently to see what Lamar will next whip up. Even before DAMN. dropped, due to the rapper’s music usually shining even brighter after thorough analysis, the internet was speculating as to what the album would entail: Is Kendrick dead? Does the album’s tracklist hint at an anagram? Will he drop a follow-up album called nation on Easter Sunday? It seemed like Kendrick had already shot himself in the foot, making his fans and the music world become too accustomed to something great that something that was simply good would not be enough. The thing is, though, that the theorising isn’t exactly stupid, rather listeners are misinterpreting what DAMN. is about.
There is no denying that Kendrick‘s fourth LP is his most religiously charged yet. We all know that religion and god have always played a part in his music, specifically in his last studio release, but there’s no better example on here to show an amplification of this than YAH. Kendrick refers a lot to the wickedness that DAMN. kicks off with on BLOOD. repeatedly calling for god while grappling with inner struggles. Later on in the track, he mentions “I know he walks the Earth but it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah zeroes to flip, temptation is, yah, first on my list, I can’t resist, yah” meaning that he’s once again referencing to Satan’s temptations, much like he did on TPAB when he mentions the evils of lucy.
While the previous track was religious, ELEMENT begins to ramp it up as Kendrick channels some messiah traits, claiming that he’ll die for this shit, but he acts as more of a martyr than a god: Bitch, all my grandmas dead so ain’t nobody prayin’ for me, I’m on your head, ayy. No matter who he has to take out, whether they threatened ones he loves, his city or his music, he’ll do it in style.
However, while he delivers such a statement with total certainty, the next track FEEL, very much the audio equivalent of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, shows us a Kendrick who is questioning everything and everyone in his path, especially their motives. The intro alone manages to deliver this with a simple but catchy “ain’t nobody praying for me” before he delves into feelings of isolation (I feel like friends been overrated, I feel like the family been fakin’, I feel like the feelings are changin’) and depression (I feel like it’s just me, look, I feel like I can’t breathe, look, I feel like I can’t sleep). The constant self-doubt and the pleading for prayers delivered by the anaphora further send home these faith vibes as the same as Jesus before his inevitable betrayal.
Not only is Kendrick perceived as a martyr, and one that finds himself doubting himself and religion, but he’s an unconventional one at that, displayed perfectly on XXX as he implores his friend to seek violent revenge, tying into our wickedness and weakness argument. Is it better to be just as evil as those that have hurt you or forgive and forget? DAMN. seems to fill in the grey area that the bible so oftenly perceives as black and white. This is why many of these theories fell flat: they fell into the trap of thinking that Kendrick would need two albums to explore two different sides of the coin when none seemed to pick up the topography of the topic and all the interlinking lines.
Also, while we’re discussing this track, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. U2? On a Kendrick track? A weird choice but it fits in perfectly with a simple drum and piano instrumental backed up by Bono singing of turmoil (It’s not a place, this country is to be a sound of drum and bass, you close your eyes to look around). It’s actually a fitting appearance considering that the Irish act has used biblical overtones to explore topics and have shown a shared disdain for American presidents like Reagan. One thing is for sure though: no one expected a song that featured them to have one of the hardest hitting beats of the years. The police siren sample packs such a punch with the simple trap beat backing it up, sounding like it was ripped right out of GKMC.
Speaking of sound, PRIDE manages to balance the gritty out with some gleam: Steve Lacy starts the track with a beautiful intro and joins Kendrick on the chorus with the eerie, screechy guitars from Pink Floyd‘s Echoes being slightly sampled during the bridge. Much like wickedness and weakness being interwoven, so to are the track’s themes and sounds: here, PRIDE has a far more humble beat while detailing Kendrick’s conflictions between his ideals and his actions. This deliberation seems to stem from a certain proverb that details “when pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom”. On TPAB, he was trying to “save the ghetto” with funky and religious-tinged music but on PRIDE, he drops these same Christian ideals, claiming he isn’t perfect, following up lines about dropping the bible in addition to what he’s said on previous tracks. It would be hard to ignore the fact that PRIDE precedes HUMBLE, much like the former acts as the sin of the latter’s virtue, much like with LOVE and LUST.
DAMN. isn;t all focussed on proverbs and religious verses, however. DNA., arguably the standout track on the LP, sees Kendrick rapping about black heritage pride and has a notable highlight that occurs during the chorus when the mixing of Ali interweaves an aggressive Kendrick with another notorious FOX News comment, this time by Geraldo Rivera who states that hip hop has done more damage than racism. This is followed by a massive, warped sounding bass that not only manages to take a jab at the media’s misinterpretation but also fit into the classic hip hop beat that the track lives on. We get more mention of this ignorant misinterpretation in the lines “sex money murder – our DNA”, obviously taking shots at stereotyping of black rappers when the genre explores far more topics than just that. Not only that but there’s some ridiculously good word play in abundance here, notably on the second verse (Yoga on a Monday, stretchin’ to Nirvana, just a few lines after baby in the pool).
While DNA. may be the subjective best track, it’s FEAR that manages to encapsulate what some may perceive DAMN.’s entire message being: consider this Boyhood if it was written from the perspective of an outwards looking black boy than a whiney white emo teen. We get an eerie production technique with the intro being played back but in reverse to take us back to Kendrick’s youth as a 7-year-old, having his entire world and life filled with fear by his mother. Despite this, Kendrick sees this as a bad situation giving birth to a good one, a flower that grew in a dark room, a caterpillar pimping a butterfly, the sinner creating the virtuous, fear shaping a life. Later on, on the track, we find him questioning whether or not he’ll live long enough to make a mark on this earth. Kendrick begins to detail the various ways in which black men have been targeted by the police and it’s no coincidence that Trayvon plays a large part in this verse. He thinks that no matter what age he is, what he wears or what he does, he still will be a victim.
It’s at this point that we start to realise that this fear, and fear itself, seems to have an effect on everything around him. It makes Kendrick question whether he can be humble enough with what he has earned or will he let his pride get the best of him. It makes him question whether his love is still there or is he beginning to lust for other things, fueled by a sense of pride. It makes him question whether he will be on this earth any longer due to his DNA as the way he is seen by police and the media: after all, the gunshot on BLOOD could mislead you into thinking it’s the woman but with the context of the album, an officer seems all the more likely.
With all it taken into consideration, DAMN and Kendrick asks you this: will fear drive you down a wicked path, falling victim to the fate that has faced many? Will you find yourself weak, surrounded by the sins our world has?
With the last track looping the album into itself, the questioning is eternal and Kendrick has made a record that will be sure to be as timeless.