Damn. Coincidentally the best word, or at least the explicit most likely uttered when listening, to describe the rapper extraordinaire Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated album DAMN. Released on Good Friday, April 14th, it is only fitting that the album contains overtly biblical bedrocks. The first track “BLOOD.” sets the stage with a parable-esque message about the proverbial struggle between good and evil, with Kendrick allegorically playing the role of Jesus on the night of his betrayal.
“DNA” immediately blows your face off with the hardcore 808-laden beat and Kendrick’s celebration of his upbringing in Compton, strong identification of his black heritage, faith, and family ties. Speckled throughout this song is criticism directed at other rappers and the media. “YAH.” continues and expounds upon his opinion on the media, using Fox News as the exemplar in this case. Kendrick plays and mocks the sound bites throughout the album of Geraldo Rivera, a correspondent-at-large for Fox, about his disparaging comments about hip-hop/rap culture and its influence on kids.
A defining characteristic of DAMN. is Kendrick’s clear assertion that he is the best in the game and needs to be respected; namely, on the songs “ELEMENT.” and “HUMBLE.” where he disses Drake, Jay Electronica, and Big Sean, who have thrown some flack at him recently. “Sit down, be humble” gets his message across that other rappers need to submit to his superiority.
On a softer, more pleading note, Kendrick repeats the line: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” numerous times on the record; this and his verbiage in songs like “FEEL.” contribute to his portrayal of isolationism because sometimes he feels isolated under the pressure of being the voice of black struggle in modern America.
This record is a telling a story of Kendrick’s rise to success to his current status as being globally recognized as one of the best rappers or, if you wish, the god of rap (refer to the song “GOD.”). He is aware of his struggle to remain humble amidst the fame and fortune.
The sixth song of the album is the uncharacteristically poppy “LOYALTY.” that features Rihanna and a manipulated sampling of Bruno Mars’ intro in “24K Magic” by Mr. Talkbox, which is a nice, upbeat change of pace that is no doubt more fit for the radio. Using the monikers Kung Fu Kenny and BadGirlRiRi, the duo voice their desire for loyalty in relationships.
And this is where it really gets interesting. “PRIDE.” is the seventh song on this fourteen track record, which means it is directly in the middle. In “PRIDE.,” Lamar talks about how his pride as being one of the best rappers alive is conflicting with his ideals and faith.
K-Dot is mindful of the power of rap, and music in general, on people; in “XXX,” he masterfully expresses this by featuring U2, an unexpected choice, especially for a rapper. He relays a scene of him shooting someone, but then admitting guilt, and awaiting his fate, which is analogous to a Catholic conception of Confession. In “XXX,” Kendrick rolls up gun violence, racism, corruption in the political world all into one song. U2 has strongly used spiritual imagery in their work, and in this piece, Bono sings “we close our eyes to look around,” perhaps saying that we must look within ourselves to solve the cultural, social, and political problems in America.
A sometimes misinterpreted part of Lamar’s music is on his stance on drugs and alcohol. While he did smoke and drink as a teenager, he is now sober after his father urged him to not make the same mistakes he made. In “FEAR.”, he raps about his mother employing fear-tactics as he was growing up to get him to behave; tactics parallel to the sometimes wrathful God of the Old Testament. Besides his parents, another major influential person in Kendrick’s life is his cousin, Carl Duckworth, who repeatedly gives words of wisdom and pieces of scripture via voicemail messages to Kendrick interspersed on the album.
The album wraps up with “DUCKWORTH.,” where Kendrick recounts a story about Anthony Tiffith, founder of Top Dawg Entertainment, having an encounter with Kendrick’s father, nicknamed Ducky. Anthony robbed the KFC Ducky worked at but spared Ducky, since Ducky knew of him before, giving him free food to get on his good side. Otherwise, if Ducky had not hooked Anthony up with free KFC, he would have been shot by Anthony, and Kendrick would never have been born. The main point of the song is to illustrate the effects of your environment and how difficult it is to deal with gang violence. Because of this, K-Dot feels his life is purposeful and derives its meaning through a belief in God.
After the story in “DUCKWORTH.,” audio recordings are reversed and then sped up, and then he repeats his opening line in the record. This can be an allusion to the cyclical nature of life. Some have hypothesized that listening to DAMN. forwards is about how Kendrick lives life through rap, but listening to it backwards it’s about how he lives life through fear. *cue amazed face*
Especially because of the first, middle, and ending songs, this seems pretty valid.
Just like his previous albums, this one is dense, complex, unapologetically honest, and inquisitive. DAMN. continues common themes of faith, self-struggle, battle between good and evil, criticism of government, and a call to action to eliminate racism, gun, and gang violence.
After listening this you wouldn’t dare say K-Dot holds anything back, and you would be hard pressed to say he’s not the best in the game. But I’m still over here waiting for part two of DAMN., ..nation., to come out…
Tl;dr: Kendrick loves God. Kendrick = God (of rap)? Kendrick says living humbly in a life of fame is hard. This album is extremely dense and incredible. ..nation?…
Key Songs: "DNA," "Pride," "Humble," XXX feat. U2, Duckworth (all of them?)
Credit to Eric Hormuth, Claire Stemen, Genius Lyrics, and Google for their help in making this review.