Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.' Is Introspective And Unforgiving

Apr 17, 2017
Originally published on April 17, 2017 8:31 pm

Spoiler alert: DAMN. opens with Kendrick Lamar narrating his own shooting death at the hands of a blind assailant. This seems to be a tradition amongst Los Angeles rappers: Lamar's most obvious predecessor, Ice Cube, rapped about dying at least three times on his first two albums. The shared message from both artists is that violent ends can arrive unexpectedly, especially if you're young, black and male.

It's no coincidence that Lamar decided to release DAMN. on Good Friday, a day meant to mark the death of the righteous at the hands of tyrants. Lamar isn't a Christian rapper in the conventional sense — his songs aren't in explicit exaltation of His glory — and though DAMN. is redolent with Biblical references, the temperament is decidedly Old Testament, filled with cold wrath and righteous punishments owing to the wages of sin and the blood of innocents. The tone on DAMN. is a stark contrast to the funky exuberance on Lamar's much-lauded To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015: There, he seemed to revel in a torrent of creative intensity that some found exhilarating, others indulgent. If that album was like billiard balls scattering after the break, then DAMN. wraps its focus inward, tight and layered, like a bundle of rubber bands.

Its 14 songs, all titled with brief concepts such as "FEEL.", "LOYALTY.", and "DNA.", explore dualities within both the soul and American society. In some cases, the fractures are made obvious between songs — "LUST." and "LOVE." or "PRIDE." and "HUMBLE.," for example — but even within a track, Lamar is constantly exploring conflicts and contradictions. On "DNA.," the album's first fully fleshed-out song, he raps back-to-back: "I got millions, I got riches, buildin' in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA." Likewise, on the nearly eight-minute marathon "FEAR.," he invites us into his anxious mindset, where there's a thin line between confidence and venality, and any hint of success also carries with it the threat of loss.

This introspection is also reflected in the mostly somber production, which departs from the meaty P-Funk influences of Butterfly in favor of more minimalist moods. At times, there's perhaps too little there; I've had the album on nonstop since the minute it came out and I still can't remember what "GOD." or "LOYALTY." sound like. But in other places, especially on "FEAR." and "PRIDE.", the soulful spareness works well with the song's themes and Lamar's understated performance. To put it a different way, Butterfly felt very music-forward, whereas DAMN. is built out of bars.

On the pre-album single "The Heart Part 4," he boldly proclaimed himself to be this era's "greatest rapper alive," and DAMN. aims to secure his hold on that title belt. Lamar's wordplay has always been intricate, but he's finding new ways to push its limits: The way he super-stacks rhyming couplets rivals Eminem in his prime, while his constant modulation of voice and pacing allows him to play different characters within a single song. The stunning closer, "DUCKWORTH,.," also burnishes his reputation as one of hip-hop's most vivid storytellers, as he tells the supposedly true tale of how his label boss, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, once came close to killing Lamar's own father 20 years ago.

Perhaps nothing suggests his position atop hip-hop's leaderboard more than the fact that, almost as soon as DAMN. came out, there was an internet-fueled rumor that since he "died" on Good Friday, it followed that he'd be resurrected on Easter Sunday via a surprise second album. (That's less outlandish a thought than it would have been a year ago, before Frank Ocean dropped Endless and Blonde on consecutive days and Future went No. 1 with two albums released a week apart — but Easter came and went with no follow-up LP.) The collective desire, if not greed, for another full-length LP right after DAMN. captures how much Lamar has electrified the music community. There's a real yearning for artists of his stature to speak truth to power, especially at a time when the powerful seem to brazenly revel in untruths.

There's a danger in putting too much weight on any entertainer to serve as a proxy for collective action. Indeed, Lamar's own fans sometimes feel moved to keep him in check — most recently in response to "HUMBLE.," in which he rolls out a lazy cliché about wanting women to be less "Photoshop." But though he can be preachy at times, he doesn't suggest he's above reproach. Rather, his songs constantly offer him up as a sacrifice to a vengeful God: never an innocent lamb, always a conflicted sinner. That's the feeling his work asks us to confront within ourselves. He's not here to provide relief or distraction. His anxieties and unease around his own foibles are meant to mirror our own — and likewise, his struggles towards salvation and redemption are lead-by-example exhortations for us to do the same work, lest we risk perishing in a damnation of our own making.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

LA rapper Kendrick Lamar released a new album on Friday called "DAMN." It's his fourth album in the last five years. It's a mix of spiritual and political. Reviewer Oliver Wang says it strengthens Kendrick Lamar's claim to be his generation's greatest rapper alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD.")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Is it wickedness?

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Spoiler alert - "DAMN." opens with Kendrick Lamar narrating his own death at the hands of a blind assailant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD.")

KENDRICK LAMAR: You've lost your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Is it wickedness?

WANG: This isn't the first time Lamar's used a gunshot to cut off a song or stanza. And as he reminds us, violent ends can come unexpectedly, especially if you're young, black and male.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAR.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I'll probably die anonymous. I'll probably die with promises. I'll probably die walking back home from the candy house. I'll probably die because these colors are standing out.

WANG: It's no coincidence that Lamar decided to release "DAMN." on Good Friday, a day meant to mark the death of the righteous at the hands of tyrants. Throughout the album, Lamar interweaves the spiritual with the political in verses redolent with biblical references to the wages of sin and the blood of innocents.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XXX.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph. The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives. Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters, barricaded blocks and borders. Look what you taught us. It's murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street, corporate offices, banks, employees and bosses with homicidal thoughts. Donald Trump's in office.

WANG: The album's 14 songs are all titled with brief concepts such as "FEEL.," "LOYALTY.," "PRIDE." Lamar uses them to explore conflicts and contradictions both within the soul and society. It's an introspective effort reflected in the somber soundtrack and a stark contrast to the torrent of creative intensity that flooded across his much-lauded 2015 album, "To Pimp A Butterfly." On "DAMN.," Lamar's focus wraps inward, tight and layered like a ball of rubber bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIDE.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Hell-raising, wheel-chasing, new worldly possessions. Flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen? The better part, the human heart, you love 'em or dissect 'em. Happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question? See, in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world.

WANG: The rapper's word play has always been intricate, but he's finding new ways to push its limits. He plays with super stacked rhyming couplets, constantly modulates his voice and pacing and furthers his reputation as one of hip-hop's most vivid storytellers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUCKWORTH.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Small-time hustler, graduated to a brick, on him $10,000 out of a project housing. That's on the daily. Seen his first mil (ph) 20 years old. Had a couple of babies, had a couple of shooters. Caught a murder case, fingerprints on the gun they assumin', but witnesses couldn't prove it. That was back when he turned his back and they killed his cousin. He beat the case and went back to hustlin', bird-shufflin'. Anthony rang, the first in the projects with the two-tone Mustang.

WANG: Many people, myself included, believed a rumor that Easter Sunday would bring a second album. It didn't, but the collective anticipation captures how much Lamar has electrified the music community. There's a real yearning for artists of his stature to speak truth to power, especially at a time when the powerful are not always truthful.

Kendrick Lamar isn't here to provide relief or distraction. His anxieties and unease mirror our own. And his struggles toward salvation and redemption exhort us to do the same work lest we perish in a damnation of our own making.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YAH.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm not a politician. I'm not 'bout a religion. I'm an Israelite, don't call me black no more. That word is only a color.

MCEVERS: Reviewer Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State, Long Beach and author of the book "Legions Of Bloom (ph)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YAH.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed. I know he walks the earth. But it's money to get, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.