Kendrick Lamar‘s fourth studio album, DAMN., reflects the fragmented state of our nation and Lamar himself.
Only a few hours before the release of Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated fourth studio album, TDE producer and frequent Lamar collaborator Mark Spears, known professionally as Sounwave, tweeted, “But what if I told you… that’s not the official version..” The tweet went unnoticed for the rest of the day and overnight, considering the hectic anticipation of DAMN.’s release. But, the next morning, once fans had gotten the chance to listen through to their heart’s desire, theories began to emerge. Lyrics were ripped from the album and connected to the fact that it was released on Good Friday. This, along with Sounwave’s tweet, led some to believe that Lamar would be dropping a second album on Easter Sunday.
Eventually the theory gained some serious traction and publication from reputable sources, Sounwave clarified that his tweet was about the album’s leak hours before its official release. The leak had been missing something; a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl in the twelfth track “FEAR.”, a shocking voicemail which is never really addressed by Kendrick himself. In it, Carl brings up Deuteronomy 28 and explains that God has punished “the so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians…” because they are the true children of Israel and have essentially drifted away from God. He explains that this is punishment out of love, a concept embodied by the Old Testament, and telling of Kendrick’s mindset in the production of this album. This notion of God’s punishment upon minorities is remarkably off-putting and antagonistic to include in a modern rap album, but is one of many details that work together to reveal why DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar’s darkest and messiest album to date.
2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly presented a Kendrick Lamar that knew what he was doing. It was an album that seriously reflected on self-worth and the state of an America that had crisis on the horizon. For all of the lamenting and hopelessness on songs like “U,” there was the promise that we would be “Alright” and that Kendrick himself would be alright. On DAMN., the album cover says it all. Kendrick is staring down and off to the side, seemingly brain dead. There is no emotion in his eyes and nothing more than the word DAMN hovering above his head. This album is in no way cohesive and has no overarching theme apart from its personal conflict. This is a hurried album, created in crisis for an America that is entering crisis. The album is ultimately frantic in its release and reception, and conflicted in its content.
In an interview, Kendrick explained, “To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore. We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God.” It is as if he is seeking absolution with this project, presenting the world with a monologue of his conflicts and the mess of his thoughts. The album’s track list, like its title, is aggressively in all caps, and presents short and simple names that deal with very large, important, and universal themes. The ordering of the tracks sometimes go hand in hand and sometimes directly contradict each other. Compare the joining of the first two tracks “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” to the ordering of “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” or “LUST.” and “LOVE.” In “FEAR.,” Lamar addresses the different encounters he has had with fear throughout his life over an Alchemist produced beat. The track ebbs and flows through soulful cries and the soft twang of an electric guitar. He asks, “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle. Why God, why God, do I gotta bleed?” He faces the God of the Old Testament and cowers in his presence. But in songs like the Mike WiLL Made-It produced and lead single “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick will embrace the bravado that is, to an extent, expected of him as an established and successful rapper. He jumps back and forth between these two personas and never leads his listeners in a concrete direction. He is done beating listeners over the head with a direct message and is instead making music for his soul, lost in its path and lost in its interpretation.
There are expectations and suppositions littered in the cracks of the album, and it all comes across in a perplexing way. On one side, with meditative tracks like “YAH.” Kendrick addresses his position over a lightly produced and trip inspired DJ Dahi beat and speaks on the way he has impacted social commentary in America (particularly with repeated allusions to a Fox News segment that pegged Lamar as something worse for black youth than racism itself). There’s “LOVE.,” a surprising love ballad that features TDE collaborator Zacari’s soft vocals referring to “…sippin’ bubbly” and “feelin’ lovely.” At the same time, the album is covered with snippets of Kid Capri announcing and plugging “Kung Fu Kenny’s” new content, acting as a hype man on a hastily compiled mixtape off of HotNewHipHop. Bangers like “DNA.” have Kendrick at his cockiest, with lyrics the like of, “I just kill shit, ‘cause it’s in my DNA. I got millions, I got riches building in my DNA.”
It is very easy to lose yourself in this album. This is no story like good kid, m.A.A.d city and no social commentary like To Pimp A Butterfly. It is a meditation on the very real and very painful pressures of being human, dwelling in audacity, humility, and religion. It is the stream of consciousness of a man who rose from the ashes to reach ultimate fame and stardom, stuck in a path that millions envy. After going through such a confusingly dark album, listeners find themselves at the last track, “DUCKWORTH.,” a remarkable story about TDE’s CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and Lamar’s father, a story about the strange encounters of the past and the fallibility of the present. In the blink of an eye the song is over, and the last sounds of the album are a full rewind, quickly skimming the tracks the listener has just heard, right back to the start, just as humans do when they rack their minds with conflicting thoughts over and over again. Kendrick Lamar has used his media to convey message; for Compton, for America, and for the individual, but with DAMN. he is doing it for himself. After all, he’s only human, and as he raps in “DNA.,” “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA.”