—review by Jesse Wiles @thewildwiles
Despite the fame and fortune that Kendrick Lamar has amassed, he lives inside the confines of his own head more than ever these days, which is on full display throughout his fourth studio album, DAMN.
Early on in Kendrick’s career he provided a narrative centered around coming of age in Compton and the temptations that come along with age. Albums like Section.80 and Good Kid MAAD City (GKMC) took on a formulaic approach implementing classic elements of struggle, religion and victory that allowed each track to meander easily into the next. Then, on To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), he delivered a more complex meditation on self-worth that was blanketed by jazz-influenced production. As his music progressed he separated himself from other rappers, introducing an undeniable originality to mainstream hip-hop that had been lacking in a genre that has been expanding at an exponential rate.
For his latest effort, Lamar takes the creative, innovative elements from past releases and magnifies them. Moments of calm previously taken for granted are fleeting, replaced by DJ tags, unavoidable social and political commentary, audacious beats from Mike Will Made-it and an abundance of contradictory themese (“LUST” vs. “LOVE,” “PRIDE” vs. “HUMBLE,” etc.).
The album begins with, “BLOOD,” a free-verse story from Kendrick. It tells of a meeting with a blind woman who has lost something. Kendrick offers to help her, but the song and story quickly takes a sinister turn. A single piercing gunshot disrupts the calm, leaving Kendrick dead. The sobering beginning is quickly forgotten when “DNA” shatters the silence. Mike Will Made-It’s boisterous production samples a clip of FOX news commentators bashing Kendrick for his 2015 song “Alright.” Kendrick is obviously bothered by the commentator’s analysis of the song and halfway through the song the beat switches to another clip of FOX’s Geraldo Rivera saying, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years." Mike Will Made-It masterfully samples the clip, pitching it down and drowning it out into an aggressive bassline that Kendrick goes on to spar with, confronting black stereotypes and pointing out the positives in his DNA.
Lamar doesn’t let the FOX News beef die, confronting it yet again in the following song “YAH.” He calls out the News agency for using his name to gain viewers. A few songs later he and Rihanna team up on the track “Loyalty.” The album’s only true lull. Both he and Rihanna slow the pace down to a grinding halt. He ups the pace somewhat in the following song, “PRIDE,” which was produced by The Internet’s own Steve Lacey, who also sings the hook with Kendrick. “PRIDE” takes on a subtle tone, which he contrasts with the next track, “HUMBLE,” his first-ever song to reach #1 on the Billboard top 100.
“LUST” and “LOVE” then play back-to-back, continuing the theme of juxtaposition. Kendrick extends his normal vocal arsenal, singing in a sweet falsetto, and returns back to rapping on “LUST” with Zacari supplying the chilling vocals on the hook. “LUST” deserves the same attention that Kendrick earned with his 2013 hit “Poetic Justice,” that featured Drake.
DAMN’s conclusion begins with “XXX” and “FEAR.” The former serves as a political analysis of America. Beginning with the chorus “America, God bless you if it’s good to you,” Kendrick offers a critique of the American Dream, in sum if you are young, black, and male, beware. He continues with America’s reflections of who he is, likening black gangsters to terrorists and examining the regression since the presidential election. “FEAR” takes on an even more personal, somber tone. Kendrick raps about the all-encapsulating fear that has consumed his life. He breaks this fear up into decades. First, it was fear of his mother. Next, as he grew out of the house, it was a fear of falling into the streets. Currently, it is a fear of the police and their abuse of black bodies.
The mood is temporarily lifted again with the triumphant façade provided by “GOD.” Here, Kendrick sits back and subtly boasts about his success, likening the feeling to God. The album’s last song “DUCKWORTH” showcases Kendrick’s masterful storytelling ability. “DUCKWORTH” is a story about Kenny Duckworth, a KFC worker, and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, a gangbanger. Kenny stopped Anthony from sticking up the KFC by giving him free or extra food. Years later, the two met again, by chance, in a recording studio. By then, Kenny Duckworth had had a son, Kendrick Lamar, and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith had started a record label. The song ends with Kendrick rapping, “if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin' life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” The same gunshot from the album’s introduction is repeated and the album is played quickly in reverse before Kendrick says once again, “so I was taking a walk the other day.”