What happens on Earth, stays on Earth, and our hero finds his home planet an almighty mess: sex, money and murder have wriggled their way into the DNA of its inhabitants, leading them astray toward the path of damnation. Kung Fu Kenny is just trying to find a way to live through it, but nobody is praying for him.
Like a choose your own adventure novel, Kendrick Lamar sets the scene for his third official LP, ‘DAMN.’ with a set of questions.
“Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
Are we going to live or die?”
The Compton rapper proceeds to unravel these questions with his most cerebral and self-conscious offering yet, making sense of his thoughts with the listener as a fly on the wall inside his brain.
Before hurling himself into an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of flows and melodies, Kendrick begins with a parable about a cursed, blind woman wandering the streets. He approaches to help, only to be told that he’s made a fatal error and we hear a gunshot.
Suddenly Kendrick’s life flashes before him, and in the following 50 minutes we piece together the fragmented emotions that he shares with us, before we’re left to decide his fate.
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Like Kendrick’s previous albums, ‘DAMN.’ works across multiple levels. The casual listener will be consumed by the way Kendrick paints vivid emotions; blending bars and melodies around a diverse palate of beats ranging from Atlanta super-producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s hard-hitting 808s, to the raw soul of Steve Lacy’s iPhone composition ‘PRIDE.’ Not to mention the Rihanna-assisted ‘LOYALTY.’ that — complete with its Bruno Mars’ ’24K Magic’ sample — feels destined for chart success.
Kendrick's technical skill, as always, is something of awe, and in the first few listens it’s his lyrical gymnastics that make listeners walk away muttering the album’s title. Those more versed in hip-hop culture, will recognise the iconic voice of Kid Capri, the veteran Bronx DJ, ad-libbing across a handful of tracks, giving it a mixtape aesthetic that pulls Kendrick back to his roots after the expansive sound of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’.
Digging deeper into the lyrics, Kendrick often refers to the theories of the Black Israelites and the Book Of Deuteronomy as central themes of the album. These African American groups believe that they are descendants of the ancient Israelites and would therefore subject to the ten plagues of Egypt if the Ten Commandments are not obeyed. On the second song, ‘DNA.’, Kendrick warns that these consequences are already taking place, and that the final plague (death of firstborn sons) is almost upon us. “Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way,” he spits frantically over a repeating sample of Rick James demanding marijuana. “Sentence on the way, killings on the way.”
The following track ‘YAH.’ — a reference to the latest trending rap ad-lib, or ‘Yahweh’ the sacred name that God is believed to used to refer to himself in the Old Testament, depending on your perspective — sees Kendrick declaring: “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more.” Before mentioning a voicemail from his cousin Carl, which we later hear on ‘FEAR.’ During the call, Carl explains the Black Israelite theories, warning him that conditions for black people in the Unites States will only continue to get worse, unless they return to obeying the Ten Commandments.
Across the album there are multiple references to this ideology, however it feels like Kendrick is still in the process of searching. He’s open about his own flaws and contradictions, as much as he is preaching any kind of gospel — in fact, for the entirety of the album it feels more like he’s addressing himself than anyone else. Kendrick doesn't have the answers, and in this way the album feels incredibly human and perhaps his most relatable work.
‘DAMN.’ excels within its second half, the final trio of tracks in particular being the album’s strongest act. ‘FEAR.’ finds Kendrick at his most vulnerable, with Alchemist’s meditative loop offering nothing to hide behind as Kendrick reveals the things that have kept him up at night over the years; his mother’s threats as a child, police brutality and murder as a teenager and imposter syndrome as a successful adult. This is followed by the euphoric ‘GOD.’ which sees him celebrating the positive side of his success, giving thanks for the inspiration he finds from a higher power.
The album concludes with ‘DUCKWORTH.’ Over 9th Wonder production Kendrick revisits a pivotal moment in the life of two men, to which he believes he owes his life. It’s a breath-taking display of storytelling, as he unpacks a narrative about TDE president Anthony Tiffiths and a run in he had with Kendrick’s father Ducky in their younger years, whilst Anthony was a gangbanger and Ducky worked a 9 to 5 in KFC to support his young family.
A reformed member of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, Ducky’s understanding of the street mentality had him slipping extra food to customers like Anthony, which ultimately paid off: during an armed robbery of the restaurant, Anthony spared Ducky’s life. Kendrick completes the stanza by revealing his belief that if Anthony had killed Ducky, leaving him without his father as a role model, that Kendrick would likely be dead by now — another victim to the cycle of street life that his father kept him away from.
The piece feels linked to the parable at the beginning of the album; Ducky’s kindness paid off, but did Kendrick’s? The album finishes with a rewind back to Kendrick’s opening line: “I was taking a walk the other day…”
In the immensely broad and polarised genre of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar holds a unique position in being one of the few rappers that almost everyone can agree on. He appeals to Soundcloud-besotted teenagers whose musical landscape is filled with booming 808’s and rattling snares, where the emphasis is more on delivery rather than content. He appeals to those that came up listening to hip-hop in the ‘90s, who can trace his lineage from Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed, appreciate the significance of a Kid Capri shout out and enjoy decoding dense lyricism full of double-meanings. And he’s also appealing to a pop audience, who have made this disjointed autobiography the unlikely best-selling record of the year so far.
Kendrick, as always, leaves us with a record that we’ll still be learning from for years to come. ’DAMN.’ does at times feel contradictory and the ideas he’s transmitting at times don’t feel fully formed, but this is where its genius lies. Kendrick offers a true snapshot of the eternal debates that we host inside our heads, and there is immense bravery and artistry in his depiction. With his first two albums, Kendrick Lamar established himself as one of the greatest rappers of his generation. After ‘DAMN.’ he finds himself beginning to creep into the conversation about the greatest of all time.
Words: Grant Brydon
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