After releasing two of the greatest albums of this decade, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly, expectations were high for Kendrick Lamar’s next release. His latest album, DAMN., lives up to its predecessors and is a classic in its own right. It lacks the obvious narrative of his past releases, but is by far his most challenging piece of work to date. The album’s meaning is ambiguous to say the least and is largely up to the listener’s interpretation. The juxtaposing track titles, such as “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” brings in themes of choice and duality which drive the album. Lamar also takes a more commercial sound here, but offers a refreshing spin on it.
The opening track “BLOOD.” introduces the notion of living through wickedness or weakness and also has Kendrick getting shot dead while trying to assist a blind woman. The blind woman could represent a variety of things but most likely she is Lady Justice. The meaning of the track becomes even more complex when taking into account the cyclical nature of the record and the closing track “DUCKWORTH.” On the closer, Kendrick believes that if his father was shot and killed, that he himself would also die in a gun fight. This makes the listener wonder if “BLOOD.” is actually from the perspective of a fatherless Kendrick or the Kendrick we all know.
Perhaps he believes that death is right around the corner regardless of his upbringing. It doesn’t matter if he just another Compton resident or a famous rapper – nobody is safe in America.
This is Kendrick’s darkest album and the fear of death is ever-present. On “ELEMENT.” he raps “Mr. one through five, that’s the only logic. Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option.” Kendrick is asserting himself as the best in the game, but also fears the dangers of being in the spotlight. Conspiracy theorists believe that Tupac Shakur actually faked his own death and is currently residing in Cuba. Kendrick believes that the only way for himself to be safe is if he does the same. On the track “FEAR.,”Kendrick identifies a variety of ways that someone can die in Compton which furthers the gravity of the opening track. He not only fears death, but also fears dying without making something of himself.
DAMN. represents a sonic shift with Kendrick embracing a more commercial sound. The chorus to “ELEMENT.” has him channeling his inner Young Thug as well as addressing his change in sound. He is calling out his rivals, likely Big Sean and Drake, and saying that he can make hit records like them while remaining as conceptual as always. No matter what sound Kendrick chooses to pursue, he will never be out of his element. Famous trap producer Mike WiLL Made-It features on three of the songs and helps Kendrick segue into this new sound. His production retains its simplistic, pop sensibilities and thankfully leaves behind the obnoxious watermark.
It is important to remember when listening to Kendrick that he will rap through different perspectives, be it from someone else or his own conflicting viewpoints. To make things even more complicated, he will change perspectives and instrumentals mid-song to create juxtaposition between characters. The stellar track “XXX.” is a fantastic example of this, featuring multiple shifts in perspective in just the first verse. He begins the verse bragging about his accomplishments in the street with a cold, emotionless inflection. He then talks about a fictional boy named Johnny, who is meant to be manifestation of all the boys in the ghetto who succumb to a life of crime. Johnny idolizes Kendrick’s lifestyle which leads to drug dealing and eventually killing someone. This is followed by a sudden transition into an alarm-backed instrumental and an incredibly frantic Kendrick who sounds reminiscent of a young Ghostface Killah. Kendrick recently received a call from a friend whose son was killed, likely by Johnny, and he is advising him to take vengeance. The verse is ended with Kendrick going to speak at a convention about gun control. This creates a contradiction between Kendrick’s impulsive and conscious sides, something he touched on in “Blacker the Berry” from To Pimp a Butterfly. It also shows the true gravity of Kendrick’s influence as well as his various responses to it.
DAMN. is a complex album that will take time to fully unravel. There are many sounds, themes, and stories not discussed here that are crucial to grasping its concept. Even after over 20 listens it is still confusing, but it will be a challenge trying to piece the puzzle together in the coming years.
Listen to the entire f***ing album
(Feature Image: Insomniac/Interscope Records)