kendrick lamar 'damn' artwork
Photo: Instagram

DAMN., Kendrick!

Kendrick Lamar spends a lot of time rapping on DAMN., his third major release.

And he’s not just rapping, he’s doing the illogical, like rhyming couplets that end with Photoshop, Richard Pryor, stretch marks, Polo socks; couplets that also have internal rhymes of “afro” and “natural”; couplets that raise pointed conversations about misogyny and the male gaze, because Kendrick’s sexual politics are flawed, and he’s knee-deep in love with kyriarchy whether he knows this or not, and…

Things are complex.

This is a 14-track album that knew it would be a 14-track album at the time the twelfth track was recorded. And that track, “FEAR.” is as confusing and uncomfortable as anything that Lamar has ever put to “wax.” Picking at scabs isn’t new for this guy. Throughout his career there’s been the confession and normalization of a dysfunctional upbringing: the death of wide-eyed innocence on “Cartoons & Cereal,” the house raids of “Look Out For Detox,” the avuncular defiance that birthed pathology on “The Heart Pt. 2″—and those are some of the lesser known moments. His major label debut, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, was bildungsroman built on being alright despite being kinda f*cked up; on his last album, there was “u,” where he drunk dialed his conscience and engaged in some tough self-love that may have actually been self-sabotage.  But the first verse of “FEAR.”?

Man, listen.

Things are complex. Complex like love being threatened and beat by your mother at seven years old like, “I beat your ass if you walk in this house/ With tears in your eyes running from Poo-Poo and Prentice/ Go back outside/ I beat your ass, lil nxgga.” Complex like being beat for getting your sneakers dirty, for talking back, for having something new, for not eating, for exploring your sexuality, for telling the truth to the social services. Complex like the way too many of us who grew up Black and poor or Black or poor find this to feel like home, and how home feels like fear.

Complex how “FEAR.” travels in decades and by 17, Kendrick is thinking about all the myriad and quotidian ways he can in die his neighborhood. By 27 he’s—unsurprisingly— dealing with self-worth issues and a scarcity mentality despite his fame and wealth. He won’t spend his money, he has trust issues: “What is an advisor?/ Somebody that’s holdin’ my checks?/ Just to fuck me over and put my finances in debt?”

And then there’s this, from “ELEMENT.”:

I been stomped out in front of my mama

My daddy commissary made it to commas

Bitch, all my grandmas dead

So ain’t nobody prayin’ for me…

It seems to be the Rosetta Stone of this album. Family is a recurring idea—from his cousin to his niece. The idea that there is no one praying for him becomes a refrain popping up in multiple songs. Religion is here, too—Kendrick claims to maybe being an Israelite (which would explain the braids), even as he refuses the “Black” designation. There’s a song called “GOD.,” where the hook equates God with going to the bank smiling, because in Kendrick’s world, wealth is burden and freedom, carnal and spiritual, guilt and happiness.

“I feel like this gotta be the feeling where ‘Pac was,” he raps on “FEEL.,” and it’s the kind of seemingly toss-away lyric that he specializes in—one that owes as much to our relationship to him as to his own relation with his inner states and questions. It’s almost absurd to parse such a small line. (Kendrick knows this; and he know us. On “FEAR.,” he raps: “What they hear from me will make ’em highlight my simplest lines.”) On the surface, it’s the same statement that was made almost verbatim by Jay Z coming off of his battle with Nas. It’s pretty much what Ja Rule channeled when he was high and feeling himself too much. It’s what Troy Ave wants us to think because it’s the well of inspiration and comparison that rappers have dipped into for gravitas by association, if not context, for the past two decades.

But Kendrick is not other rappers. He’s the rapper of a generation, one that stands effortlessly at the crossroads of progressive Black music, a blood-stained gang lineage that crosses state lines, and a lyricism that spans generations of gatekeepers and purists. The stuff in his DNA can’t be replicated and it doesn’t exist in Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean; maybe in Pusha T, not in anyone else name-checked in “Control.” He’s a thinking man’s rapper and a rapper’s rapper that’s your favorite rapper’s least favorite rapper.

Like other rappers, Kendrick Lamar yearns to make his analogies to Tupac Shakur seem deeper than surface value, but no one works as hard to make these connections deeper than the obvious. On “FEEL.” he leads up to his observation by speaking on police brutality and street violence, noting industries that profit from ignorance and death, from banks to blogs; he bookends it with “the feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’ but nothin’ is awkward.”

There are so many ideas swirling on this album—a beef with Fox News that shows up on no less than three songs; Rihanna is here both in song and as reference; Bono shows up; Dr. Dre gets and executive producer credit, but was probably nowhere to be found during the recording sessions; Top Dawg Ent. founder and HNIC Anthony Tiffith looms heavily over everything here, and it’s great because the album begins where it ends, and it ends with the thought of an alternate reality so revelatory that it deserves a spoiler warning and has birthed the kind of theories that only the internet and screenwriters can think of.

The album’s last song is not just a feat of structure and biography, it’s a feat of rhyme and it’s a great because Kendrick Lamar is actually rapping and, as much as no one wants to admit it, the past few years were pointing to the idea that Kendrick Lamar’s best rhyming was behind him as a full-time pursuit and he would go on to be like Andre 3000 and thrash against Remy Ma’s wisdom that “to be the [king] of rap you gotta actually rap,” while doing mostly everything else but rap in the purest sense.

But he’s rapping on DAMN. and he’s doing the illogical over some of the most accessible beats of his career. Even if there is barely a radio hit in sight (save maybe “LOVE.,” which only works in a world where Young Thug, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert have broken eardrums and sensibilities). Even if “HUMBLE.” is his biggest commercial single yet, it’s not even Mike WiLL Made-It’s best song on this album (that would be “DNA.”). And even if these beats are accessible, they’re not always easy listening—there are beat switches for days, sirens, things moving in reverse, and minor-key baroqueness that seems straight-forward given the layered sounds of his Kendrick’s music.

Yet, despite the stark brutalism, DAMN. is actually the most subtle project Kendrick Lamar has released, K. Dot mixtapes included. There’s no BIG STATEMENT mission or elevator-pitch narrative here to wrap critiques around. Despite the accessibility and transparency, there are so many questions—questions made more pronounced by the relatively hands-free rollout of the project (perhaps TDE spent the entire marketing budget on Lebron James?); questions made more pronounced by the weird syntax of the titles (is Kendrick just messing with reviewers’ ability to use punctuation?); questions made more pronounced by a hot take culture that says we have to have an informed opinion on an album when it’s only a few hours old. It’s all ridiculous and illogical, but so is this album.

This is what can be said: Kendrick Lamar spends a lot of time rapping on DAMN., and he’s doing it better than just about anyone within the sound of his voice. He also spends a lot of time being discomfortingly internal and dealing with primal wounds and philosophical ideas and (most likely) taking shots at other rappers and disregarding women and/or equating women and their body parts with sex and/or weakness and or having a conflicted relationship with money and power because he’s enamored with kyriarchy, whether he knows it or not. And those aren’t hot take subjects.

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