Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?”
Many works of art reflect on mankind’s inherent morality. Kendrick Lamar uses his latest record, DAMN., not to ask whether people are born good or bad, but to ask why we are bad, and whether mankind has any hope of redemption. Thematically, this is the darkest, most hopeless album K.Dot has ever made. Where good kid, m.A.A.d city sent an inspiring message that anyone can escape dire circumstances if they remain focused and principled, and where To Pimp A Butterfly declared that change is possible if people are willing to endure the struggle to get there, DAMN. finds Kendrick wondering what to do in a world where few people will ever live up to their full potential and even fewer will put their talents towards changing things and uplifting others.
The record’s second track, “DNA.,” finds the Compton MC in perfect synchronicity with a pulverizing Mike WiLL Made-It beat that plays out in a whirlwind of disorienting vocal samples and 808s heavy enough to register on the Richter scale. Amidst the chaos, Kendrick posits that everything that defines us, whether good or bad, is simply a part of us when we’re born, rapping “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow inside my DNA / …I got dark, I got evil that rot inside my DNA.” And while there is some good in us, Kung Fu Kenny concludes that we’re base, greedy, and violent above all else, ending the song by almost shouting the bars “Sex, money, murder, these are the breaks / …sex, money, murder — our DNA.” Resignation and fatalism haven’t ever found their way into Kendrick’s music before in such a pronounced way, but the take-no-prisoners “DNA” sets the stage beautifully for one of the most lyrically difficult and despairing mainstream rap records out there.
Deeper into the album, the Black Hippy spitter wonders why people don’t seek to elevate themselves beyond this natural state. His answer: lust. Not a sexual lust, but a lust for routine, for keeping things comfortable and predictable at the cost of personal progression. The track that houses these ruminations, “LUST.,” (bet you were surprised by that title) features a monstrous instrumental — courtesy of the great DJ Dahi — that contrasts thudding kick drums with ethereal hihats and snares to gloriously disarming effect. It’s got a wispy, nocturnal vibe, almost sounding like something Drake would rap over.
But thankfully Kendrick got to it first, and his cynical bars sting: “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news / Looking for confirmation, hoping election wasn’t true / All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feeling is deep / Still and sad, distraught and mad / Tell the neighbor ‘bout it, bet they agree / …time passin’, things change / Reverting back to our daily programming, stuck in our ways.” With this, Kendrick suggests that even when we do rise above our base instincts, our highmindedness is fleeting; the basics of getting by day to day ultimately supersede any concerns beyond the world right in front of us that we directly interact with. For me (and for many, if not most), sacrificing routine to be active in confronting sociopolitical issues is unrealistic, but there’s still something sad in the fact that this sort of involvement is unfeasible, the sort of sadness that makes you feel small.
But Kendrick readily turns the microscope back on himself a couple tracks later on “FEAR.” This track marks the first collaboration between the Compton MC and one of my favorite beatmakers, The Alchemist. And though you’d expect sparks to fly as a result of such a monumental match-up, the pair keeps things low-key. The song is a slow-burning masterwork, thanks in no small part to Alc’s soulcrushing instrumental. Comprised of a short, trebly guitar loop, an even shorter drum loop, a single repeating bass note, and some fleeting vocal samples, this thing is sparse and haunting as all hell; the beat becomes almost oppressive as it presses on for six minutes before changing. Kendrick’s lyrics make the song all the more grueling, as he uses his three verses to rap about his greatest fears at ages 7 (his mom), 17 (death), and 27 (losing money and talent). The song doesn’t exactly end on a high note either, as Kendrick never claims to have conquered his fears — all we’re left to wonder about is how they’ll grow and change across the next ten years. By the time the nearly eight-minute track reaches its end, it’s first line still resonates the clearest: “Why God, Why God, do I gotta suffer / Earth is no more, won’t you burn this motherfucker?”
The final minute or so of the song takes the form of a voicemail Kendrick’s cousin left him, who tries to help him understand why he’s feeling so disillusioned. Though I’m no expert on the subject, the philosophy explained seems to be something close to Black Judaism: “the so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians, are the true children of Israel. We are the Israelites according to the Bible… He’s gonna punish us for our iniquities, for our disobedience, because we chose to follow other gods that aren’t his Son, so the Lord, thy God, chasten thee.” Now, I think this idea is troubling in a couple ways, but to keep things strictly focused on the record itself, it reveals a disturbing cyclicality in Kendrick’s plight; much of DAMN. finds him wondering why he feels he’s been fated to suffer and the only answer he gets is simply that he has been made to suffer. It’s a revelation that doesn’t lead anywhere, but by the time the last track plays out a couple songs later, it becomes clear just how critical nonlinear thinking is to understanding the record. But more on that later.
“Do I live through fear or through rap?”
Kendrick’s first big hit was the 2012 single “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which earned both mass appeal for its club-ready beat and critical acclaim for the fact that the song basically tricks the listener; the banger beat and well-produced, catchy vocal melodies that make the track a turn-up anthem do double-duty in cleverly obscuring the song’s warning about the dangerous trifecta that alcohol, self-hate, and peer pressure create. Played at parties, “Swimming Pools” blends in with any other hit rap song; played alone with headphones on and it’s a powerful and deeply personal statement.
It was an amazing feat of songwriting, and it’s just as amazing now, as Kendrick pulls a similar ruse through most of DAMN.. Ditching To Pimp A Butterfly’s soulful feel, unconventional song structures, and focus on live instrumentation, DAMN. has a much glossier aesthetic; the majority of songs here would sound right at home on the radio and features like Rihanna and U2 further this pop sensibility.
But dig beyond the accessible veneer and you’ll find the most unrelentingly technical flows and rhyme schemes K.Dot has ever come up with, coupled with some of his hardest hitting lyrics. The track “LOYALTY.,” for instance, plays the part of the male/female duet about the search for the perfect partner, but picking apart the lyrics reveals the song’s total lack of romance. Kendrick and RiRi (whose lines are clearly written by Kendrick) team up instead to question the integrity both of people in their inner circles and fellow superstars. The track’s fourth verse finds Kendrick demanding “Tell me who you loyal to / Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink? / …got love for the streets when the lights get dark? / Is it unconditional when the ‘Rari don’t start?”
Some may be disappointed with a track like “LOYALTY.” or the similarly poppy “LOVE.” considering just how far left-field K.Dot went on To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered, but it’s important to two things. First: the fact that Kendrick is incredibly popular is central to his artistry; sure, he’d still be great as an underground hidden gem like Starlito or $ha Hef, but the weight of his music is undeniably bolstered by the fact that he has the sort of massive platform most artists squander with vague love songs and party tracks and instead uses it to send deeply moralistic messages that use obscure shit like the William Lynch theory and Wesley Snipes’s tax evasion trial as jump-off points.
Too many albums like To Pimp A Butterfly would force him to retreat to an insular fanbase rather than remain an inescapable presence in rap music who stands toe to toe with the likes of Drake and Kanye. As much as I love DAMN., its aesthetic doesn’t speak to me quite in the way the revamped West Coast flavorings of good kid, m.A.A.d city or the warm soul and free jazz freakouts of To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered do. But I understand why Kendrick chose this direction; there’s a reason, after all, that he’s signed to both Top Dawg Entertainment and Aftermath — two labels that continually vie for pop culture domination. If you want to change the game, you have to play it.
“What happens on Earth stays on Earth.”
Perhaps DAMN.’s most subtle stroke of genius is getting Kid Capri — former producer and DJ for 90s acts like Grand Puba, and late legends Heavy D and Big L — to lace shout-outs through the record like a DJ would on a mixtape. The kicker, however, is that he’s not just shouting asinine shit over tracks like DJs typically do — the phrases he uses are often important summations of the record’s themes.
One of Capri’s catchphrases that’s tossed into a few tracks (and said by Kendrick himself on “FEEL.”) is “what happens on Earth stays on Earth.” It’s a nice, catchy slogan that begs a few questions — namely: what in the fuck does that even mean?
For an idea like this to make its way into a devoutly Christian artist’s work — especially one so steeped in Bible lore as DAMN. — is incredibly surprising. On the surface, it reads like a denial of judgment, a declaration that your earthly acts won’t affect you in the afterlife. That’s about as un-Christian and un-Kendrick a sentiment I can think of.
I can only assume Kendrick had Kid Capri repeat this line to serve as a contrast to his own bars, fixated as they are on the idea of mankind’s damnation.
“PRIDE.” finds Kendrick making his most pointed warning against ignoring spiritual growth in favor of physical wealth. Steve Lacy of the fantastic West Coast R&B group, The Internet, lays down a fantastic psychedelic soul groove, which Kendrick (loaded up with trippy vocal effects) greets with a series of questions: “Hell-raising, wheel-chasing, new worldly possessions / Flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen? / The better part, the human heart, you love ‘em or dissect ‘em? / Happiness or flashiness — how do you serve the question?” Across all his records, one of Kendrick’s chief projects is exposing the fact that hedonism and self-denial are one and the same, so there’s an odd pragmatism in what he’s asking here; even if you don’t believe in damnation, even if you do believe that what happens on earth stays on earth, is an indulgent lifestyle still worth wasting your limited time trying to pursue? His answer seems to come in his second verse, as he raps “Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride / A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.”
“Let’s put it in reverse.”
good kid, m.A.A.d city ended with Kendrick and Dr. Dre teaming up to take a victory lap through their mutual hometown. To Pimp A Butterfly ended with Kendrick striving to be like Nelson Mandela and discussing the state of the world with Tupac. DAMN. reaches something like a conclusion with the story of a chance encounter between two guys at a KFC. Maybe not as operatic on paper, but the real-life parable Kendrick weaves on “DUCKWORTH.” registers a huge impact.
Teaming up with 9th Wonder, who breaks his streak of underwhelming instrumentals to deliver a veritable beat tapestry that shifts grooves and samples dynamically to suit the narrative, K.Dot tells the story of Anthony and Ducky. Anthony is a robber and drug dealer scoping out a KFC that he plans to stick up. Ducky is a family man working at this KFC, trying to scrape by. Realizing how dangerous Anthony is, Ducky tries to get on his good side by always giving him extra food for free and, ultimately, Anthony recognizes this kindness and decides not to go through with the robbery.
The point? “Twenty years later, them same strangers, you make em meet again / Inside recording studios where they’re reaping they’re benefits,” Kendrick explains “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be serving life while I grew up without a father and died in a fun fight.”
Here, after an album’s worth of dour ruminations on the nature of people, we get a small glimmer of hope in a story of how kindness trumped instinctive cruelty and gave both men an opportunity to rise above their former stations in life. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that we got one of the most important mainstream artists out there as a result.
But we aren’t given much time to reflect on Kendrick’s story; as soon as he spits his last bar the record rewinds, and we find ourselves once more at the opening track, “BLOOD.”
The first time it plays out, “BLOOD.” is yet another parable, though with a much more opaque and dreamlike character. Set to some Curtis Mayfield-esque blaxploitation soul, Kendrick describes his own death; as he’s taking a walk, he encounters a blind woman who “seemed to be a bit frustrated, as if she had lost something.” He approaches the woman to ask if he can give her a helping hand, but for his considerateness and compassion, she kills him.
When “BLOOD.” starts again at the end of “DUCKWORTH.,” Kendrick slyly cuts himself off and leaves us hanging before we find out if he’ll once more be punished for his concern for the blind woman. Maybe putting the story of Anthony and Ducky to wax has renewed Kendrick’s faith in mankind, and he’ll now be spared just as his label boss spared his father decades ago. But maybe these acts of kindness are so few and far in between that they don’t really change things, and restarting “BLOOD.” at the end of the record shows that the perennial ups and downs of human existence are on a closed loop, doomed to repeat over and over again.
Finding answers has never been easy for Kendrick — a younger K.Dot rapped that his search for answers came to an end when “one day I realized I had to come up with my own.” Now he’s handed that agency over to his audience. How DAMN. ends is for you to decide and the answer you construct may very well say much more about you than the record itself.