“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide.” We’ve been so charged with the challenge to judge Kendrick Lamar‘s fourth studio album by the metrics of these two elements. DAMN., titled by the sentiment of its content, hosts a four-course meal of metaphoric genius from the Compton-bred lyricist who has faced a great deal criticism from the media for his activism, and from the industry for his avant-garde approach to Rap-Jazz poeticism on 2015’s triumphantly successful To Pimp a Butterfly. The multi-Grammy winning, two-year-old album exhibited Kendrick’s deliberate unwillingness to tip-toe around the stark injustices faced by Black Americans, and DAMN. hosts wordplay equally as pithy for this new introspective follow up to the external-viewing themes of TPAB. It seems the living legend’s intrinsic disdain for careful language extends across the board from racial division to revelational mortality.
Recurring guests Anna Wise, Terrace Martin, TDE’s Sounwave and Anthony Tiffith, DJ Dahi, Mike WiLL Made-It, Thundercat and 9th Wonder are credited among first-time contributors like Steve Lacy and the nostalgia-inducing voice of celebrated hip-hop legend Kid Capri. With only three listed features from Rihanna, U2 and TDE-managed Zacari, Kendrick travels into an infinity pool of esoterica with confidence holding one of his hands and paranoia holding the other. DAMN. is more like a reality-based series than an album, each track an episode of chatoyant moods unraveling through the cynosure’s self-narrated confrontation with his demons and anxieties. But again, it’s those two questions that open K-Dot’s latest opus (along with the honest confusion, transparent fright and a tug of war between self-assuredness and self-doubt in the lyrics) that make this album feel like a mental dap with your closest long-distance kin.
In a time where success relies heavily on acceptance and support, Kendrick has cemented himself as this generation’s interminable winner despite the scrutiny of literally everyone (including Fox News). So as a fitting close to the opening track that poses the two questions before telling the ominous story of a cryptic encounter with a murderous blind woman, Geraldo Rivera’s reckless criticism of Lamar’s “Alright” performance during the 2016 BET Awards plays. The following track commences where the rapper boasts a royal, glowing and unstoppable “DNA.” atop a thunderous, gritty beat. “I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon, I serve.” Track three, “YAH.,” responds directly to Rivera with, “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage…Yeah, that’s the business/ Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition/ I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion,” a cleverly composed lyrical oddity considering, 1) “Yah” is an alternative, Hebrew name for God and 2) he just boasted his supreme genetic inheritance, which could also be perceived as divinely blessed. On “YAH.” Kendrick also mentions his cousin’s spiritual advice which we hear more in depth during a pivotal, full circle moment later in the album.
Justifiably dubbed “Kung Fu Kenny,” “ELEMENT.” finds lyrical martial arts on full display as the emcee dances with the crown he claimed as rap’s undefeated champion. That same vaunting pride soon reveals the underside to Lamar’s flipped coin of success as the wickedness in the song’s threatening dares dissolve into a moment of weakness (titled “FEEL.”) brought on by the loneness resulting from that very same success and the overall toxicity of industry involvement.
Coming in right-behind the woes of “FEEL.,” the Rihanna-assisted “LOYALTY.” is every creative’s anthem for loyalty in love, business and friendships. The prophetic track speaks to another revelation from later in the album when Kendrick mentions the widely-publicized betrayal of the bad gyal’s financial trust from her accountant. Wunderkind Steve Lacy swoops in with hazy vocals and beachy guitar chords for a feather light platform to Lamar’s big brags in “PRIDE.” Another drop of spirituality ties in from YAH as pride is actually considered a deadly sin in certain faiths. But before the song ends, Kendrick shares reverence for God as the only perfect being while hinting at his own inability to make the world perfect. It’s that humility that transitions into the ironically blustering “HUMBLE.”
By this point in DAMN., the mid-song beat flip that sent us over the moon in “The Heart Part 4” has remained a strategic go-to. Its presence in “LUST.” (another sin in the world of faith) is no different as the song in context with the rest of the album also takes on a slightly different meaning than its “money, cars and big-booty vixen” face value lets on. The more relatable reality of common, daily thrills and coping mechanisms that we (and he) abuse from Instagram-driven moves to the over-indulgent party life are called out here before the perceived wickedness of that lifestyle is overshadowed by the perceived weakness of a man in “LOVE.” Lamar’s disarming, true love tale simplifies romantic bliss to elemental companionship with playful banter as he sings, “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to (love me)/ Keep it a whole one hund, don’t got you, I got nothing/ Ay, I got something/ Hold up, we gon’ function, no assumptions/ Feeling like Tyson with it/ Knock it out twice, I’m with it/ Only for the night, I’m kidding/ Only for life, you’re a homie for life/ You’re a homie for life, let’s get it.”
In “XXX.” the relatability of being sought out for spiritual guidance in a situation where anger is warranted meets us with the looming question of whether or not Lamar’s advice to retaliate is wicked. The nuanced idea that it takes a strong person to rise above the offenses against him/her presents itself here, further complicating the inveterate truth teller’s decision to act as America’s mirror since the nation has already distorted the image of Black activism. “It’s nasty when you set us up/ Then roll the dice, then bet us up/ You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us/ Gang members or terrorists, etcetera, etcetera/ America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.” So even K-Dot, with all of his rightfully earned high praises, has a breaking point (weakness?), and I wholly believe “XXX.” was his way of telling the world that he’s not concerned about coming down off the pedestal we’ve placed him on to remain true to what really moves him.
In “FEAR.” a voicemail message from cousin Carl Duckworth is offered as the intro to this track’s rhythmic prayer. Expounding on the spiritual overtones mentioned by Kendrick in “YAH.,” Carl offers the biblical guidance of Deuteronomy 28:28 saying, “Deuteronomy 28:28 says, ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.’ See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder. Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way…” Kendrick’s distressed prayer that is similar to one of Jesus’ last sayings from the cross precedes three verses of meditative reflection on his worries from three different periods of life; the fear of a parent’s wrath at age 7, the fear of becoming “just another” casualty of street gang life at age 17, and the fear of losing everything earned on the journey to success at age 27. But in “GOD.,” he rises from his allegorical crucifixion and returns to the confident boasting of his success explaining “Ever since a young man/ All I wanted to be was a gunman/ Shooting up the charts, better run, man/ Y’all gotta see that I won, man…This what God feel like.”
The final track, “DUCKWORTH.,” tells the coincidental origin story of TDE’s Anthony Tiffith. The riveting tale recalls Tiffith’s criminal past which could have costed Kendrick’s father Ducky his life. After the nail-biting journey reveals the divinely-ordered destiny of Ducky, Tiffith and Lamar, our attention is brought to the album’s reversing audio that calls on the “what-if” fate of one of today’s greatest Rap contributors by returning to the story of the blind woman from the album’s opener. It feels like the blind lady from “BLOOD.” was terribly mistaken as harmless when her wickedness (her will to kill) was disguised by weakness (an inability to see). Kendrick’s own perceived wickedness (the merciless efforts to affect change in social, political and racial issues through music) are not hiding behind any perceived weakness (the perils of his desperation for safe calmness). So the album’s final, resounding gunshot echoes the haunting reality that Rap music’s bad rep of doing “more harm than good” remains at the forefront of media’s poorly considered and excessively erroneous theories; especially since the most harmful forces, are usually the least assuming.
So that’s the DAMN. story in all its organically paradoxical, confrontational and irenic essence. Strategically organized ideas from emotions and moods as frazzled as the thoughts they likely derived from are pieced together in an untethered audio masterpiece that could only be the product of truly multidimensional artistry that has endured the weight of success’ pressures, expectations and judgments. It’s introspective and relatable and maintains its grip on activism in art form from the controlled assertiveness of the track list’s caps and punctuation to the juxtaposed song topics and pleasantly conflicting beat flips, from every single media reference to honest struggles with humility, from the craving for trust and security on “LOYALTY.” to every sincere and purely expressed desire in “LOVE.,” from every justifiable worry in “FEAR.” to the heady kennings bravely shared in “FEEL.,” and from the blind woman mentioned in “BLOOD.” to Kendrick’s ties to TDE since before it even existed in “DUCKWORTH.” So in response to those two burning questions, it is my humble opinion that the life component explored here is neither wicked nor weak. It is natural disaster and sanctuary, damnation and redemption. It is spirituality and humanness and it’s DAMN good.