Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.
For the children of the blogosphere, we’ve spent nearly a decade watching our favorites shift through the prestigious and unfulfilled time and space of modern hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar emerged from the mixtape fray as one of the most successful and critically-revered MCs of our generation; he’s sealed two confirmed classics before the age of 30. With DAMN., Kendrick’s granted himself another opportunity to perfect the pop album. Where good kid, m.A.A.d city was the compromise - a social buffer of tragic singalongs to garner clout for the funk/soul fusions of his later work - this album dares to push further into unfamiliar terrain when the circumstances would beckon him not to reinvent the Black Artist wheel.
Kendrick’s too keen to fall into his expectations; he makes direct note of it on “ELEMENT.,” citing To Pimp a Butterfly as his (successful) attempt to elevate and reinforce the glory of the Black Artist. While the undertones never fade, DAMN. isn’t a grand social statement on any climate in particular; it’s a revised glance into Kendrick’s superstar paranoia at a point where he no longer has to prove himself to anyone. It’s all the thrills and horrors we can expect from a critical darling: an overarching search for God (or “YAH.,” God in Hebrew,) self-referential imagery causing theories galore, several 2Pac allusions, and a heavy balance between spiraling into fame and bracing oneself for the come down.
The personal remains political, with a poppier edge. Over 54 minutes, there’s less of Kendrick incessantly lashing out out, more of his singing--which works more than usual-- and an eclectic sway between the trap monstrosities of Mike WiLL and traditional cushions of Alchemist and 9th Wonder. The proposition may gave die-hards plenty cue for concern, but DAMN. serves as a reminder of how fun Kendrick can be when he doesn’t devote all his attention to saving the world. It’s what gives us records like “HUMBLE.” - a minimalist smash where King Kendrick spits down on his subjects - and makes him take a risk like “GOD.” where his gratefulness nearly breaches the trap ballad code of conduct. Moments like these make the “Poetic Justice” and “Fuckin’ Problems” of his heyday seem like the yesteryear they deserve to be; since he no longer has to appease the casual listener with low-hanging fruit in hopes they’ll take the medicine, he approaches the frameworks like a seasoned vet prepared to find a new vehicle for his transgressions.
When he’s trying to save himself - as the world shouts for his help - the Kendrick we hear seems to have a firm grip on the throats of his demons and the seam of his jeans, though he clues us in on whenever he loses grip. The whole album flows through its contradictions and rhetorical questions that reappear throughout, questioning who’s praying for whom and searching for water like he did when they killed his homie’s brother all those years ago. “YAH.” finds Kendrick juxtaposing these struggles with the same temptations lingering above him, leaving the listener to question just where Yah factors into the equation over sex, money, and murder. “XXX” spins a humanizing vignette of Kendrick’s friend calling him because they murdered his son; instead of being the friend’s guiding light, Kendrick falls into a hypothetical bloodlust for revenge if anyone in his life met the same fate before hanging up to speak to kids about gun control.
Though America’s not the first thing in the crosshairs, DAMN.’s more overt messaging runs the risk of falling flatter than previous material. While the repetition is a necessary - and disheartening - part of where Kendrick remains in his life, it’s hard not to hear the social critique of “A.D.H.D” leaking directly out of a record like “LUST.,” a BADBADNOTGOOD-helmed track bearing striking resemblance to the “Vibrate” of an André Benjamin. There’s a similar feeling in the second verse of “XXX” where Kendrick and Bono’s American flag-crooning succeeds in not being unbearably corny, but risks falling upon conventional imagery to illustrate the ills of the American condition.
But the overt presence of God’s name and will is perfected in “FEAR.:” a seven-minute chronicle of three different Kendricks dealing with the anxieties of a Compton under surveillance and superstardom that speaks for the millions more who lived it. Within, Kendrick laments the idea of being a modern Job and having everything stripped from him in a cruel joke and cites his cousin Carl’s voicemail as a wake-up call to come back home, a spiritual home. Alchemist’s beat rides in a slow, soulful trance before giving way to strings like “Sing About Me” did when Kendrick bared his soul in similar fashion. It’s a record that sounds the way the album cover feels: famished, worn, with no choice but to continue. Furthermore, the brilliance of album closer “DUCKWORTH.” must be saved for one’s own listen; to not spoil the ending, per se.
DAMN., if anything, is a reminder to us that Kendrick deserves to be where he is, and Kendrick’s reminder-to-self that he still has the chance to fuck all this up. Be it by the hand of an accountant, the strike of an unlikely competitor, or a stray bullet in the hood he can never leave alone, Kendrick Lamar legacy thus far has been shrouded in accolades with no true threat that hasn’t been self-imposed from the trauma of his reality, past and present. But he’s finally a rockstar, with another blockbuster on his belt. When most would expect, even accept a blunder in one’s discography, Kendrick crafted a triumph with enough firepower for the bandwagoners and plenty of dexterity for the day-ones. His ego roars louder than ever, perhaps in an attempt to drown the demons out; this detailed, consistent transparency is the very key to his longevity, suggesting no signs of strain as the locomotive rolls on.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.