Kendrick Lamar isn’t an activist. He said so himself on “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” the closing track off his 2011 project Section.80: “I’m not the next pop star. I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human mothafuckin’ being, over dope ass instrumentation.” However, as Lamar has dropped masterpiece after masterpiece, fans and critics alike have started to pigeonhole him into the category of “socially-conscious rap.” And for good reason – To Pimp A Butterfly was the soundtrack to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2015, with “Alright” becoming the chant of choice for protestors nationwide. In a sense, Butterfly was itself a movement, redefining the boundaries of hip-hop through its homage to black sounds of decades past – jazz, funk, soul, spoken word.
However, To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t inherently a politically charged album. Rather, it’s a story of deep, internalized psychological warfare, the product of a successful black artist constantly at odds with the pitfalls of fame, his distant, decaying city of Compton and the fleeting loyalties aof his fan base (“When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”).
Two years later, and we find this mothafuckin’ human at the peak of his powers but wearier and more conflicted than ever. He told us earlier this year that he was gearing up to release an “urgent” album about God. A couple false alarms later and the record, titled DAMN., has arrived. The album artwork itself conveys the ethos of the music. On the front, a defeated, bugged-out Lamar gazes downward into nothing, with the album title sticking out in red magazine cover font. On the back, Lamar looks ahead into the eyes of an opponent, appearing headstrong and determined.
DAMN. is all about dichotomy. From the opening lines of “BLOOD.” – “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” – to the stark sonic and thematic contrast between tracks like “LUST.” and “LOVE.,” the album is about the constantly-warring elements of Lamar’s psyche. Like his previous releases, DAMN. contains political songs, notably standout cut “XXX.” with U2, but it is not a political album. Rather, DAMN. is Lamar’s most personal and self-critical album yet.
The urgency Lamar spoke of earlier is undoubtedly prevalent. The contemplative, jazzy production found on Butterfly is totally absent on this record, replaced entirely by expensive trap and sample-heavy boom bap. Album opener “BLOOD.” transitions directly into the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced “DNA.,” which might go down as one of the most aggressive artistic statements of black excellence ever. The beat abruptly devolves into nothing but unadulterated 808s in the middle, with Lamar taking direct shots at his appropriators: “I’d rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation / Your DNA an abomination.”
Moreover, Lamar sheds a tightly knit storyline in favor of looser themes that allow him to diversify his sound. And it’s this theme of emotional dichotomy, of wickedness versus weakness, which makes contrasts like the transition between “DNA.” and its somber follow-up “YAH.” work beautifully. It also allows him to simply rap away and create some of the most accessible, effective tracks of his career. On “ELEMENT.,” Lamar channels his inner battle rapper and doesn’t let any of his competition hide: “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
Songs like “ELEMENT.,” “DNA.,” and lead single “HUMBLE.” seem to represent the “wickedness“ Lamar recalls throughout DAMN., the pompous, braggadocious side of Lamar that spouts from fame. Amidst these tracks, Lamar intersperses anxious, confused reflection about his sinfulness and the support from his peers, taking the form of melancholy passages like “FEEL.” and “LUST.” and representing the opposing “weakness.” Among these, the devastating “FEAR.” is easily the climax. Over a dusty, soulful Alchemist instrumental, Lamar mourns about his fear at the ages of 7, 17 and 27, respectively. He convincingly takes on different personalities in each verse, imitating his mother in the first verse and his teenage self on the second. The song’s theme of branching, evolving fears mirrors his songwriting in previous work like “u” and “Mortal Man.”
It is difficult to compare DAMN. to Lamar’s past releases. Lamar has always been able to craft catchy songs, but “LOVE.” marks a new direction for him. Supported by a bubbly, Weeknd-esque chorus courtesy of Zacari, Lamar hops on the Young Thug bandwagon, pulling off a sing-songy style in his affectionate verses. “PRIDE.” represents a sort of middle ground between his hip-hop roots and Butterfly explorations, relying on a lo-fi guitar riff courtesy of up-and-comer Steve Lacy while Lamar’s voice ebbs and flows through different filters.
Despite these changes in style, Lamar never fails to show off his essential storytelling ability that has made him famous. Album closer “DUCKWORTH.” is a cold, revealing piece in which Lamar wittily tells the untold story of how his label manager Top Dawg once robbed the KFC that Lamar’s father worked at. It’s a complex, evolving production with wonky samples laced throughout, and Lamar uses the story to craft an alternate universe where he may have been killed. It’s as powerful a tale as Lamar has ever told, and it’s a microcosm of the realities his community faces in the city he grew up.
Sonically, DAMN. shares the most in common with Lamar’s 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, his most traditionally-hip-hop project to date. But even this comparison fails to capture DAMN.’s thematic elements. It’s nothing like he’s ever done before. Don’t go into DAMN. expecting the deep, layered narratives of good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp A Butterfly. Don’t listen expecting another reinvention of hip-hop musical norms as we know them. DAMN. isn’t trying to force you to do anything. Lamar doesn’t have time for that. It’s simply stating truths. It’s urgent. Listen to DAMN., reminding yourself that Kendrick Lamar isn’t an activist. He’s an observer – an observer of himself and of his environment. And he’s a damn good rapper.
Diverging from ‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’ Kendrick Lamar’s newest album, ‘DAMN.,’ is his most personal and self critical work yet. Photo courtesy of hiphopdx.com