“Children, listen, it gets deep…”
That’s Kendrick Lamar, on the final track of his new album DAMN.. He’s setting up a surprise ending for the album: a flashback origin story, a straightforward narrative coming after 13 mostly non-narrative explorations of inner turmoil. “DUCKWORTH”, the song is called, not after himself (Kendrick Lamar Duckworth) but after his father, Kenneth Duckworth. The story is of a chance meeting between Duckworth and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith—well before Tiffith’s label Top Dawg Entertainment started releasing Kendrick Lamar’s music—that could have ended in Duckworth’s death, had it gone differently. The surprise lies in it being true. Lamar ends the album with this glimpse at an alternate reality—“If Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / while I grew up without a father / and die in a gunfight.”
The story draws a line from Lamar’s life, and success, to gun violence, to the random deaths haunting America, and to the sort of moral decision-making at the album’s core. DUCKWORTH is a powerful ending to an album focused on conflicts within selves and communities. As you might imagine, “it gets deep” way before track #14.
To Pimp a Butterfly was the album of 2015, the most heralded hip-hop album in recent memory. And one of the most ambitious: a heady, socially minded epic of superfly jazz-funk inspired by the new crew of black bohemian explorers—Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, etc. Lamar’s follow-up is on the surface more straightforward, but don’t trust the surface. In fact, DAMN. will have you trust little.
On To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar kept declaring, “I remember you was conflicted…”. But on DAMN. being conflicted is a constant state of being, reflected in the very fabric of the album. The first single “HUMBLE” seemed anything but humble taken on its own—a fiery explosion of braggadocio, Kendrick Lamar asking other rappers to humble themselves before his greatness. In the context of the album it’s one of a dozen or so states of being. The songs, some of which have titles like “PRIDE”, “LUST” and “FEAR”, take emotions and embody them in their complexity. And they’re all complex. He’ll take a concept that comes with certain expectations and take it in a different direction. He’ll spend a verse embodying one version of the concept and then another embodying the opposite.
“FEAR” is one where he leads us through from different angles. The seven-minute song contains vivid descriptions of fear at different ages: seven, 17, 27. He summarizes one of the main conceits behind the album: “What happens on Earth stays on Earth / And I can’t take these feelings with me / so hopefully they disperse / within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax.”
“DNA”, at least as hard-hitting as “HUMBLE” and twice as prone to change mid-course, reflects the force of heritage—“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”. War and peace. Hustle. Ambition. He’s thinking about the contrast between growing up in poverty and living the life of a star, and contemplating the end times. By the end of the song he’s talking to us all, about the world: “Peace to the world / let it rotate / sex money murder our DNA”, the last five words delivered behind a mechanical scream.
The apocalypse is part of the vibe. “I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow”, he declares on “FEEL”, a litany of pained feelings. On “XXX”, a collaboration with U2, the sign of the apocalypse is gun violence, lies, hypocrisy, greed, embodied in our current president. In the hook, Bono gives a different depiction of America than his usual reverence: “It’s not a place”.
When “LUST” begins, creeping forward, you assume it’s about sex. And it is, but there’s more. His circling description of monotonous daily tasks becomes a portrait of the everyday zombie mode people slip into. Trump’s election woke us all out of it, angered us, drove us to act… for a little bit, until we fell right back into the monotony (“revertin’ back to our daily programs / stuck in our ways / lust”).
Kendrick Lamar is at his most belligerent, confident, strident on DAMN.. But also his most tender, hurt, thoughtful. He switches tone within songs, and from song to song. The music changes mood, too, with the hardest tracks leading into the softest, the most anxious into the calmest; there’s a very purposeful balancing of the album’s overflowing bounty of hot-to-touch moods. Even given the far-out reaches of To Pimp a Butterfly, this is probably his most track-to-track diverse album, and at least as conceptually unified as Butterfly, maybe even more so.
For an album focused on extreme, dark emotions, there are also lush moments of comfort. Chief among them is “LOVE”, where the concept is surprisingly straightforward (a casual, intimate love ballad) and the music takes the opportunity to wallow in deep levels of luxury. It’s delicately sung by Lamar and guest vocalist Zacari (who last year sang the hook on Isaiah Rashad’s Kendrick-featuring “Wat’s Wrong”, an excellent preview for the tone of DAMN.).
The title DAMN. is our reaction to his verbal gymnastics, his brazenness. And it’s a question, are we damned? Have we damned ourselves? A central question Lamar poses to himself, and to us, is where God fits in our world today, what God means.
With its chorus “this is what God feel like”, “GOD” the song can’t help but feel like it’s equating divinity to the sound of modern-day hip-hop—basking in the groove, in the feel of the track (produced by Ricci Riera). It’s easy to get caught up in Lamar’s dexterous, dense rhymes, but the music throughout DAMN. is glorious, stunning. Steered by his constant collaborators (Soundwave, DJ Dahi, Tiffith) and by some of the sharpest and most interesting hip-hop producers of the day (Mike WILL Made-It, the Alchemist, 9th Wonder), the music feels focused and ambitious, with sounds to match every emotion and idea Lamar tackles.
The density of his raps is balanced well by the music. The tracks keep up with his tonal shifts. It’s his first album to have this many songs that sounds like HITS, from the first two singles (“HUMBLE”, “DNA”) to the impeccable Rihanna duet “LOYALTY” and the gorgeous “LOVE”.
All of Kendrick Lamar’s albums were put together with the album format in mind. DAMN. feels set up like a classic hip-hop album. And along with its strange little samples, backwards vocals and other mysteries, there are scattered references to and emulations of hip-hop from the present and past. And there’s Kid Capri…
The emotional power of Kid Capri’s voice, for hip-hop fans, is immense the moment we first hear it on DAMN., at the start of the third track “YAH”. His voice carries the weight of history and the music’s legacy. All of a sudden there he is, like he was dropped in from an early ‘90s mixtape—“New shit! New Kung Fu Kenny!” It happens so quickly, we stop and say “what? Damn.”
And from time to time there he is again, the hypeman now also echoing Kendrick’s thoughts: “Ain’t nobody praying for me…Y’all know what happens on Earth stays on Earth!” Kid Capri’s inclusion within DAMN. is a small, brilliant thing which resonates deeply in many directions—within an album that resembles a focused collection of small, brilliant things.