Everybody has moments where they question themselves. Every day, you ask yourself why you made the wrong choice, or what would have happened if you’d have made the right one. Now more than ever you ask yourself what drives you, us and the world (ruminating on why whoever, or whatever, is driving isn’t doing a better job). Luckily, we aren’t alone in our modernist ennui. It just so happens that Kendrick Lamar is asking the same questions.
DAMN. is a special piece of work. Although Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly set Kendrick up as a sharp, sincere storyteller, it wasn’t until DAMN. that we were able to hear what happens when the lens was turned fully inward and onto himself; let’s look at TPAB for a second. The frenetic, desperate energy expressed a heavy, angsty world weariness juxtaposed with a vulnerable longing for recognition, pride and respect in a world and industry in which the walls surround and close in on you for showing a mite of humanity or a simple flash of “blackness”.
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On DAMN. however, Kendrick asks, “Is this attention really what I wanted?,” resulting in a sincere, melodic exploration of emotion, monotony, god, sin and luxury; the album is mired both in melancholic acceptance and a subtle hopefulness, delivered with a minimalist, repetitive production that teases, chops and changes to reflect a sharp, mercurial and ever changing mind. Kendrick’s trademark boyish, nasal voice comes to the forefront and becomes a calming, conversational instrument of matter-of-fact reflection and retelling, often floating over the beats with thus far untapped melisma and melody. DAMN. introduces us to a beauty and sincerity we knew Kendrick had, but had yet to fully explore.
Although there are some bangers within (good luck staying chill during DNA and HUMBLE), DAMN. really shines through on the deep cuts. Each song title reflects an aspect of humanity that shapes and drives us, and Kendrick pulls no punches in weaving a blunt tapestry to exemplify his experience with each aspect.
Oddly enough, on first listen the thematic content of DAMN. seems somewhat elusive; but really, this is because the constant teases, changes in pace and straight up mesmerising production can distract from the lyrical content. The strength of DAMN. is, however, the balancing act between directness and vagueness. DNA is a cards-on-the-table assault, wherein Kendrick adopts multiple perspectives to celebrate and critique modern black culture; an easy tome to glean meaning from, yet directly after, YAH rolls through and throws out oblique references to the book of Israelites and Deuteronomy while making a sharp, yet subtle criticism of FOX news.
The amalgamation of emotional, sincere self-reflection and pointed, direct criticism flows throughout the album like oxygen; on ELEMENT, Kendrick laments the sacrifices he made to get to the elevated, mythological position he is in now. He challenges his competitors to try and usurp him, but knows he is infallible, because he will die for his craft. Straight after though, on FEEL, Kendrick explores the desire to hide, due to the manipulative animosity of the industry he dominates.
Much as he wants to boast, he laments, “aint nobody prayin’ for me/who’s prayin’ for me?/ain’t nobody prayin.” The anxieties Kendrick experienced during TPAB have never left, but now, he has accepted that if he wishes to be at the top of the industry he has chosen, he has to make these anxieties a part of his craft, as much as they are a part of him.
The unapparent openness of DAMN. is what makes this such a triumphant, cathartic record; the sound of a man in deep thought and the sound of someone wondering what to do and how to cope now that they are at the very top. Once you reach the final juxtaposition of GOD and DUCKWORTH, wherein DAMN. comes full circle, you will want to rewind and replay it immediately, because let’s face it, the tale of a human dealing with the mythology of celebrity is endlessly fascinating, and there is no better person to talk about it candidly than Kendrick Lamar. Also, Rihanna is on it. The first truly essential release of 2017 is here.