Critical Voices: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

April 24, 2017

DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s latest project, continues his trend of creating exceptional, politically-charged rap that forges a distinct sound. While DAMN. is difficult to characterize stylistically, it is a clear departure from his musically dense, and at times chaotic, 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. Lamar has chosen to keep his instrumentals simple throughout DAMN., usually laying his verses over stark, bassy, and repetitive beats that bring full emphasis to what he is saying. The beats are of impeccable quality, and Lamar’s myriad of producers and beatmakers served him well. Lamar’s verses are similarly straightforward, but he artfully switches his tone and flow to match the character he is embodying on a particular track.

Thematically, DAMN. is an album of contradictions, and Lamar establishes two early on in the album: Love and Pride, and Wickedness and Weakness. Early in the album, the songs appear to fall neatly into these categories, and alternate clearly in tone and energy. “BLOOD.” opens the album in the theme of Love, as Lamar tries to help a blind woman who eventually kills him. “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” the song asks, setting up the album’s second dichotomy. The first songs of the album follow the divides Lamar establishes, alternating aggressive boasts and relaxed pensiveness between songs. “DNA.” is Lamar’s next viral hit, as he brags “I got loyalty got royalty inside my DNA,” with trancelike cadence. “LOYALTY.” Is similarly poised for success, with a Rihanna feature and catchy hook. It treads closer to the style of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City than Lamar as gone for a while, and sounds like an immediate classic. Lamar delves into his interaction with fame on “FEEL.” which uses a repeated verse structure to drive home his message and convey the seemingly endless and constant nature of his fears and disillusionment.

Religion plays a prominent role in DAMN., but Lamar has a profoundly complex, and thereby realistic, interaction with his faith. In a faith system that praises modesty and purity, Lamar struggles to reconcile his lifestyle as a rapper, where alcohol, sex, and money are sought and flaunted. “HUMBLE.,” the album’s only single, points directly to this with Lamar asking his opponents to be humble in the same breath that he boasts about his success. Lamar’s fame conflicts with his Christianity further: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” he says in “FEEL.”—setting up an incising commentary on the fickle nature of both fame and religion.

As the album progresses, Lamar begins to defy the very dichotomies he sets up. The album emphasizes the complex relationships between the contrasts: how can one show both wickedness and weakness because of their pride? Their love?  “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” emphasize these themes, taking names opposite the mood each song conveys. “XXX.” also exemplifies the thematic contradiction, as Lamar raps about a friend asking for help to reconnect with God. Instead of giving spiritual guidance, Lamar urges him, “If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed,” even taking his revenge as his target leaves church if need be. Immediately after issuing these threats, Lamar addresses a convention of children about gun control. This contradiction is jarring, and plays into the juxtapositions setup throughout the album.

“LOVE.” initially feels out of place as a sensual, slow jam, but proves to be one of the most memorable songs on the album. In it, Zacari provides outstanding vocals, and Lamar’s initially off-putting voice seems remarkably genuine. Lamar’s vivid storytelling skills come to the fore of “FEAR.,” a seven-minute chronicle of three times he has felt profound fear. Over a fantastic beat sampled on his earlier single “The Heart Part 4,” Lamar tells of existential fear at different stages of life: as a child, suffering from domestic abuse; an adolescent, facing the dangers of gang life and the ever-present threat of random violence; and an adult, fretting over fame, finances, and loss of the fame and wealth he has worked for. “I can’t take these feelings with me/So hopefully they disperse/Within fourteen tracks carried out over wax,” he confides, revealing how Lamar’s music is as much made for his own needs as for his fans.

Lamar’s music is a conduit for his emotions, and “FEAR.” is a tour de force, showcasing these emotions with his unequalled lyricism and flawless delivery. Recordings, which have been sources of wisdom and guidance in Lamar’s earlier works, take a similar tone in “FEAR.” Rather than guiding him towards Christianity through a maternal figure as they did on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, his cousin Carl embarks on a racist tirade, blaming the subjugation of “so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans” in modern society on their sins and disobedience. The packaging of the recording sets up clear expectations for its message, but when these expectations are so wildly defied, it is confusing and disheartening. “FEAR.”, full of emotion and meaning, is truly fascinating despite its contradictions.

This description applies to all of DAMN. Lamar is deftly able to splice dozens of ideas into individual songs with his dense verses, and going over each song in detail could lead to hours of discussion. This is part of what makes Kendrick Lamar such a peerless artist: every word he puts into a track is laden with meaning, and all the songs interact with the other tracks in unique ways. Overall, the album appears to be one of contradiction and religion, addressing religion with complexity unseen in most music. However, Lamar invites individual analysis of his work, providing something valuable for anyone to find in his words. There is no way that one review of DAMN. would cover everything worth investigating on the album, and as time passes, more analysis of the album will surface. In the meantime, the only thing to be done is to delve into Lamar’s latest project and see where it leads.

Voice’s Choices: “FEAR.” “LOYALTY.” “DUCKWORTH.”


Gustav Honl-Stuenkel
College class of 2020. Culture and music writer and peanut M&M fiend. Minneapolis native.

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