After the conceptual sagas of good kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly, any narrative threads we may find on first listen to Kendrick Lamar’s latest release DAMN are so subtle as to feel undercooked. The musical arrangements are relatively pared down and self-contained, and his lyrical dexterity has been the benchmark for rap since 2012. My honest first impression lead single ‘HUMBLE’ was; it’s great but Kendrick can do this in his sleep. After To Pimp a Butterfly, a seminal classic that will birth a generation of politically-conscious music (not just in hip-hop), it’s almost unfair to expect a comparable leap in any direction. But that’s the measure we use to draw out the true greats of music history. No doubt, to even be speaking in these terms about an artist who has only be around half a dozen years seems crazy, but it’s not just critical masturbation: DAMN is another bracing entry into the discography of a bonafide master of his craft which will have its own kind of influence quite apart from the storytelling tour de force of good kid, M.A.A.D. City and the ardent voice of a generation heard on To Pimp a Butterfly.
By and by, ‘HUMBLE’ takes its worthy place among fourteen tracks each denoting an archetypal idea or universal emotion. Far from reaching for a great philosophical treatise, Kendrick is looking inward, unearthing a tableau of his own mind and experience. ‘I’ and ‘my’ replace ‘we’ and ‘our’. In ‘DNA’ Geraldo Rivera excavates those tired Republican clichés about rap music they’ve been trotting out since NWA to gaslight black America. The old Kendrick might have responded with artful jazz-fused nostalgia elevated to grand social commentary. Now he takes it personally, and metes out harsh punishment on a trap drop with its own gravitational pull. You want sex, money, murder ya f***s? Here it is.
The epilogue of the album’s lyrical masterpiece ‘FEAR’ features a recorded message from Kendrick’s cousin evoking divine retribution for the ‘iniquities’ of America’s minorities; “until we come back to these commandments, until you come back to these commandments, we’re gonna feel this way, we’re gonna be under this curse”. A hell of a thing to say. There’s certainly a degree to which Kendrick buys into this terrible burden with all its self-loathing and self-flagellation. “All this money, is God playing a joke on me? Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?” On ‘YAH’ Kendrick explicitly forsakes his race and identifies instead as an Israelite, God’s chosen people. This is part of the deal, take it or leave it.
That said, it’s not all hard and abrasive. ‘ELEMENT’ has the charm and exuberance of early Kanye. ‘PRIDE’ features a summery psychedelic chord sequence sampling Pink Floyd. Out of the grimey dirt of ‘LUST’ flowers the beautiful ‘LOVE’, hitting on a kind of vulnerability that turns its cheesiness into a genuine strength. “If I minimise my net worth, would you still love me?” – an insecurity felt especially by successful black men and for good reason (see Jordan Peele’s excellent ‘Get Out’). ‘XXX’ is the most musically impressive track on the album; Kendrick flexes his creative muscles here and scythes its driving beat in two with a break to U2’s tentatively-awaited part. They knock it out of the park with instrumentals that almost make you forget the last couple of decades of bloated dad rock, back to the days they were coming out with songs like ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’.
What coherent theme can be derived from this record can be found in retrospect as the album closes with ‘DUCKWORTH’, a fatal story centred on Kendrick’s family ties, ending with a deterministic rewinding to the album’s beginnings, back to ‘BLOOD’ and ‘DNA’. This where one looks to find out who they really are, not the smoke and mirrors of the modern political landscape. Look hard enough and you’ll discover the heart of darkness, the cold entropic fate of all life on earth. DAMN indeed.