When fans say Kendrick Lamar is the Tupac of our time, it’s an understatement that his music has already made a profound socio-political and aesthetic impact. Let’s not forgot that “Alright,” a song from his 2015 masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) became a rallying cry for unity within the Black Lives Matter Movement and acknowledges the epidemic of police shootings that disproportionately targets Black Americans. TPAB fuses multiple-genres and voices while the finely-crafted DAMN, by contrast, is am exercise in minimalism. Repetition and reverse instrumentation perfectly reinforce the cyclical format of the album and the album’s themes after which the songs are named (BLOOD, DNA, FEAR, LOVE, GOD, HUMBLE, LOYALTY, etc). Where some artists overcomplicate and muddy their waters, Lamar expertly tells stories that perfectly accentuate the cerebral/mundane & sacred/profane dichotomies present in his lyricism. And he often does so with painful self-awareness and contradiction (good & evil, dark and light). Check out some of the reviews of Lamar’s 2017 masterpiece, easily my favorite album of 2017.
The process of listening to DAMN. has been both discursive and linear, which is to say I’ve listened from beginning to end, end to beginning, and most points in between . The rewards of mindful listening –keener insights into social and cultural references, for example–inspired me to look further into the literary references in Lamar’s work. As an album, DAMN. is particularly circular as well, which is to say the album doesn’t have a definitive beginning or end. DAMN. is a departure from the ventriloquism of TPAB, but it nonetheless features what could be construed as Lamar’s conscious and subconscious “voices”. For example, “FEAR”–easily one of my top 3 favorite tracks on the album– is an examination of life told from a few different standpoints. Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s voice can be heard early on in the song asking: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/ Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.” One fan noted that this particular stanza could function to represent Lamar’s subconscious inner dialogue. But there is a second movement in the tune in which Lamar shape-shifts into the persona of (his) mother: “I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back/I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?/You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken/I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch/I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes”. This movement in the song continues for 23 more stanzas before transitioning into another “movement” wherein Lamar lays bare his anxieties about how he might die: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ /Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”
I’m astounded by how Lamar crafts songs that build great intensity and ferocity through the sheer volume of lyrical stanzas alone: strip away all of the layered instrumentation and the lyricism–poetry–would stand independently of its own accord. “FEEL” is another standout song on this album because Lamar utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” approach set against a dreamy, synth-n-bass backdrop. Lamar is righteously vulnerable in this song and lays bare his anxieties, summons his heroes, and appears to turn his anger inward for a moment. On a really simple level, “FEEL” is a song about anxieties: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with/Darkest hours, lost it/Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers/Fill up the babies with bullshit/Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’…I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” Something that is conceptually remarkable about DAMN. is that it is an honest exploration of what it means to be human. It is considerably difficult for an artist to not only tap into but to give voice to the wide spectrum of emotion without censoring oneself. Lamar goes into the depths of his soul in this album, which is an act of bravery unto itself. When asked what he would do differently the second time around?: “I’d go deeper”, he tells Rick Rueben in a fantastic interview.
“DNA” is my favorite song on the album because of it’s unapologetic boldness in which Lamar attacks the microphone and takes no prisoners. For the reason that hip -hop allows the artist to re-fashion him or herself into the larger-than-life master of her own destiny, I am perpetually drawn back into its magic again and again. Unlike other musical genres, the best hip-hop acts as a springboard not only for reflection but for personal (and thus social) revolution and transformation not lost on Lamar: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.” If you watch the official music video for “DNA”, you’ll see an incredible performance between Don Cheadle and Lamar that features Lamar administering a lie detector test to Cheadle. A sample of a Fox news brief features two news pundits mocking Lamar’s massive hit song “Alright” that calls out police brutality. I personally love how Lamar takes these two news pundits to task and challenges their snap-judgements and assumptions. Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s job to “reflect the times.” Lamar does just that.
DAMN. becomes more revolutionary the more you listen and allow yourself to be awash in the poetry, politics, and existential philosophy. Having listened to DAMN. at least twenty-five times, I am amazed by Lamar’s “fast and furious” lyricism. A Pitchfork reviewer who gave the album a heavy-weight champion score of 9.2 opines that “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.” Indeed, I also wondered when, exactly, he would find the space to take a breath during the recitation of his lyrics. If you haven’t heard this album yet, just listen with an open mind, which is to say with a neuroplastic mind, since we now know that the brain is not fixed but rather capable of change and charting new territory.