“It’s levels to it, you and I know.” So says Kendrick Lamar; K-Dot, Kung-fu Kenny, crown prince of music (of all size and shape) in 2017. There’s Burroughs, there’s Basquiat, and there’s Kendrick. It’s nearly two months after the release of DAMN., and there’s more and more to peel back.
I place King Kendrick among the great expressionists in modern art. He is a man of singular talent, capable of infusing his narratives with so many layers it’s near impossible to see through the folds. A “unifying theme” is nonexistent. Kendrick Lamar is a holistic artist. Every listen is a demanding exercise. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a vivid, cinematic album, a writerly journey through the Compton streets of Kendrick’s youth. To Pimp a Butterfly, a 79-minute jazz-rap-fusion opus, ranks among the greatest socially conscious albums of all time (and its companion piece, untitled unmastered., is a universe unto itself). And so arrives DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s most daring balancing act to date.
DAMN. is a work of staggering abruptness and multi-dimensionality; it is an album full of combativeness. Kendrick v. Fox News. Kendrick v. Life. Kendrick v. Death. Kendrick v. Kendrick. That combativeness reaches further than Kendrick himself. Following my first listen, there was one word that stuck out to me, one word that described DAMN.‘s modus operandi: pivot. Songs seem to take on their own schizophrenic life, pivoting from one beat to another and back, itchy and uncomfortable sitting in one place for too long. “XXX.” is full of such moments, sprinting from its muted opening to the hollow rat-tat of Mike-Will-Made-It’s beat: “All right kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control” segues into “a sound of drum-and-bass,” Kendrick Lamar backed by U2. Kendrick Lamar backed by fucking Bono. It’s an unthinkable combination, completely surprising and, in that, ingenious: a supreme pivot.
Lead single “HUMBLE.,” accompanied by a striking music video, says all you need to know before you know it. It is impossible to escape Kendrick’s gaze. Save a few precious frames, Kendrick is staring dead center, unwavering and unquestionably speaking directly to you. He chooses what you hear and what you see. He pivots; with nothing more than a tap of his fingers, the video spirals and dizzily searches for a landing. DAMN., unlike the genius of it’s creator, has many launches and few landings.
For an album hyper-focused on freewheeling energy, DAMN.‘s subtext has music scholars salivating. Kendrick possesses such a perfect combination of mainstream appeal and intellect that every single one of the album’s 14 tracks has a Genius page packed, top to bottom, with intensely studied annotations—the line “This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED talk” warrants a 211-word explanation. Kendrick Lamar carries with him a writerly pedigree. He is the Stanley Kubrick of albumcraft. Nothing is out of place; there are no mistakes, there are no accidents. He mentions a call from his cousin Carl in “YAH.” and we hear the voicemail nine tracks later on “FEAR.” On “ELEMENT.,” Kendrick says “Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option,” a reference to a theory that 2Pac—whom Kendrick “interviewed” in To Pimp a Butterfly closer “Mortal Man”—faked his death to escape the throes of fame. On the following song, “FEEL.,” Kendrick once again references the legend: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.” In the music video for “DNA.,” behind Kendrick there appears a picture of Tupac and Snoop Dogg, both impeccably well-dressed, staring directly at the camera. It’s hard to dispute the similarities between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur, and I’m left thinking if maybe Kendrick feels like Tupac felt, that fame is so poisonous and suffocating it’s worth dying to escape.
But as with everything on DAMN., that feeling subsides. It’s levels to it, he says. “I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon, like serve,” he says on “DNA,” all posture and testosterone. He softens on “LOVE.,” a beautiful song featuring little-known collaborator Zacari, who sings in an even, heavenly falsetto. “Just love me,” Zacari sings, and there’s an ache in that voice that smothers denouncement. Kendrick is characteristically intimate, seemingly speaking to his high school sweetheart and now fiancee Whitney Alford. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Kendrick sings, and I picture a sly grin on his face—he already knows the answer.
The Kendrick we meet on “FEAR.” is not shivering or paranoid. He sings backwards, to be sure, but he is barrel-chested and blunt. Kendrick imagines all the possible ways he could die, or rather could have died. It’s an amalgam of the Kendrick we first met in good kid, m.A.A.d city—but instead of revisiting that young man corrupted and governed by fear, Kendrick wields fear like a deadly weapon. “At 27-years old, my biggest fear was being judged,” he says—”fear that my humbleness is gone.” Through the track’s near eight-minute run, Kendrick challenges himself to believe in both his god and himself. Cousin Carl Duckworth preaches in the beginning of “FEAR.,” referencing Deuteronomy and the suffering therein. By the end, through all the trials and tribulations of Kendrick’s upbringing, Cousin Carl is still there. He believes. “I love you, son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.”
On “GOD.,” my favorite track on DAMN., Kendrick pleads “Don’t judge me” over and over. Despite both his outer strength and enviable transparency, he is, by all measure, a Mortal Man. Kendrick can sing “This what God feel like,” and mean it. “GOD.” soars above DAMN., born from some spiritual trance, with Kendrick saying “Don’t judge me, my mama caught me with a strap / Don’t judge me, I was young, fuckin’ all the rats / Don’t judge me, aimin’ at your head for a stack.” It, as with all of Kendrick’s songs, has to do with where he came from and where he is now. His origin is his past, present, and future. He is not one to forget. Compton pumps in his veins—but more than that, faith and family prop up a brave, humble young man.
“DUCKWORTH.,” the culmination of an album rife with origin stories, is the origin story. It it an impossible coincidence. It is also entirely true. Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith robbed a KFC one night, where Kendrick’s father, Ducky, was working. Ducky offers Top Dawg “Free chicken any time Anthony posted in line / Two extra biscuits: Anthony liked him and then let him slide.” And as Kendrick says, “Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives.” The track reverses, and we’re back to the beginning, “BLOOD.” And Kendrick takes a walk.
DAMN. is not proof of the genius of Kendrick Lamar. It is not a victory lap. It is not an album of vicious rap songs. It is not rap. It is not hip-hop. As closely as I can compare it, it is The Godfather: Part II. We all come from somewhere—anywhere, really. And none of that, none of our story, our origin, who we are and where we’ve been, none of it means anything if we don’t make it mean something. Kendrick Lamar is the example. Here is a man who rose from impossible depths to look down from a throne of his own creation. This is not an accident. The man himself would likely be more humble in the face of such praise. But, as he says, it’s levels to it. As far as my voice matters, Kendrick sits at the highest.
Favorite tracks: The album, front to back—then back to front.