A Messiah of His Own Construct
For Kendrick Lamar, the ability to reinvent is as crucial to his artistic identity as the music itself.
good kid, m.A.A.d city painted a portrait of youth in Compton, portrayed through the narrative lens of an evening in a borrowed van. To Pimp A Butterfly was a fiercely social exploration of Black America, embedded in the acoustic traditions of Black American Music.
DAMN. is something new altogether.
While divergent from the cinematic approach of his prior two releases, DAMN. maintains a firm sense of purpose, dripping with the sensibility of concept and message. The album finds Kendrick at an intersection of musical ideologies, tying together the elements of centricity that defined To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city with the sonority and testosterone of Section.80. Largely straying from the acoustic approach of To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. boasts a cast of producers at the forefront of the hip-hop community. Rather than the harmonic extensions and syncopated horn lines of Robert Glasper and Thundercat, DAMN. dwells in beefy drum programming and chopped samples. The brashness of the production is a sidestep from the sleek To Pimp A Butterfly or even the more traditional hooks of good kid, m.A.A.d city. Radio seems to be the last thing on Lamar’s mind, and the grating energy that is produced as a result propels DAMN. into a sonic spectrum that is truly unlike any that have come before.
DAMN. is a thorough analysis of self. As one would expect, though, this sense of self is hardly unilateral, a personification of the interaction between Kendrick’s ego and hubris. Kendrick analyzes not only his own internality, but also his response to outside perception of his identity — a perception that is founded primarily in response to his own internality — and thus the set of parallel mirrors is constructed.
Frequently religious in tone, Kendrick’s latest record dwells less in social consciousness than his prior albums and more in elemental consciousness. Each song, labeled with a single word, is an examination of a certain emotional or spiritual tributary, from “PRIDE.” to “LUST.” to “GOD.” These songs are a thorough examination of the way that Kendrick interacts with the world, and often, within himself. However, as one comes to expect, these songs frequently go beyond what they seem. For example, the back-to-back “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” react conversely, and though many expected “HUMBLE.” to place Big Sean in his crosshairs, the lyric seems more self-directed in the context of the record as a whole.
Even when deeply personal, though, Kendrick Lamar’s work is always an exploration of character study. In a craft that often dwells in the narrator’s candid sense of self, Kendrick breaks the mold by fracturing the expected emcee-audience relationship by embodying an entire cast of characters. Through donning a variety of hats, Kendrick allows himself to spin a web of social perception; it is within this very construct that he is able to communicate so vividly. Of course, this technique is not new to Kendrick: on good kid, m.A.A.d city he inhabited his ego-centric adolescence (“Backseat Freestyle”), on To Pimp a Butterfly he spoke as a series of physical walls (“These Walls”), and these are only a few examples from the breadth of Kendrick’s body of work. However, DAMN. finds Lamar continuing to hone this ability. Perhaps the most jarringly successful is “FEAR.,” a mammoth of a track that finds Kendrick adopting the voice of a boy’s mother, fostering fear in the context of her own attempts at parenting.
Many believe that Big Sean was taking aim at Kendrick in his recent single “No More Interviews,” stating the following: “I’m just not that impressed by you niggas rapping fast / who sound like one big asthma attack / but trash when I’m rapping it back.” If this was Big Sean’s intention, he seems to be entirely missing the appeal.
Lamar’s vocal dexterity and diversity are certainly at the heart of his artistic persona — note the syncopation of “DNA.” or the twisting anaphora of “FEEL.” However, the facet of Kendrick Lamar’s music that continues to set him apart from his numerous talented peers is his innate poeticism. As an emcee, Lamar usually substitutes direct syntax for wordplay, often illustrative in nature. This ability, to aurally communicate the emotion behind the message rather than purely the message itself, is the beauty of Kendrick’s writing. After all, why say “I’m tired of being afraid” when, instead, one could say, “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherf****r up” (the refrain to Lamar’s sprawling “FEAR.”).
If one thing were said to define Lamar’s output, reason would require that quality to be intention. From the recurrence of theme and character down to the stylization of the song titles, it has become clear that no decision in this or any Kendrick album is made by happenstance or coincidence. This knowledge only broadens the statement that is DAMN. Every nuance, every abrupt cue or vocal sample or instrumental variation is an effect for which a cause implicitly exists. However, one facet of all Kendrick Lamar albums exists in clarity: the record ends as it began, in one sense or another.
“BLOOD.,” the track that opens the album, finds Kendrick in a hallucinatory state, recounting a scenario in which he encounters a blind woman who eventually turns a pistol on him. Even when striving to make a positive impact, Kendrick is met with the malice of the very woman he aims to elevate — one must wonder how this monologue relates to lyrics like those in “ELEMENT.” (“Last LP I tried to uplift the black artists / but there’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”)
The gunfire that punctuates this song returns to conclude the final track of the album, the biographical “DUCKWORTH.” One of the strongest examples of Kendrick storytelling ability, “DUCKWORTH.” documents the true story of Top Dawg CEO Anthony Tiffith and the way in which Lamar’s father impacted both Tiffith and Kendrick’s lives. Lamar again delves into the hypothetical, imagining the life that he could have lived in a universe only slightly altered. “BLOOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.” bookend the record in narrative, and in both fictive scenarios Kendrick finds himself facing the barrel of a gun — a messiah of his own construct.