How do I even begin to formulate language around an album that initially left me speechless? I don’t know, but here goes nothing:
On April 14th, 2017, a day that will be remembered for years to come, Kendrick blessed us with his third full-length studio project, accurately titled DAMN.(2017).
DAMN. fills in a lot of the gaps fans had been longing for since good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) in the sense that this album has a lot more of the danceable “club-ready” slaps than we’re used to seeing from his work in recent years. This is not to say that Kendrick’s Grammy Award winning masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) is any less important (in fact I’d actually argue the exact opposite). Rather, TPAB was a major departure from what Kendrick fans had grown accustomed to. He was shying away from the easily attainable position of Rap God and instead choosing to create content that was political, heavily jazz influenced, and unapologetically black.
That being said, on DAMN. Kendrick was able to extract certain aspects from his past works, such as politics, transparency, and the hood ass beats that we all love, and piece them together to create yet another poetically honest record. A record that serves as one of the most crucial contributions to hip hop culture and the black identity in the twenty-first century.
The production quality alone is enough to put it in the ranks as one of greatest rap albums of all time. Combine that with his unique flows and cadences, and the lyrics from one of this century’s greatest poets and you have a flawless work of art that not only transcends the world of hip hop but pushes the “kid from Compton” narrative to the forefront of the global landscape.
Plus, Kendrick got that U2 co-sign? You already know it’s a classic.
In all seriousness, DAMN. utilizes artistic assistance from the likes of the Internet’s Steve Lacy on “PRIDE.,” Rihanna on “LOYALTY.,” Mike Will Made It on “HUMBLE.,” and Badbadnotgood with vocal credits from Kaytranada on “LUST.” The list goes on to highlight some of the generation’s brightest artistic minds apart from just Kendrick himself.
But what does it all mean? Honestly, a book could be written detailing all of Kendrick’s subliminal messages, use of metaphors, and abstract allegories and you can find countless theories online attempting to break it all down. Though the album features many abstract motifs all presenting a different element worthy of in-depth analysis, DAMN. seems to be heavily influenced by the idea of the duality of man and the contradiction of character.
Kendrick illustrates these themes through the use of juxtaposition in the tracklist and lyrical composition of each song. For example, in a song titled “PRIDE.”, Kendrick fully acknowledges the negative effects of a rapidly developing ego in the opening line: “Love is gonna get you killed / But Pride is gonna be the death of you and me.”
This song is followed by “HUMBLE.,” the album’s eighth track and its first single. With a memorably cavalier line like, “I’m the realest n*gga after all, Bitch, be humble,” “HUMBLE.” can be interpreted as Kendrick’s most arrogant claim to the hip hop crown. The juxtaposition is not only present in the fact that this song directly follows “PRIDE.” but also in the fact that both songs have meanings opposite to their titles.
This whole process of contrasting song titles shows up again on the following tracks titled “LUST.” and “LOVE.” “LUST.” dives into themes of physical attraction and sex but also seems to be about the relationship he has with himself.
“Lately, I feel like I’ve been lusting over the fame…
Lately, it’s all a contradiction
Lately, I lust over self”
Throughout the album Kendrick is dealing with an intimate inner conflict. A conflict that manifests itself in the duality of trying to maintain a personal identity while the pressures of money and fame overwhelm his life.
On the other hand, “LOVE.” is one of the more lighthearted and optimistic songs on the album. This song still touches on Kendrick’s insecurities as an icon in the making: “If I minimize my net worth, would you still love me?” With Zacari’s beautiful vocals there to sing the chorus and a sweet tone that almost melts your heart, it seems like the kind of song a radio station would pick up and incessantly play all summer.
DAMN. is probably the most stylistically diverse yet accessible work in all of Kendrick’s discography. He’s constantly bringing concepts to the field that are entirely unique to his story and vision and simply can’t be duplicated. Although the majority of listeners can not directly relate to the personal stories he shares on the record, his talents for poetry and storytelling grant them the opportunity to relate to general feelings expressed through his delivery.
And with that I’m going officially decree Kendrick Lamar the Greatest Rapper Alive, with no one else even coming close.
Written by Shelby Mayes