By Horus Alas
Since the release of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, the Compton MC has been touted by many as the greatest rapper alive. His third album was rife with dark political meditations and pounding jazz beats and received universal acclaim upon release. At the burgeoning of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lamar delivered the epoch-defining hook, “And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho” in “Alright.”
When you release an album as impeccable as Butterfly, it’s hard to compose a follow-up that isn’t a huge disappointment, let alone lives up to the formidable standards set by its predecessor. Last year, Lamar released Untitled Unmastered, which was comprised of demos from the Butterfly sessions.
Untitled was likewise met with broad acclaim, but it’s possible to shrug off the brilliance of these tracks as residual thunder from those 2015 sessions.
Lamar’s fourth album, DAMN., lays those misgivings to rest with celerity.
In “DNA.,” Lamar retreads his dark past through the lines, “I know murder, conviction / Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption / Scholars, fathers, dead with kids / And I wish I was fed forgiveness.” The alliteration-heavy lyrics are fired against a dark, pounding bass drum and dissonant riffs and samples.
Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera is sampled, saying on the bridge, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years,” before Lamar resumes his rapid-fire, furious flows with the compact ferocity of a Tec 9.
“YAH.” features production reminiscent of trip-hop, with slow, steady drums against low-humming feedback loops with synth flourishes. Lamar snipes at Fox News and Rivera: “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage … Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition” and delivers a cool, deadpan hook: “Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’ / Yah, yah, yah yah…”
If “YAH.” has the vibe of a contemplative drizzle beneath dreary skies, its follow-up, “ELEMENT.,” oozes defiance and bravado, with Lamar delivering the amazingly-blustering hook, “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy / If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I’ma make it look sexy … They won’t take me out my element” against a soundscape of droning, dissonant jazz.
On “FEEL.,” Lamar runs through a broad gamut of internal reactions to his status at the apex of contemporary Hip-Hop: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’ / But nothin’ is awkward, the feelin’ won’t prosper / The feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons.”
Rihanna takes a prominent feature on “LOYALTY.” The track features a wide array of samples ranging from Wu-Tang Clan to Bruno Mars and results in one of this album’s few upbeat moments. Lamar waxes lyrical, as is his forte, when he narrates how “I meditate and moderate all my wins again / I’m hangin’ on the fence again / I’m always on your mind / I put my lyric and my lifeline on the line.”
Mellow soul-sounding hooks and a low-key, thumping bassline comprise the sonic architecture of “PRIDE.,” where, in the midst of a profound lyrical self-examination exercise, Lamar broods, “See, in a perfect world, I’d choose faith over riches / I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison.”
“HUMBLE.” immediately feels like one of the more expendable moments on this album, with Lamar delivering less-than-stellar lines like “A.M. to the P.M. , P.M. to the A.M., funk / Piss out your per diem, gotta hate ‘em funk” and an uninspired hook that simply chants, “Hol’ up, bitch, sit down / Hol’ up lil’ bitch, hol’ up lil’ bitch, be humble.”
A dissonant style of blues forms the sludgy, somber beat loop of “LUST.,” which tells a mad and moody sonic tale about a man and a woman from the streets reveling in all kinds of reckless irresponsibility and then dealing with its fallout in their lives.
Lamar is at his most approachable when he demonstrates at least a modicum of human weakness and vulnerability, as he does in “LOVE.”
I’ll admit the lyrics on this track at times become unusually sappy for the hard-edged Compton MC, with its hook declaring, “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you still trust me than to love me / Keep it a whole one hund’: don’t got you, I got nothin.’” But its backdrop of upbeat R&B still manages to make this song one of the album’s more enjoyable human and relatable moments.
On “XXX.,” Lamar runs through several scenarios in which humans find their resolve to do the right thing shaken—most prominently, he encourages a friend to seek revenge for the murder of his son. “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel / If somebody kill my son, it means somebody gettin’ killed,” Lamar raps with rising ferocity against a backdrop of sampled police sirens and thumping drum machines.
“FEAR.” sees Lamar flex his narrative muscles as he runs through three particular instances in his life that instilled in him true terror: growing up with domestic violence as a child, fear of dying in the streets as a teenager and being conned out of his success around the time of To Pimp a Butterfly.
At over seven minutes, this track can at times feel cumbersome and self-indulgent.
In the verses of “GOD.,” Lamar evaluates his current preeminent status in the rap game, both flaunting the success of his accomplishments and fending off haters while reminding himself of his own humanity and mortality.
Album closer “DUCKWORTH.” tells of Lamar’s father, Ducky, and his close brush with death in the ‘80s while working a drive-thru at a KFC.
To Pimp a Butterfly’s successor will often lack the political urgency and gravitas that made the former album so consequential in 2015. At times, these tracks take longer to get to the point, and their melodies can be plodding and drawn out.
Sometimes-shoddy architecture aside, what hasn’t changed between DAMN. and its predecessor is Lamar’s formidable aptitude for cerebral, compelling narratives in his lyrics. There’s ample thematic content to unpack in these tracks as well, and even if it seems less immediate on the surface, this album contains depth of the kind you’d expect to see in James Joyce’s fiction.
Through this series of meditations on virtues and vices, Lamar explores the extremes of the human psyche and questions whether humans have the fortitude to overcome their weaknesses. There are Christian overtones of despair and redemption interspersed throughout these songs, and through his dark chronicles, Lamar aims to qualify his struggles with the streets of Compton as well as understand the ordeals of those around him.
Throughout it all, there’s a profound sense of dualism. “PRIDE.” precedes “HUMBLE.,” “LUST” comes before “LOVE.,” and “FEAR.” leads to “GOD.” There’s an inherent tension in this organization that trends from light to dark, vice to virtue, perdition to absolution.
The narrative arcs in Kendrick’s new album thus deal with human life and the world around us as a fervent struggle between good and evil. The forces that dictate our lives externally are the same ones that compel us psychologically and internally.
They remind us that our most arduous struggles are often not with the people and the world around us, but with ourselves.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Kendrick Lamar on Facebook.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.