When assessing “DAMN.”, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, I think that the late, great Guru said it best. Back in 1998, on the chorus of ‘Moment of Truth’, he observed that:
“They say it’s lonely at the top in whatever you do
You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you
Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof
We all must meet our moment of truth”
On Lamar’s latest effort, he finds himself sitting upon hip-hop’s mountaintop, only to find that though the view might be pleasant the seat is distinctly uncomfortable. When he released the LP’s leadoff single, “HUMBLE.”, the impression most listeners may have had was that he was telling his fellow MCs to know their place; however, upon several listens to “DAMN.”, it is clear that he was reserving the firmest admonitions for himself. This is a furiously introspective record, largely devoid of the immediate radio hits that Lamar has liberally sprinkled throughout his previous outings. That is, of course, a conscious choice; here, Lamar is sitting somewhere with his head just above the clouds, carefully composing his memoirs and occasionally allowing us to listen over his shoulder.
Of recent releases, this album is closest in mood to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”; like Ocean, Lamar has opted for complex song structures with two or three phases, such as the rousing U2-featuring “XXX”. On that tune, Bono provides a surprisingly fitting accompaniment, one which makes you wonder how good a full track and not a mere fragment might have sounded. Like “Blonde”, too, “DAMN.” has a range of gorgeous soundscapes. At the beginning of ‘ELEMENT’, there’s the moodiness of early Wu Tang. “DNA” shapeshifts into a trap-edged dancefloor monster. ‘PRIDE.’ has the type of chords you’d have expected to find on Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker”, whilst both ‘LUST’ and ‘YAH’ have similarly psychedelic elements. These beats lend themselves particularly well to the album’s reflective content, which is preoccupied with the biblical sins – mostly to be found in the album’s tracklisting that Lamar is grappling with. These concepts – vanity, humility, loyalty – recur throughout the LP’s 55 minutes.
Early on, firmly establishing “DAMN.”’s religious theme, Lamar refers to himself as an “Israelite”; the implication being that African-Americans are in their country’s (racial?) wilderness, casting about for freedom and maybe redemption. This is slightly contentious ground, since it seemed to suggest that black people, in order to elevate themselves, must first set aside their arrogance; as it says in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” On first listen, this was an unfortunate echo of the respectability politics to be found in “The Blacker The Berry”, but we eventually see that Lamar is talking about his own uniquely inspiring journey. He has apparently become so surrounded by jealousy and sycophancy that he has fallen back on the support of his close friends and family, and on “FEEL,” arguably the LP’s standout track, he lists a bewildering array of problems and adversaries that his fame has attracted:
This roll call is in addition to his feud with Fox News, one of the only opponents he calls out by name; and it is notable that Lamar is so successful that now he no longer battles mere rappers, but entire institutions within the US media. Yet while Lamar speaks of his yearning to be better, he is at times still too firmly wedded to some old and unsettling habits. Writing for Buzzfeed, the journalist Tomi Obaro noted Lamar’s succinct analysis of misogyny in hip-hop:
“You scream at the person that’s closest to you….coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity.”
Given this profound self-awareness, it is a little disappointing to see Lamar lapse into lyrics such as “See, in a perfect world…I’ll choose work over bitches” – particularly since so many of his other lines encourage the empowerment of black women. Having said that, even the mostly enlightened Andre 3000, as he notes on Solo (Reprise), still has some way to go.
Of course, Lamar’s technique is spectacular on this record. His musical experimentation is as thrilling and sustained as, say, Pharoah Sanders on Olé; he does things with the artform that few could even think of attempting, let alone pulling off successfully. His flows on the aforementioned ‘XXX’ are so good that he even sounds gleeful halfway through, so easy does it appear. Though no other MCs appear on this record, emphasising the sense that he is a rapper in a class of his own, he again shows that he is a skilled collaborator, dovetailing beautifully with Rihanna on ‘Loyalty’. The sheer scale of his talent, and the degree to which he has already honed it, can frequently leave you in awe. Nowhere is this better in evidence than on “FEAR.”, where we are reminded movingly of just how far Lamar is come in just a few years – through the trauma of extreme violence both at home and upon his doorstep, after which the battlegrounds of rap must have been a funfair by comparison. (Indeed, on “DUCKWORTH.”, the album’s closer, we are informed that Lamar – but for an extraordinary quirk of fate – would not even be alive today.)
It is, I think, highly arguable that that this record does not represent as great a leap forward as did “Good kid, mAAd city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly”. To draw an analogy with Radiohead, if these albums were Lamar’s “OK Computer” and “Kid A”, then perhaps “DAMN.” is his “Hail To The Thief” – not his very best record, but still hugely accomplished. If this criticism seems unfair, then it is also a sign that Lamar’s primary competition is no longer with his peers – it is with history. So much has he excelled that, at this point, each of his new releases should be judged against, say, Outkast’s “Aquemini”, and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation”. With this record, he remains at the summit of his art – but, crucially, there is a sense that there may yet be other musical peaks for him to climb.