Kendrick’s “DAMN.” Tackles Personal Reflection and Political Dissent
By Jessica Resendez
Damn. Kendrick Lamar did it again.
Labeled as one of the most important rappers of our generation by Time magazine, Lamar has successfully cemented his status among O.G. greats like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and dare we say…Tupac?
In 2015, he inspired an entire movement with the song “Alright” off his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” — where protesters in the streets of Cleveland and Chicago chanted “We gon’ be alright” as they rallied against police-related violence stemming from cases like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
Lamar’s latest album, “DAMN.,” was released last week and has already claimed the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s top 200 chart. This currently makes his album the top selling debut for 2017 — beating out Drake’s “More Life,” which dropped in March.
So what happens when an artist experiences success? Does wickedness start to creep in and poison the humble mind? Does fame and fortune encourage weakness and temptation?
These are the questions Kendrick Lamar struggles with as he takes listeners on another story-like adventure beginning with “BLOOD.,” the album’s intro.
“So I was takin’ a walk the other day…” Lamar begins, narrating a dream-like sequence about a blind lady he meets on the side of the street.
The sound of a gunshot cuts the music and the song transitions to a Fox News interview, where two reporters criticize the lyrics to “Alright” during a performance at the 2014 BET music awards with reporter Geraldo Rivera claiming that, “Hip hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”
This marks the shift in mood leading into the next track, “DNA.” Suddenly the bass gets deeper and the roar of Lamar’s spit-fire verses become quicker.
“I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA,” Lamar professes, in response to critiques on race. As if he’s having an argument with himself, Lamar takes on two personas — one that critiques his black heritage and one that defends it.
In both “YAH.” and “ELEMENT.,” Lamar explores a more personal experience — one that analyzes the buzz and hype surrounding his own fame. In response to the success of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar reflects on his roles as both a representative of the disenfranchised and praised rapper. Seemingly tired from carrying the weight of addressing racial inequalities on his shoulders, he proclaims “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.”
Feeling alone and isolated from the world, the beats get softer, smoother, and more surreal in sound. Songs like “LOYALTY.” and “PRIDE.” question love and faith.
As Lamar delves into the pitfalls of fame — “get money, fuck bitches,” — he strays further from humility. Admitting his weaknesses, however, leads him to snap back with a bass-booming track called “HUMBLE.” — in which he puts his own pride in check with lines like “I’m the realest nigga after all, bitch, be humble.”
Not one to be shy of expressing political opinions, Lamar touches on American politics with songs like “LUST.” and “XXX.” Enlisting U2 frontman, Bono, to sing the psychedelic chorus lines for “XXX.,” Lamar mourns the loss of Obama as President in the age of Trump. “But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” Lamar asks, alluding to the idea of hypocrisy found in Americans who claim they want change, but don’t do anything about it.
Like any good story-teller, Lamar saves the best anecdote for last. “DUCKWORTH.,” the final song on the album, introduces two protagonists that influence Lamar’s introspection on his own life. A side hustler from the projects of Watts meets a gap-toothed KFC employee, leading to a revelation that connects the two men with Lamar’s existence. In a string of events, the hustler spares the life of the KFC worker, but the kicker lies in the fact that the hustler is Lamar’s current producer (Top Dawg) and the KFC worker is Lamar’s father (Kenny Duckworth).
“Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence,” Lamar professes.
As he ponders the idea of an alternate universe, where his father is dead and his producer is serving a life sentence in jail, he comes to the realization that his role as a rapper with purpose stems from the humble choices of two disenfranchised strangers.
The sound of a gunshot cuts through the music one last time as a reversal of the album leads listeners back to the start.
Damn. Kendrick Lamar just revived West Coast hip-hop.