The minimalistic titling and album design may suggest that Kendrick Lamar‘s fourth studio album DAMN is taking a simpler approach, and in many ways it does.
Gone are the woozy saxophones and trumpet horns of the jazz and trap fusion of previous album To Pimp a Butterfly, replaced instead with simpler 808 beats and more standardised song structures.
Yet this is far from an artist resting on his laurels after lauded success and acclaim. DAMN’s minimalism is a blank slate for Lamar to dive into depths that even he has yet to explore.
In DAMN, politics take a back seat.
The racial anthem, ‘Alright’, was a centre point of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, with songs like ‘The Blacker the Berry’ and ‘Momma’ resonating its themes of racial inequality and socio-economic strife. ‘DAMN’ has no such central piece, nor do those political themes find their way into Lamar’s fourth album with as much significance.
That’s not to say issues of race aren’t raised – or Donald Trump’s election avoided – rather these issues are buried more deeply, woven into Lamar’s troubled psyche, the true centre point of this album.
In comparison to the way that To Pimp a Butterfly strung its track list along – with fragments of prose that only came together in entirety for the album’s closing track – there isn’t a whole lot of cohesion to DAMN.
DAMN opens with an anecdote, a metaphor of Lamar helping a confused blind women in the street. But the story is cut-off, a recurring theme on the album. Any seemingly cohesive commentary is snuffed out at random; outro’s cut off midsentence, and verses fading into incoherent sampled clutter.
Even after numerous listens, it’s hard to determine exactly what it is Lamar is trying to say with DAMN, and maybe that’s the point. DAMN comes off as a stream of consciousness. It’s at times a frighteningly honest look into the inner workings of the mind of rap’s so-called saviour.
“Fox News wanna use my name for percentage” – ‘Yah’
There are a handful of motifs at play in DAMN, one of which being a recurring sample from a Fox News segment criticising Lamar’s message in ‘Alright’.
The short sample leads into ‘Element’, a song where Lamar raps about those who are ‘coming for him’. He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and why wouldn’t he. He’s an artist at the top of his game. Lamar isn’t afraid to shy away from his fame and critical acclaim. Neither is he afraid to show its corrupting nature. Lamar isn’t the first artist to tackle the hazards of fame and egotism.
Like artists before him he highlights what is truly important; with ‘Loyalty’ – including its Rihanna feature – he raps of that which he finds most important in his friends and family. With the aptly named ‘Love’, Lamar crafts what is the equivalent of a hip hop love song to his long-time partner.
Lamar does all this with a deft hand. He hardly shies away from the darkest themes. “Ain’t nobody praying for me” he says in a number of songs – another motif. At times Lamar feels alone, used by the world and those closest to him to their own selfish ends, isolated by his battles with depression. It’s not all roses and Grammies for hip hop’s golden boy. The gang life and his upbringing still haunt him, even now.
Between Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a work detailing the corrupting nature of street life, and To Pimp a Butterfly, a contradiction emerged in Lamar’s work. Is the devil internal or external? Is it at the hands of gangbangers or the dark workings of one’s ego?
DAMN furthers this contradiction. In ‘Fear’ Lamar raps of brutality at his mother’s hand, a childhood that has lifelong implications. In ‘Feel’ Lamar raps of the shame he feels for missing the important moments in the lives of his friends and family, forfeited for career pursuits and his new life as hip hop’s hero.
Themes of survivor’s guilt rear their head again in DAMN. Depression has seemed to have found a place of importance in rap in recent years. The candidness of the hip hop studio has provided a safe space for a discussion mainstream media is sometimes afraid to have. Whether it’s the gang culture cemented in rap’s history, or the dangers of egotism, Lamar continues the candid discussion of mental illness.
The minimalistic tone of DAMN is at times almost confessional. The lyricism takes centre stage with the simplistic beats and features laying an unobtrusive groundwork. Tonally the album remains consistently sombre, with the exception of ‘DNA’, an empowered and aggressive opening track about the warrior in Lamar’s DNA. They aren’t depressing so much as there is a sullen quality to them.
Listening, you can feel the weight of the world on Lamar’s shoulders and the wounds that run deep. Even the layout of the tracks have meaning; ‘Blood’ follows ‘DNA’, ‘Pride’ is before ‘Humble’, ‘Lust’ is before ‘Love’, and ‘Fear’ comes before ‘God’. DAMN’s tracks run deep. In the closing track Lamar raps of a chance meeting between his father, Duckworth Senior, and Anthony ‘Tog Dawg’ Tiffith, a former gangbanger and founder of Tog Dawg Entertainment, the label that releases Kendrick’s work. Tiffith chanced upon Lamar’s father in a fast-food drive-thru when Lamar was a child. As the song goes, Duckworth’s choice to offer Tiffith free food saved his life, as he had come upon a true gang-banger (whose future as a CEO seems almost frightening).
‘You take two strangers
And put ‘em in random predicaments
Give ‘em a soul so they can
Make their own choices and live with it
Twenty years later them same strangers
You make ‘em meet again
Inside recording studios where they reaping their benefits
Then you start reminding them ’bout that chicken incident
Whoever thought the greatest rapper
Would be from coincidence
Because if Anthony killed Ducky
Top Dawg could be servin‘ life
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight’
It’s an exclamation. It’s conclusive. Yet the album that followed had no such succinctness, and nor does Lamar’s career trajectory moving forward. It’s hard to say exactly where Lamar goes from here. Stylistically DAMN feels like a complete change in course from the direction he was taking with To Pimp a Butterfly, not that that’s a criticism. Rather, it cements Lamar’s sheer talent, to be able to switch styles so dramatically. Tackling his personal demons proved central to DAMN. Maybe we will see a more political Lamar in future works? Only time will tell.
Image courtesy of Austin Hargrave Photography, http://www.austinhargrave.com/