Alex Macpherson On Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.
, April 20th, 2017 10:38
Following the release of Kendrick Lamar's fourth album, Alex Macpherson takes a look at where the record sits in his discography and what it tells us about the rapper's progression
For a word with a multiplicity of meanings and connotations, there aren't many layers to the title of Kendrick Lamar's fourth album. It's not a curse; nothing here is a mistake. The religious overtones are probably intended, but it's not an album about damnation either. Instead, it's the coolly raised but no less impressed eyebrow when someone hits it out of the park, smacks a winner down the line, is the best version of themselves they can possibly be under the most pressure. And it's not a surprise, either - note the full stop, not the exclamation mark - because you already knew they had that ability. But still: Damn.
That impressed eyebrow belongs to us, but also to Kendrick himself: you can imagine that it was his first word on playing the finished album back to himself. DAMN. is the sound of a man who knows he's working in rarefied territory. He gets Rihanna to actually say it - "It's so hard to be humble," she muses on 'Loyalty' - but Kendrick revels in his superiority, his ability to casually weave concepts and drop philosophy and generally free-wheel around his notional competitors with technical virtuosity, with every second he's on the mic.
'DNA' is a dizzying opener, rhymes circling, doubling back, stacked on each other as Kendrick probes conflicting ideas about inherent human nature and racial stereotypes. 'Fear', towards the end, is a tour de force: the way its string-laden final verse carefully and precisely stitches together the various themes of the album as a whole is masterful, but note too the subtlety with which Kendrick makes the first verse as much about his disciplinarian mother's fear of losing the little she owned as much of his childhood self's fear of her.
Throughout, Kendrick's ever-expanding vocal repertoire hauls the album's narrative this way and that - a woozy sing-song to match the dusty boom-bap of 'Yah', gravelly gravitas at the start of 'XXX' as a counterpoint to his usual feverish intensity, artificially slithering up and down the scale on 'Pride' to get under your skin. Possibly the most audaciously entertaining moment is Kendrick's best Prince imitation on 'Lust' as he coyly declares: "Girl, I respect the cat."
Kendrick's sundry voices also subtly illuminate DAMN.'s position vis-à-vis the rest of his discography. It's so lean and spare sonically that it feels like a dash of cold water to the face after the cacophonous, dense To Pimp A Butterfly; it's so light on its feet that it makes Good Kid, M.A.A.D City feel ponderous in comparison. It does this while also staking its claim to being Kendrick's most philosophically profound album to date, with those single-word titles casually taking on big ideas like pride, fear, God. The simplicity of the beats - next to To Pimp A Butterfly's free jazz squalls, anyway - is also a red herring: sure, Mike Will Made-It took it back to rap basics by coming up with an irresistible piano riff for a brilliant banger in 'Humble' and an ominous bass crawl for 'DNA', but these beats morph and shift restlessly: 'XXX' turns on degraded piano, 'Element' switches up its beat with clicks and whirrs midway through.
What the voices, the sparseness and the relative lack of guests - U2 have been disproportionately fussed over, but in the event have all the presence of a minor sample; Rihanna is undeniable, but she ends up being part of Kendrick's narrative anyway - illustrate is how alone Kendrick is these days. If To Pimp A Butterfly's power derived in part from its sense of community, well, there's little of that on DAMN. He's not lonely at the top - save that self-pity for Kanye - but more than once you think: Who are you addressing with this album, now you've ascended to a higher plane and know it?
One of the less edifying side effects of To Pimp A Butterfly's momentous nature was the way in which it separated Kendrick Lamar from hip-hop in the critical discourse: the rapper who got disproportionate attention, particularly in white and indie publications, because he wasn't like other popular rappers. This isn't his fault, but there are echoes of it in some of his unfortunate hotepian tendencies: the feint at respectability politics on To Pimp A Butterfly's 'The Blacker The Berry', an ongoing preoccupation with the the inferiority of Black women who take care of their appearance in ways he doesn't approve of which saw him rightfully dragged across social media on the release of 'Humble'. It was nothing new: this distaste has been there since the start, when he tutted, "You 'bout to blow your cover when you cover up" on 2011's 'No Make-Up (Her Vice)'.
A note of censure is never far away from the man who styled himself as patriarchy's top censurer, the Pope, in the 'Humble' video. Hitherto, it's been directed as much at himself as at his audience: the conflict between the religious Kendrick who wants to live a pure life and the hypocrite Kendrick who enjoys the trappings of the rapper lifestyle has underpinned much of his work to date. It hasn't lost its power on tracks like 'Pride', or given a new twist as an anti-gun campaigner admits he would commit violence on anyone who hurt his loved ones on 'XXX' - but shtick is beginning, ever so slightly, to creep into it. Maybe it's because Kendrick seems so potent and at ease with himself, but the tortured conflict of To Pimp A Butterfly's "u" has vanished. Kendrick's habit of making bangers that people turn up to in defiance, or ignorance, of his actual message - think anti-alcohol lyric and party anthem 'Swimming Pools (Drank)' - is a bit of a running joke. But now, the cockiness of 'Humble' and the woozy haze of weed over 'Loyalty' are what feel real, not any kind of flipside to them.
On 'Element', Kendrick knowingly plays with the tropes of his less learned peers and smiles as he bends to their level: "If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'mma make it look sexy." In so doing, he has his cake and eats it - and it's magnificent, because he does make it look sexy even as he implies it's beneath him. The best shots he fires at his rivals aren't the explicit lyrical references to Big Sean or Drake but what he does to them by dint of existing: his deep dives into his emotions makes Drake seem callow (not that Drake needs any help in this), his exploration of his celebrity makes Kanye seem shallow. And could the digs at Photoshop and fake asses be slyly aimed at Nicki?
The irony is that DAMN. is a triumph on an emotional level less because Kendrick is a coherent philosopher and more because he's a great performer. In the meantime, he's spinning the central tension of his work out because it's necessary to avoid the fear of judgment he raps about here, the fear of being categorised ever since he snapped "I'm not an activist" and "I am not the next pop star, I am not the next socially aware rapper" on his debut album in 2011. Six years later, he's skilfully avoided those boxes, and wound up alone, with his art, his God and his self.