It’s going to be an aggressive few years.
Music is cathartic and empowering. The trouble with the last decade, arguably, has been a dearth of purpose. Music has been more about “feelings” and sentiment than unabashed political drive or aggression. That is, until the 2016 elections. The details are more appropriately discussed on other outlets and forums, but for the purpose of this review, I’ll summarize the effect on the musical entertainment industry: People are pissed.
Musicians who have been dormant are dusting off their “angry eyes.” Nine Inch Nails released the EP “Not the Actual Events,” and attacks the world for allowing our current state. Arcade Fire released “I Give You Power” with proceeds being forwarded to the ACLU, then later announce a new album estimated to be released this spring. More recently, East Coast rapper Joey Bada$$ releases “All Amerikkkan Bada$$,” an aggressive and straightforward call to arms of sorts for anyone “with the guts.”
So, it should go without saying that swarms of anticipation would engulf Compton-native rapper Kendrick Lamar upon his announcement of new material. Like leaning in for the pope’s take on a trending controversy, Lamar’s followers eagerly rallied around April 14 (well, first on the 7th). No one was ready for his response, though.
“To the spiritual, my spirit do no better…” You don’t know that you knew it going into it, but you did. In retrospect, it’s right there, right on the cover art:“Damn.” Big, daunting, anticlimactic, and tired, that’s “Damn.” Lamar’s unflattering portrait says it all, with his beat-down expression – King Kunta’s caving. The theme is bleak and bold. It’s hopeless, real simple and plain, except for one glimmering breath of bittersweet solace to close his fourth studio album.
But, let’s start at the beginning.
The opening of Damn. is a two-minute short story titled “BLOOD.” The “song” describes going to help a seemingly blind woman and getting shot, instead. Blood, at the risk of sounding reductive, is life. Life, at the risk of sounding grim, is trying to help and instead paying for it. Not bleak enough for you? The next few songs follow suit. “DNA.”, “FEEL.”, and my personal favorite, “ELEMENT.,” detail a history of war and violence inherent to human nature.
It’s fun. The production and edits echo Lamar’s earlier works on “Good Kid Bad City,” with simplistic and forward beats to compete with his loud, unapologetic lyrics. “…I just kill **** ’cause it’s in my DNA,” and so forth. From here, he ventures into qualities of an individual, and values. In “LOVE.,” “LOYALTY.,” and “PRIDE.,” he begins to elaborates on the factors that compel the aspects of our nature. These songs can be far more subtle than the earlier portion of the album, with “LOVE” having more in common with Drake’s work (possibly a weak link in the album).
It’s a detailed display of humanity, and it uses a very pessimistic light. The hopelessness asserts itself in a culmination of experience in “FEAR.,” where the album begins its closing remarks. Lamar details his crippling concerns in life, even mentioning prior themes such as “love,” “humbleness,” and even his own DNA. Contrary to the content, the tone of the song is sluggish and subtle, with some moments even seeming lazy. By this time, if you listen, I’m sure you will agree – you’re worn out and tired. It’s all around: the violence and the struggle. There’s an exhaustion to this song that sobers the sense of urgency to a reality. In this reality, the world is against potential, and good will, and proactivity. “I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17,” he reflects. The overwhelming apathy towards current political powers manifest not because of purposelessness, but simply because Kendrick Lamar is tired.
The truth is, Lamar’s been pedaling empathy since his first studio album, “Section .80.” His attempt to connect with the world and create an understanding of culture and conviction failed following 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” with Trump being elected shortly after. He’s been subjected to prejudice and poverty; everyone else is just catching on.
So what does Lamar have to offer victims of adversity? “DUCKWORTH.” The closing track – reminiscent of Gorillaz’s anecdotal “Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head”– tells a bleak story about two men who were supposed to live one life and led another, instead. In the end? Lamar becomes the greatest thing to happen to rap in the last 10 years (sorry, ‘50’ fans). The story is as bleak as the rest of the album, but ends, against all odds, as an almost touching story of redemption (in its own way).
The reality is that the world is terrible, and arguably getting worse. The whole album drills this into existence with relentless lines on hate and lust. This is jarring for fans who sought political promise and proactivity from Kung Fu Kenny. The only hope offered is a somber “something will come of this”-type response, through a cesspool of “this.”
It’s not To Pimp a Butterfly; it’s not conceptual; it’s not organized. At times this album seems remorsefully unhinged, like Lamar’s doing something he doesn’t want to but feels he needs to. The passion pushes reality to the foreground: “…thought that K-Dot real life was the same life they see on TV, huh?”
There’s truth to Sounwave’s tweet, which prompted rumors (now debunked) of a direct follow-up to Damn., stating “But what if I told you…that’s not the official version.” A reference (and picture to follow) from Matrix. Though maybe not the best example, the Matrix is ultimately a story about choosing the beauty of reality, in all of its flaws and fractures.
Kendrick Lamar offers a healthy dose of reality, whether you chose it or not.