By Brian Brecker
Elm Staff Writer
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most important lyricists of our generation. His descriptions about his childhood on “Section 80,” his harrowing involvement in gangs and crime in “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” and his conceptual masterpiece about African American pride and black power in “To Pimp a Butterfly,” have all demonstrated his ability to paint pictures with stark imagery and layered symbolism. Through each of these albums, Kendrick attempts to come to a point of conclusion on the major topic at hand. In this new album “DAMN,” however, there appears to be no conclusion at all.
The first major track of the album, “DNA,” is a banger that further shows his new view on himself and his culture. He says that “sex, money, murder— our DNA.” Later, on the slower song, “YAH,” he says he doesn’t want to be called black anymoreand says that he is an Israelite.
Two recurring messages in this album are that “Ain’t nobody pray for me” and that “What happens on Earth stays on Earth,” both of which are introduced on the track “ELEMENT.” The first shows that Lamar has grown isolated from not only the mainstream media, but also from other rappers who try to insult or take advantage of him. In the song “FEEL,” he takes on a pessimistic and fatalistic view on other rappers, the world, and friends, concluding that “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em / But who the f*** prayin’ for me?”
My favorite song on the album is “PRIDE,” which expounds on his distrust for other people. This song is haunting and centered on the beautiful scattered sounds of a chorus singing, “It wasn’t all to share, but there / I care, I care.”
Next is the single that everyone has heard at least ten times by now, “HUMBLE,” where he claims the position of king among rappers, saying “sit down, be humble.” He shares his thoughts on the rampant usage of Photoshop to define female beauty.
“LOVE” is smooth, soft, and sensual, offering us one of the sweeter tunes on the album. He asks whether if, given a multitude of circumstances, she would still love him. The next song, “XXX,” features Bono from U2 on the chorus, telling the story of all the elicit things which Lamar away from a more respectable life and into crime.
One bright moment on this largely bleak album is “GOD,” which shows more of Lamar’s emotional side as he pleads to either God or the listeners not to judge him. He raps that his lyrics are from an angel, relating back to the closing track of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” where he says his songs are inspired by his “dead homies.” The album ends with “DUCKWORTH,” which recounts how his father was almost murdered by his future employer, and includes samples from old soul songs. He starts the song by describing how he thought it was “me vs the world” until he found it was “me vs me.” The end of the album rewinds all the way back to the beginning of the album to the opening line when Lamar meets the blind woman, leading into a cyclical nature of the album, perhaps to indicate his personal conflict will never technically end.
This is a bold departure from Lamar’s earlier albums, which contained concepts that clearly come to a formal conclusion. The album contains themes of global isolation through the motif that “What happens of Earth stays on Earth.” Perhaps, this means the sins we commit against our brothers and sisters on this planet won’t affect us in heaven.
Personal isolation is expressed through the other motif that no one is praying for Lamar, meaning that no one cares for him personally, but instead for what he can say about social issues. In a sense, this album can be seen as taking back Lamar’s personal identity from music reviewers and social critics.
The only issue I have with the album is that its production sometimes lacks the detail and complexity of his previous albums, though I am sure these things were done intentionally. We gain an insight into Lamar’s more antisocial tendencies and his inability to deal with his celebrity status. The result is perhaps Lamar’s most personal, raw, album to date, which is contrasted by against his most overt embracement of mainstream sonic production.