best of 2017: kendrick lamar "damn."

Propelled by Fear, DAMN. Remains the Year’s Best Album
by Alex Woodruff

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- Atlanta

It’s April in the most tumultuous year of the social media era and I’m in a Lyft ride home from Edgewood at 2:00 AM. The driver, a bleary-eyed man in his 30s, is carefully steering through the gaggle of pedestrians emerging from the closing bars on either side of the street.

In the backseat, I turn to my friend and drunkenly resume the monologue I had subjected her to the entire night: my all-too-early hot take on the album that would become the year’s best.

Our driver, much less practiced at tuning me out, peers into the rear-view mirror, suddenly alert. “Wait, you said Kendrick dropped the album?”

“Yesterday. He dropped it last night.”

Seconds later, and despite the audible groans to my left, he produces an AUX cord and hands it back, imploring me to play my favorite song. I think for a moment. His is a delicate request that must be approached with the utmost care... The man would never be able to get back his first impression of 2017’s DAMN.

I scroll to find the track, and hit play. It begins passively enough, with a few gentle chords leading into an ethereal opening chorus.

America… God bless you if it's good to you
America, please take my hand…

The song abruptly changes and the peaceful melodies vanish, giving way to Kendrick Lamar’s detached, slow-burning verse over a classic boom-bap instrumental:

Throw a steak off the ark
To a pool full of sharks, he'll take it.
Leave him in the wilderness
With a sworn nemesis, he'll make it.
Take the gratitude from him
I bet he'll show you somethin', whoa…

I’m getting a bit restless. I ask him to turn the music up louder. The beat builds.

I'll chip a nigga little bit of nothin'
I'll chip a nigga little bit of nothin'
I'll chip a nigga little bit of nothin'
I'll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, "Bitch, I did that!"
X-rated

“Can you turn it up a little more?” It’s my friend this time. She caved. Just as the drop appears imminent, Lamar pulls back and invokes one last parable.

Johnny don't wanna go to school no mo', no mo’
Johnny said books ain't cool no mo'

“Can you—,” I begin, but he cuts me off with a deafening boost in volume. We wait.

Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin
Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin’
God bless America, you know we all love him…

Pandemonium in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The city blurs beyond the windows.  We replay “XXX” twice more before finally pulling into the driveway.

*          *          *         

Full disclosure: I like Kendrick Lamar’s music quite a lot.

In the 8 months since its release, DAMN. has been a mainstay, as I somehow continue to break new ground in my personal connection with the Compton rapper’s third major label LP. Similar to many of Kendrick’s fans, I’ve grown invested in his underdog story, always aware of his brilliance but rooting for him to release the album that establishes himself as a bonafide superstar. Enter DAMN. A record so undeniable it is almost a shoo-in to lose the Album of the Year Grammy award to something by Macklemore. 

In gathering my thoughts to write this article though, I struggled to settle on what I believed to be the core theme of DAMN. Sure, you can play the album in either direction—and that’s dope, really—but what was Kendrick trying to tell me along the way? Ironically, in search of this answer I often found myself returning not to one of the album’s 14 official tracks, but to the song that heralded the return of Kung Fu Kenny a month before DAMN. arrived: March 2017’s, “The Heart Part 4.

I do not like “The Heart Part 4.”

At the time, like the rest of the world, I was so ravenous for new Kendrick that I would welcome just about anything he released (see also: “Facts,” by Kanye West). And here was a song that, on the surface, appeared so enticing. Who is Kendrick going after? It’s Drake. Wait no, it’s Big Sean. Nah…he’s not dissing anyone. Shit, it’s definitely Big Sean!

And then there was the ominous “y’all got ‘til April the 7th to get your shit together” mic drop at the close. Kendrick is back and he just announced a new album! This was surely an emphatic homecoming for the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive.

Yet, I cannot like “The Heart Part 4.”

Its jagged beat switches and the reality-TV nature of some of those shots just feel out of place in the Kendrick canon. Don’t @ me. However, there are a few bars that transcend an otherwise sub-par effort, and carry not only the theme of his forthcoming album, but also the thesis of the past decade of music from Lamar: fear.

It’s blasphemy, how many gon' blast for me?
I prophesized on my last song, you laughed at me
But when the shit get brackin', don't you ask for me
How many leaders gon' tell you the truth after me?

The fear of being forgotten, of being under-appreciated, and of being abandoned consumes Kendrick Lamar’s most poignant work. For example, what was the last song he referenced? That’d be “Mortal Man,” the Tupac-assisted outro from To Pimp A Butterfly.1 I could catalog the myriad instances on this track where Lamar pleads with the listener, desperate to believe that we will remain supportive of him in his darkest hour—but fortunately he equipped us with a single haunting refrain that neatly summarizes his unrest.

When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

Does that sound familiar?

Aint nobody prayin’ for me.

*          *          *

I’ve heard many smart people describe DAMN. as Kendrick Lamar’s most accessible release to-date, which is likely true. With chart-topping hits like “HUMBLE” and the Rihanna duet “LOYALTY” it’s certainly hard to argue his mainstream appeal. If his debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, was a slap in the face, and TPAB a brainteaser, then DAMN. is a gut-punch combining the most successful elements of the two. Though—from the ominous brushes with death that both open and close the album—perhaps Kendrick would rather DAMN. be remembered like a gunshot: urgent, direct, lethal.

After the crack of the opening pistol in “BLOOD,” Lamar sprints into the dizzying “DNA” with the burst of a machine gun and the precision of a sniper rifle. It’s the most aggressive and unapologetically lyrical opener I can remember for any of the recent years’ highest grossing rap albums. Kendrick overwhelms us with in-rhyme galore, double entendre, masterful flow switches, and the always-welcome Fox News roast. Was I the only one practicing this part repeatedly to memorize it in the car?

I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids
And I wish I was fed forgiveness

Probably. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most impressive flows of his already sensational career. I mean, come on, he got Don Cheadle in the video. Don fucking Cheadle!

While I don’t listen to “XXX” nearly as much as I used to, other tracks have risen to fill the void. As expected of great albums, deep cuts emerge that stand against time and continue to unveil new treasures for the listener. “FEEL,” and particularly its second half, boasts the best writing of any verse in my recent memory. When I saw Lamar on tour in Atlanta, he modestly admitted it was his favorite song on the album.

“LUST” is now mine; an expert amalgamation of every style he has popularized to this point. The ghostly harmonies and disruptive vocal samples. The nasally delivery combined with exaggerated pitch correction. The spoken word riffs. A well timed “Hol’ Up!” And yes, that scary-good falsetto that should totally not work yet somehow always seems to.

But for the track that serves as the album’s north star, Kendrick turns again to what has proven to be his most fruitful muse. On, “FEAR,” he plunges once more into his vulnerabilities cultivated by childhood and teenage trauma. By the end we arrive at a present-day Lamar, grappling with those same doubts that have plagued him throughout his ascension to superstardom, as he recounts the names of half the songs on the album.

I'm talkin' fear, fear of losin' loyalty from pride
'Cause my DNA won't let me evolve in the light of God
I'm talkin' fear, fear that my humbleness is gone
I'm talkin' fear, fear that love ain't livin' here no more…

Can you turn it up?

And I can't take these feelings with me, so hopefully they disperse
Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax
Wonderin' if I'm livin' through fear or livin' through rap
Damn.
 


Footnote:

1. Like all reasonable adults, I fucking love “Mortal Man.”

 


Illustration by Sarah Crawford. Based on Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. album cover. Graphics by Vlad Stepetov.