Kendrick Lamar released his third studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” to near universal acclaim in 2015. His third collaboration with his record label Top Dawg Entertainment, the envelope-pushing “To Pimp a Butterfly’s” heavy hitting content, as well as its eclectic fusion of funk, jazz, hip-hop, and rap, succeeded in not only cementing Lamar’s position at the top of the rap game, but redefining the genre itself.
Since the release of the Grammy-winning “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the follow-up compilation album “Untitled Unmastered,” Lamar fans have been eagerly awaiting news of Lamar’s fourth studio album.
Preluded by the album’s lead single, “HUMBLE.” and the standalone “The Heart Part IV,” Lamar’s newest album, “DAMN.,” released on April 14, has been the best-selling Billboard 200 chart debut of 2017 thus far, selling over 600,000 copies in the first week and outperforming both Drake’s “More Life” and Ed Sheeran’s “Divide.”
The album consists of 14 tracks and includes features from Rihanna, U2, and Zacari. Each track is styled the same way as the album’s title, in all caps and followed by a period. Within 14 tracks rich with the symbolism and heavy themes that Lamar fans have come to expect, “DAMN.” is more conservative than “To Pimp a Butterfly” in terms of sound, yet far less so in terms of content.
Upon first listen, the flurry of sounds, motifs, and ever-shifting beats and tempos take a backseat to Lamar’s virtuosity and complete control of his instrument. If “To Pimp a Butterfly” succeeded in voicing the anxiety, fears, and aspirations of the #blacklivesmatter protesters of 2015, “DAMN.” is a multifaceted and expansive exploration of Lamar himself.
A kind of lyrically existential unravelling of the basic components of Lamar himself, each track isolates and expands an element of Lamar’s life in a way that at once humanizes and further deifies him. It is this duality and internal strife that becomes the defining focus of tracks like “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna and produced by Sounwave and DJ Dahi, an inert reflection on the price of fame on relationships. One of the more radio-friendly tracks on “DAMN.,” “LOYALTY.”’s vaguely gospel-sounding electronic track, as well as Lamar and RiRi’s laid back vocals over a swaying, dancehall beat, have all the trappings of a summer hit.
Beyond the novelty of hearing RiRi rap, “LOYALTY.”’s whimsical lament, “It’s so hard to be humble” truly gains meaning within the context of “PRIDE.,” an introspective venture with a chilling Alchemist-produced beat in which Lamar raps, “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause your a** insecure,” and finally in “HUMBLE.,” a brazen, hard-hitting shot at rap culture in which Lamar seems to finally gain the confidence to put himself in his place, rapping “Sit down, lil’ b**** be humble.”
Perhaps in the vein of humility, a central focus of the album seems to be Lamar’s relationship with faith. Besides referencing immaculate conception and multiple bible verses, Lamar’s insecurities and bravado when it comes to faith often take center stage. In “FEEL.,” Lamar floods the listener with a sinuous tidal wave of doubts, fears, and speculations that have been drowning him; subtly building up over a melancholic beat, there is an enormous outpouring of feeling while he intermittently raps, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.”
In “GOD.,” Lamar takes the opposite perspective as he muses whether he knows “what God feel[s] like” after having been at the top of the rap game; the song features unconcerned rapping over a nebulous track, punctuated by a driving beat.
Lamar also takes the time to address his detractors, among which Fox News is the most prominent. In multiple tracks, Lamar samples Fox’s derisive and often tone-deaf comments, such as Geraldo Rivera’s remark that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”
These samples provide a much-needed counterpoint to Lamar’s mostly internal musings and only elevate tracks like “DNA.,” in which a Whitman-esque “I contain multitudes” moment that jackhammers Lamar’s humanity into the listener with its trap beat and clear metronomic flows. The antepenultimate track, “FEAR.,” features a meandering, Alchemist-produced existential crisis that highlights Lamar’s fears from childhood to present, dejectedly slurring, “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mother****** up,” over a woozy track.
Repetition is a tool used throughout the album that, instead of becoming monotonous, only highlights Lamar’s multifacetedness.
This constant interaction between tracks, combined with the recurring existentialism and philosophy of puzzling themes like “What happens on earth stays on earth,” an idea repeatedly introduced by Kid Capri, give the album conceptual unity and flow.
The track “DUCKWORTH.,” Lamar’s family name and the dynamic conclusion of “DAMN.,” highlights Lamar’s prowess as a storyteller by regaling the listener with his own fascinating origin story of Ducky, Lamar’s father, and Anthony, the future creator of Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment.
If Lamar is to be believed, 20 years ago, Anthony held up the KFC Ducky was working at and would’ve killed Ducky, ending up in prison and leaving Lamar without a father, had Ducky not been kind and diffused the situation by giving Anthony free chicken. 20 years later, Ducky’s son recorded a song about the incident while signed to Anthony’s record label.
The track reinforces the themes of faith, continuity, and fickleness that define the rest of the album, especially since it cycles back to to the first track “BLOOD.” Another story in which Lamar gets shot by a blind woman, who may be interpreted as Lady Justice, while helping her look for something, the symbolism is up for debate. However, it is this inherently human theme of helping us find something within ourselves, perhaps our own humanity (“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?”), that serves as a fitting send-off for the Homeric pilgrimage on which Lamar embarks.
“DAMN.” is a reaffirmation of the roots of rap and hip-hop music. Especially when viewed in the context of recent albums like Migos’ catchy, yet poorly written “Culture,” and Drake’s total abandonment of conceptual and sonic cohesiveness in “More Life,” “DAMN.” is perhaps more in line with the hard-hitting rhymes of legends like Tupac and Biggie. It is the bottomless symbolism, interconnectedness, and ruthless innovation of the tracks that not only ensure cohesiveness, but elevate and differentiate Lamar from others in the rap game.
With “DAMN.,” Lamar not only reinforces his status as a rap legend, but also challenges what “rap legend” even means. As a poet, lyricist, and virtuoso, Lamar arguably outperforms every other rapper in the game at the moment. However, Lamar’s true strength as an artist is that he can simultaneously push the boundaries of the genre, while being aware and in control of his relationship to it. Lamar defines the rap game at the moment, not the other way around. By keeping a measure of independence and not stooping to conform with other rappers, Lamar continues to solidify his reputation for perpetual growth and change.