Imagine, for a moment, that you are Kendrick Lamar back in 2015.
Three years beforehand, you broke into the mainstream by releasing “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” bearing each and every scar from your adolescence for the world to see. In the years that followed, you worked tirelessly to release a follow-up, using everything from police killings to Nelson Mandela for inspiration. Your finished product, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” is hailed as “The Great American Hip-Hop Album” by Spin, measuring the pain of Black America while carrying an unwavering message of positivity, faith and love. Fame and fortune be damned, you are truly trying to change the world.
Now imagine watching Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera and company say your music has done more damage to your community than racism. Imagine watching the same country you tried to reach elect a reality TV star as president.
Yeah, you would be pissed off too.
As an artist, Kendrick has never sounded as confident as he does on “DAMN,” his fourth studio album and third under his record label, Aftermath Entertainment. But don’t mistake his straightforward delivery and Mike Will Made It-produced beats for swagger. “DNA” and “HUMBLE” are the only tracks on the album where Kendrick really delves into braggadocio—mostly for the sheer indulgent joy of running laps around his critics and competition. No, the confidence on “DAMN” is born of weary indifference, not arrogance.
Call it cynicism or call it maturity, but Kendrick is done trying to save the Titanic. Nowadays, he’d rather just sit on top of the iceberg and flip it off while the whole thing goes under.
Everything about this album, from the bleak-eyed cover photo to the anxious lyrics of tracks like “YAH” and “FEEL,” sheds light on Kendrick’s inner thoughts to a degree never seen before in his discography. While he’s secure in his spot on hip-hop’s throne, mentally, “DAMN” hints at a man beset by demons, coming completely undone. Even the pace of his delivery is slower than what we’ve grown accustomed to from the Compton native. Tellingly, the only time Kendrick really speeds up his flow is when he’s expressing anger.
Kendrick’s Christian faith plays first fiddle on “DAMN” more than ever before. In more ways than one, the album seems like the dark counterpart to Chance the Rapper’s 2016 masterpiece “Coloring Book,” substituting austere synths for joyous choirs, damnation for redemption. Throw in the chaotic shifts of songs like “XXX,” which features U2 in a rare moment of calm, and we’re left with an album that sounds like a crumbling church.
“DAMN” is loaded with Biblical references—both subtle and overt—at such high density that it’s hard to keep track of them all. These aren’t happy stories Kendrick is alluding to; he pulls his subject matter from the Binding of Isaac, the Plagues of Egypt and the Apocalypse. As a reference point, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re dealing with an artist who truly believes the end is near.
The album’s every word and note all lead to “FEAR,” the album’s climax and spiritual keystone. The seven-minute track details Kendrick’s innermost thoughts in three separate stages, representing the rapper’s outlook as a child, a teenager and an adult. His depression and anxiety take root in the fear of his mother’s abuse, maturing in his adolescence as he openly worries about being shot by the police or written off as an anonymous gang killing. At 27, fame and fortune leave Kendrick no more serene. He finds himself plagued by the fear of losing it all, wondering “is God playing a joke on me?”
A phone call from Kendrick’s cousin Carl Duckworth bookends “FEAR” with a solution. While quoting a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, Kendrick’s cousin tells him that he and his people have strayed from their true identity as a lost tribe of Israel, and his anguish won’t stop until he returns to the Ten Commandments.
In a way, Carl’s monologue sheds a light on the whole album. Looking back at “DAMN” from Kendrick’s Christian perspective, the album plays like a laundry list of the Seven Deadly Sins, even opening with the questions, “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” Kendrick never gives us a straight answer, leaving the final conclusion to his listeners as he shifts between both points of view on a track-by-track basis.
Kendrick’s greatest talent has always been his storytelling; waiting so long to show his hand was a stroke of genius in the truest sense. “DAMN” isn’t as forthcoming with its premise as “To Pimp a Butterfly” or “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” or “Section.80,” but that subtlety is a sign of just how much Kendrick has matured over his career. Ultimately, “DAMN” is an album of contradictions: shallow on its surface, deep in its substance yet confident in its message of doubt.
As strange as it may seem, Kendrick has never sounded more like himself. His place on rap’s Mount Rushmore is secure, whether he wants it or not.