Religion is often invoked in hip-hop to dramatize one’s struggles against temptation or judgment. “DAMN.” uses it in a more profound manner.
At some point during 2015, Kendrick Lamar came to seem like much more than a rapper. One of his best songs, “Alright,” was adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement as an informal anthem; sing-alongs erupted at rallies and protests across the country. “Alright” somehow manages to sound carefree yet urgent, like a radio jingle perforated by drum fills. “We been hurt, been down before,” Lamar raps, preaching about the glory inherent in struggle. “We gon’ be alright.” He sounded like a prophet, capable of articulating what people in the streets desired but couldn’t put into words.
Lamar appeared to embrace the role. In the video for “Alright,” he soars over Los Angeles and the Bay Area, astonishing all who see him, until a cop brings him down. At the BET Awards, he performed the song on the roof of a vandalized police car. At the 2016 Grammys, he began his performance as part of a chain gang. His verses felt like pronouncements, the words rushing out as though he had been tasked with conveying an entire community’s joys and sorrows. It has become commonplace for hip-hop’s biggest artists to see themselves as globalist curators, absorbing and spreading new sounds. But Lamar’s circle seems only to grow smaller, his music indebted to those who came before.
Lamar was born in Compton in 1987, the same year Eazy-E released “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” which, for many people, came to define the neighborhood. While in high school, he began recording mixtapes, which caught the attention of a local manager named Anthony (Top Dawg) Tiffith. In 2012, Lamar put out his major-label début, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” It was loosely structured around a seemingly average day from his teens: seeing about a girl, testing his parents’ patience, hanging out with friends and imagining that they are inside the reckless lyrics of a Young Jeezy song. What made the album powerful was its acknowledgment of life’s precariousness, an awareness that arrives in the course of the day, as someone close to him is shot and Lamar begins rethinking his faith. (He is a devout Christian.)
The success of “good kid” helped inspire “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released three years later. The songs on that album communicated Lamar’s ambivalence about his sudden fame, particularly at a moment when the nascent Black Lives Matter movement was casting light on all the young people, growing up just as he had, who would never see their twenties. He wanted to stay grounded, and not to sell out, and he explored this desire by making dark, adventurous music steeped in seventies funk and spaced-out jazz. It’s not that he spurned the mainstream. His albums have sold well, and he’s contributed verses to hit songs by Taylor Swift and Maroon 5. But these simple, tidy guest appearances underscore how much attention he pours into the carefully rendered characters, symbols, and places that populate his own albums.
On April 14th, Lamar released “damn.” It’s filled with contradictions, seesawing between supreme needs and animal wants, heroism and self-loathing, loose thrills and the possibility of eternal damnation. The songs are at odds with one another: “love.” is an ode to trust and commitment, backed by majestic, gliding synths; “lust.” is rash and hellish, as Lamar, over a drum loop played backward, raps about seeking the quick affirmation that comes from being desired. “element.” is Lamar at his most effortless and cocky, peering down from on high; it’s followed by “feel.,” which finds him nursing a chip on his shoulder, mind racing toward the conclusion that his insecurities may never fade. He begins recognizing his own sense of megalomaniacal paranoia: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.”
The phrase “What happens on Earth stays on Earth” is repeated on a few songs—a reminder of something greater, beyond this existence. Throughout “damn.,” Lamar wonders if it is nature or nurture that determines who he is. “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA,” he raps. The question becomes whether that means his fate is preordained by virtue of his blood, his faith, or his skin color.
The considerable pressure put on Lamar has been unfair, and “damn.” rejects the notion that he has all the answers. Still, within hours of its release, there were theories, which proved to be untrue, that on the first track Lamar represents his death, and that a follow-up album, in which he is resurrected, would come out on Easter Sunday. It feels like a relief when the renowned New York d.j. Kid Capri, a voice from a different era, pops up between tracks to play the role of the hype man, as though to remind you that what you are listening to is still hip-hop, not holy scripture.
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