On his 2011 mixtape Section.80, Kendrick Lamar was trying out a lot of different styles and gathering up what kind of a musician he wanted to be. He came into his own on 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, a concept-record about his upbringing and life in Compton, CA. On the follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick took jazz & g-funk influences to create an introspective rap epic about dealing with his past in the spotlight and being a black musician in America.
The closest thing to DAMN. that we probably have is untitled unmastered., the collection of b-sides and rarities that didn’t make To Pimp a Butterfly that Kendrick released just last year. That record encompassed some of Kendrick’s most aggressive material when it was released such as “Untitled 1” and “Untitled 2 (Get Top on the Phone),” yet it also included some tracks like “Untitled 6” with Cee-Lo Green and “Untitled 8 (Blue Faces)” that still demonstrated Kendrick’s need for the track to groove. If anything, the diverse, aggressively-toned, and melodically transfixing “Untitled 7 (Levitate)” turned out to be the closest to the sound of DAMN., what I believe to be something of Kendrick Lamar’s version of The Life of Pablo.
Like Kanye, Kendrick’s record tackles inner-anxieties about how the world treats him through intense, innovative, and sometimes unsettling music, interjecting samples, and comparing himself to biblical figures in an attempt to martyr his struggles and enhance his greatness. It’s not to say that DAMN. or Kendrick Lamar are by any way un-original or derivative, but just to make comparison for comparison’s sake, as to better understand how Kendrick stands on this record. While DAMN. might be similar in many ways to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, it is in its own right the follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly.
At the end of To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has a mock-interview with his idol, the deceased Tupac Shakur, only to realize at the end that Tupac is gone and everything has fallen onto him. Kicking off DAMN. with “BLOOD.,” Kendrick describes a conversation with an old, blind woman, in which he asks to help find what she’s dropped and lost, before she shoots and kills him, thus ending Kendrick’s life. What could be viewed simply as an old, blind woman’s weakness turned out to be wickedness, which Kendrick outlines before the story kicks in, I view as something much more.
The blind woman, to me, is Lady Justice—a woman who wields a balance in one hand and a sword in the other. She is blindfolded, as to show that justice is impartial. Her balance symbolizes weighing fair decisions, and her sword acts as a symbol of strength and honor of the judicial code. In Kendrick’s opener however, we are presented with a pacing and frustrated Lady Justice that is meant to represent the ignorant and fearful America of today; a Lady Justice who has dropped her things and has lost her way.
From the presidency all the way down to police brutality, black men and women of all ages are being treated with a rise of racism and are sometimes even gunned down in the street. It’s a scary time, one that was just described in Joey Bada$$’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, and countless other releases from the past two years: ScHoolboy Q, Solange, Jamila Woods, YG, T.I., Big K.R.I.T., and tons more. It was even a major theme of Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which functioned as an allegory for his own inner-demons. The same correlation exists here on DAMN. as well. As much as Lady Justice might have lost her way, the old woman also symbolizes the general public. Kendrick feels that with his music, and To Pimp a Butterfly, he tried to help his people and talk to America about the issues at hand, but regardless people are still ignorant to the problem and black people are still being persecuted. “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?”
The altercation results in Kendrick’s death on the album’s opener, and the rest of DAMN. consists of Kendrick’s life flashing back before his eyes, analyzing and commenting on his inner-most issues in today’s political climate. “DNA.” and “YAH.” tackle the anger he feels towards such an ignorant mindset, sampling the critique of his black-power single “Alright” in which FOX News’ Geraldo Rivera stated that “hip-hop has done more damage for young African Americans than racism.”
“Most of y’all been advised,” he says on “ELEMENT.,” “last LP I tried to lift the black artists, but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.” Kendrick’s here to set the game straight, again. We can make good protest music he says, even “if I gotta go hard on a bitch, I’m a make it look sexy. They won’t take me out my element.”
Lyrically of course, DAMN. is dense just like any Kendrick record, but like what he does on “ELEMENT.,” it can’t be put aside how diverse and important the music is as well. In an interview with The Fader, producer Terrace Martin stated that “LOYALTY.” was being made at the same time as To Pimp a Butterfly:
We were already saying like, ‘Yo, you know we are trying to do what we didn’t do before.’ So we knew that the more extreme we went on Butterfly — musically and using influences from different genres of older music — that he was gonna use a different, opposite energy for the next record.
With the gut-wrenching intensity of “DNA.,” the groove of “HUMBLE.,” the sweet sounds of “LOVE.” and the heartbreak of “FEAR.,” the classic Kendrick sound is still present within all of DAMN.’s greatest musical moments, but it’s a very different kind of intensity than Butterfly was. It might not be the anti-Butterfly kind of difference when it comes to sound, but definitely the “opposite energy” that Kendrick and Martin had intended. On DAMN. Kendrick is angry, depressed, violent, paranoid, anxious, and scrutinizing—especially about his own contradictions and inner-turmoil. These emotions are equally portrayed within the music and production itself, adding another deep and intensely thought-provoking album from Kendrick Lamar that pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a rapper.
In an amazing speech-like emotional arc, “FEEL.” encompasses every aspect of Kendrick’s thoughts on DAMN. It’s a track with lyrical acrobatics that explains just how angered, lost and conflicted he feels. On “ELEMENT.” he chants “I don’t give a fuck” seconds before declaring that he’s “willing to die for this shit.” “Most of ya’ll tell lies,” he says, but not Kendrick, he believes that we’re complex people with complex ideas. Rihanna sings that “it’s so hard to be humble” on “LOYALTY.,” but it foreshadows his track “HUMBLE.,” a sit-down message to other rappers, later on the record. His struggles with “PRIDE.” and “LUST.” are sang with the same voice from To Pimp a Butterfly when “the evils of Lucy” were all around him. He’s for gun control on the surprisingly great U2 feature “XXX.,” but is conflicted when presented with a hypothetical: “if someone killed my son, then somebody gettin’ killed.”
“Damned if I do, if I don’t,” he says on “ELEMENT.” As all these thoughts and hypothetical contradictions flash before his eyes, even name-dropping two of the song titles on “XXX.,” his life is still ended on the opening track. “Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of all the memories collected, moments you could never touch.” He accepts death and fame on “GOD.,” right after expressing his final thoughts in “FEAR.” “Why god do I gotta suffer? I don’t think I could find a way to make it on this Earth.” On the last track, “DUCKWORTH.,” he explains a true story between his label-owner and his father that could have ended in a violent altercation, but instead led to Kendrick being signed years later.
His life could have ended right there before it ever began, but instead he got to become a rapper, one often cited as the best rapper alive, and use his voice to try and better the world. Nevertheless, his “death” comes anyway, as he feels like his actions didn’t save anyone or change anything. It’s a heartbreaking album of a rapper wrought with how the world treats him and his people, and feeling truly helpless towards his ability to do anything about it.
At the end, the record reverses in time, stopping right before he’s shot at the beginning of “BLOOD.” “Is this how it all ends?” he basically asks. “Am I just going to be another black man shot in the street or do my words have purpose?” It’s not for him to decide though, it’s up to us, as he says on the intro. Kendrick might be pouring his heart out to get the message across, but we’re the ones who have to actually make a difference. “You decide, are we gonna live or die?”