On Easter Sunday, Kendrick Lamar took the stage as the final headliner at Coachella, the monstrous music festival on the edge of the Californian desert. A couple things were notable: DAMN., Lamar’s third major-label album, had only been available for 72 hours to that point, but its songs had already been absorbed by hordes of sunburned, wristbanded fans who shouted the new songs’ lyrics back at the artist. Then there was the fact that Lamar started his set with “DNA,” an instant contender for the hardest, most confrontational song in his catalog.
He fumbled. His voice was shaky, his body language unsure. It wasn’t until the fourth song, To Pimp a Butterfly’s “King Kunta,” that Kendrick seemed to shake out the cobwebs and become fully present. From there, it was on. The next song, “untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016” (colloquially “Levitate”) saw him dart around the stage, swaggering into each new hook and tangent. The set ended up an overwhelming success, a magnetic turn from someone who’s usually described in print as quiet and withdrawn. And it was songs from DAMN. (a motionless deadpan of “LUST.,” “LOVE.” in an effusive encore) that drove the performance with their clarity of purpose and skeletal construction. It was as if a thorough exploration of every ill DAMN. deals with—insecurity, shame, loss of faith—can make those things melt away, at least one night at a time.
Let’s back up. At one point on DAMN., Kendrick Lamar asks you to picture him and his friends huddled around a hotel TV in early November, holding paper coffee cups and fretting about the election results. While the record’s subtext is certainly what it’s like to be famous, black and in America, in any combination, it’s really about things far older than this country and far graver than Soundscan numbers. DAMN. is about faith and how it dissolves. It’s about God and what’s good and, at one key moment, even fate. It feels like a sweltering Los Angeles summer. It feels immense and unforgettable even before the dust has settled.
In a way, DAMN. is like other notable head fakes from the rap canon—think De La Soul Is Dead or Nas’ It Was Written for the Trump years. Rather than nurture a reputation as something close to a conscious rapper (with all its attendant baggage and misrepresentation), Lamar has crafted a minimal, immediate album. This is not about matters of aesthetics or artistic class; it’s about the soul and what you’re willing to do to save it.
The record opens with “DNA,” which is designed to rattle trunks. It does that, and adds a string of taunts and threats for good measure, but it hinges on a clip of two Fox News anchors, who take a line from Kendrick’s work about the state murdering black civilians and laugh it off, without the decency even to offer a rebuttal. This is a sort of damnation, to be sure. “YAH.” is sunbaked and subdued but relays terrifying messages from the Old Testament. And despite the sheer joy it brings to hear Lamar interpolate Juvenile’s “Ha” on “ELEMENT.,” there are deaths to fake and Havana villas to lock down.
The album ends with “DUCKWORTH,” a jaw-dropping tale of coincidence in which a gangster spares the life of a friendly KFC employee—only the gangster is Top Dawg and the KFC employee is Lamar’s father. DAMN.’s framing device (which is referenced sparingly) is that, in an alternate timeline where Lamar’s father is dead, Lamar is forced to grow up without him and ends up murdered himself. Each song’s theme, as indicated by its single-word title, is something Lamar has to understand or exorcise. If that sounds like a lot of somber, circular writing over staid beats, don’t worry: that couldn’t be further from the truth.
DAMN. is an album about faith evaporating and lives unraveling, where the two are tied inextricably.
Lamar lets songs breathe and take their own shape. Instead of being about their titular emotions, “LUST.” and “LOVE.” sound exactly like them. “LUST.” doesn’t present itself as a moral quandary, because lust erases or at least dulls those moral concerns. It slinks through bedsheets and Facebook chat and grams of weed, smirking but vaguely sinister. “LOVE.” doesn’t sound like the climactic scene of a movie; it sounds like the exuberant song you hear during the credits, walking toward the car with the person you’re falling in love with. It’s about texting your girl from the freeway to let her know you’re just an exit away.
There are obvious hits (on “LOYALTY.” Rihanna raps better than most of the rappers in regular radio rotation) and songs that move languidly (“PRIDE.” and the aforementioned “YAH.”). But the consistent thread is a virtuosic performance from Lamar. The Compton native has reached the point where a song like “FEEL.,” which really only needs to be deep background for those hoping to unlock the album’s themes, could serve as a technical clinic for younger rappers.
DAMN.’s producers, an impressive team headed by DJ Dahi, Sounwave and Mike WiLL Made-It, generally keep things lean and direct. At times, their beats—and Kendrick’s vocal performances, to be sure—borrow liberally from the rap ether. “HUMBLE.” owes a major debt to Pittsburgh rapper Jimmy Wopo’s “Elm Street,” and it’s hard to imagine “LOVE.” or “GOD.” without Young Thug or Future as blueprints. (“LOVE.” in particular sounds like Thug heard “21 Questions” at the dentist’s office and updated it for 2017.) But the sourcing goes back even further: “XXX.” summons the ghost of “South Bronx” and, after all, the album is narrated by Kid Capri, the legendary DJ who can conjure the Clinton era through the echo on his vocals alone.
And yet the most important source material on DAMN. might be the voicemails left by Kendrick’s pious cousin Carl Duckworth on the staggering “FEAR.” Where those voicemails begin and end is sometimes unclear; some begin abruptly, others fade out until they get lost in the din. That’s how religion can move through people. On one hand, how can you feel truly at peace if you feel your family and friends are filtering your behavior through texts that are thousands of years old and have been translated and reworked countless times? On the other, if it weren’t to quote Deuteronomy, would Carl be calling his cousin at all? The shape of the family can follow the shape of the Scripture, and the lines between the two begin to blur. DAMN. is an album about faith evaporating and lives unraveling, where the two are tied inextricably.
Maybe DAMN. is best understood as a companion piece to good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Where good kid is about the material forces (guns, gang signs, even fast food) that shaped Lamar in his formative years, DAMN. digs into the broader, psychic forces that gnaw on the corner of his brain to this day. “FEAR.” alone spans 20 years, from Kendrick’s mother threatening him into lying to social workers, to 2015, when he was an internationally acclaimed rapper but found himself writing knotty verses about nervous breakdowns in hotel rooms.
Speaking of 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly’s deconstruction of celebrity casts an interesting light on a line from “XXX”: “Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again.” Kendrick knows Obama, at least superficially (he says as much on “HUMBLE.”), and the now-former president has lavished praise on the rapper’s work. How does Lamar imagine Obama’s inner life? Obama is a brilliant man who developed a specific skillset, then overcame long odds and was allowed to put those tools to use in a public and supremely unforgiving forum. DAMN. seems like a 55-minute grappling match with that very situation, and the fallout that comes with it.
Read our 2016 story “Hip-hop and President Obama: The Final Chapter of a Complicated Relationship” here.