Image Courtesy of Genius
By Joey Brasco
Kendrick Lamar has returned. Five years since his last solo release, the acclaimed Compton rapper has announced his forthcoming album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” slated for release on May 13.
As fans await the artistic direction this new album will take, it feels appropriate to reflect on his past musical achievements. Before DAMN., Kendrick had built a reputation for sprawling, conceptual rap albums that wove together intricate narratives. Both good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) conveyed his struggles with faith, fame, and the black experience to great effect. DAMN. (2017) touches on many of the same themes, but in a more abstract, disjointed manner, reflecting the disillusioned state Kendrick exudes on the cover art and music of this album.
Many will associate this record primarily with the massive hits it spawned. Tracks like “DNA.,” “LOYALTY. (ft. Rhianna),” and “HUMBLE.” were huge for Kendrick. “HUMBLE.” in particular defined 2017 upon its release with its iconic keys and titanic presentation. Kendrick adopts a satirically simplistic delivery on this track, asserting his dominance by dipping his toes into trendier production. While it is certainly novel to hear Kendrick rap over booming trap production, it lacks the emotional weight and intelligent lyricism that makes him such a compelling artist.
“DNA.” does not falter in the slightest, and remains to this day a fiery display of Kendrick’s greatness. Over an instrumental featuring slick guitar leads and pummeling bass, he raps boastful bars proclaiming the attributes that shape his DNA.
He raps: “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle, though, ambition flow inside my DNA.”
The second half of the song implodes into a chopped sample of singer Rick James. This sample plays along with interjections of audio from a Fox News segment critiquing the impact of Kendrick’s music. This clip is referenced on multiple points on the album and seems to have deeply disturbed Kendrick, as the hosts claim that his music is damaging to the black community. The cacophony of the Fox News segment audio and the Rick James sample makes for a chaotic mix that Kendrick wades through with tremendous poise, defending his character with unflappable energy.
“LOYALTY.” features Kendrick and Rhianna trading refrains about faithfulness and the allures of various vices. All of this plays over a warped sample of Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” and thumping percussion.
Kendrick and Rhianna question: “Is it anybody that you would lie for? / Anybody you would die for?,” before concluding, “That’s what God for.”
Faith is an integral piece to this album’s core themes. On the track “FEEL.,” Kendrick delivers rapid-fire flows over a sobering vocal sample and snappy percussion. The spacious atmosphere of the production gives his words plenty of breathing room, which he uses to wax poetic on societal problems, culminating in his summation that “ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.”
“ELEMENT.” sees Kendrick forgoing his faith to aggressively posture himself as king of the rap game. For such a confrontational barrage of lyrics, he utilizes a calm and smooth flow. This gives his performance an aura of supreme confidence in what he is saying.
He raps: “I’m willin’ to die for this s**t / might take a life for this s**t / put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this s**t.”
The tracklist continues to shine with “PRIDE.,” which is more of a rock-cut as opposed to rap. With its stilted guitar chords and kaleidoscopic, ghostly backing vocals, the song is transcendental. The lyrical focus hones in on the idea that we have to serve someone or something in life.
Kendrick reflects this theme with the lyrics, “happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question?” imploring listeners to reflect on where their priorities lie.
Maybe the most striking moment on DAMN. is “FEAR.,” where Kendrick outlines the various anxieties that have plagued him in different stages of his life. The first verse delves into memories of his mother scolding him for ditching school and talking back. He frequently interjects his verse with proclamations of “I’ll beat your ass,” recounting his mother’s threats to him.
The chorus features Kendrick crooning, “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that m*********r up / And then I’d take two puffs.”
Verses two and three are a nice callback to the narrative Kendrick had built around his career trajectory on his last two albums. Verse two sees his anxieties toward gangs in his neighborhood of Compton, CA threatening his life whereas verse three details his paranoia about losing the wealth he has now accumulated.
DAMN. stands as a bleak collection of vignettes painted by an artist amidst a world in decline. Kendrick paints pictures of collapsing racial relations, materialism, and loss of faith throughout the record. The themes Kendrick chooses to reflect on in his music give it a layer of depth lacking in most music today.
With his new record fast approaching, it will be interesting to see how he has grown artistically. For now, DAMN. occupies a complicated space that demands revaluation and multiple listens. Peeling back the intricate layers of each track reveals the cluttered and sprawling mindset of a highly intelligent, jaded artist in his element.