Kendrick Lamar embodies cyclical Black consciousness on newest LP 'DAMN.'
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Although scholars contest the dates, Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period is set between 1901 and 1904. Reeling from a close friend’s suicide, Pablo descended into a deep depression, blue tones soon coming to dominate his canvases. As bright hues darkened, so too did subject matter, his artwork devolving into bleak narratives of prostitutes, beggars and drunks. Struggling through poverty as consequence, this period marks his first shift away from classicism into what ultimately solidified into Cubism.
DAMN. opens with an arrangement of mellow strings reminiscent of Hans Zimmer. Kendrick’s tone is gentle, reserved, tranquil. Reminiscing, he recalls a woman – a blind woman – who is frustrated because she’s dropped something precious. Lady Justice has misplaced her balance scales. In prototypical hyperconscious fashion, Lamar alludes to the eroding integrity of American political life. Watching Lady Liberty struggle, Kendrick approaches, kindly offering to help. He points out that she’s lost something. She responds, “Oh, yes. You have lost something. You’ve lost… your life.”
Lamar is shot. Is it wickedness?
Spiraling out of a Fox News segment, the album abruptly transitions into the most colossal braggadocio banger of Lamar’s career: “I got, I got, I got, I got / Loyalty, I got royalty, inside my DNA / Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace, inside my DNA / I got power, poison, pain and joy, inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.” In trademark Mike WiLL Made-It fashion, a dark, groaning baseline oozes against a guitar modulated down into the twang of a holy sitar. Towards the back half of “DNA.,” a vocal proclaiming “gimme some ganja” is abrasively mixed into the track. Alongside Kendrick’s ruthless rhythm, the song masterfully reflects our modern, oversaturated, GIMME-GIMME-GIMME-GIMME-GIMME-GIMME-post-internet multiracial consciousness.
From Section.80 through to last year’s untitled unmastered., Kendrick has been continually fusing west coast gangsta with jazz, funk, soul and spoken word, bridging the avant-garde with the accessible. It’s easy to forget that the man who did “Backseat Freestyle” is the same one who did “i.”
What marks DAMN. as an inflection point in Kendrick Lamar’s evolution is its stripped-down, Spartan sound; it’s surprising that Rick Rubin doesn’t have any production credits. Although there is a curious departure into dance & electronic in “LOYALTY.,” “LOVE.” and through the synths of “GOD.,” the album is largely centered around inflected soul and hard-hitting, classical hip hop. It’s telling that jazz-influenced, frequent collaborator Thundercat is only credited on a single bassline.
Lamar’s interests have pivoted, his focus tightened. In Jobsian fashion, the album’s minimal is its most mosaic. Between the layers of sonic complexity, BADBADNOTGOOD-assisted “LUST.” is a standout. The track opens with a waterlogged psychedelic riff: a tune reminiscent of Hendrix’s nasal solos on Electric Ladyland. A cyclical filter sweep is tucked between guitar and the vocals, its closest cousin the spellbinding whoosh of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.” Make no mistake, this is a rap track: one with bars grafted between Atlanta-trap-deriven-triplicate-Hi-Hats. While Kendrick has long been one to explore unconventional percussion (See: “Momma”), here we see the furthest he’s ever delved into the experimental left-field. For the first half of the track, kicks and snares are noticeably absent. When they do appear, they show up for one, two, three beats and then disappear for another four, five, seven. The sound resembles footwork’s surgical DNA splicing much more than traditional snare-driven hip hop. At very few points of the track are all elements in play, either: it’s usually just one or two sounds. “LUST.” does not feature Kendrick’s most complicated drumkit nor his most dynamic vocals. Rather, the song’s intrigue is in its sheer precision, the calculated technicality through which its sounds morph.
“DUCKWORTH.” is some of Kendrick’s most soul-heavy work to date. Layered samples compete for with his rhymes for space, similar to his verse on No More Parties in LA, track 17 of Kanye’s most recent effort, The Life of Pablo. Yet, the album’s slowed-down, soulful minimalism isn’t without its contrast. In fact, DAMN. is further proof that no rapper alive has the aesthetic versatility of Lamar. On “XXX.,” Lamar ventures into the industrial, rapping over police sirens mixed down to sound exactly like they were lifted from Need for Speed: Most Wanted. On “FEAR.,” the bridge is looped backwards, and it sounds as if he’s been divinely possessed by the Holy Spirit, prophesying in ancient tongue.
Rising from the bleak depths of depression, Picasso’s entered a new era near the end of 1904: The Rose Period. Although most of posthumous-Picasso-interest is centered on the Blue Period, it was only in the Rose period that the technical foundations of Picasso’s later abstraction would begin to crystallize. Themes of solitude and despair evolved into pink and orange compositions that articulated cheer and question.
Kendrick Lamar is an artist first and rapper second. Although his product is packaged as ‘music,’ his medium is language, and his work strives to extend beyond the bounds of lyrical form. His rap stretches into poetry and spoken word, and his albums are cinematic. The cover of good kid, m.A.A.d city has the words ‘A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar’ scribbled onto it. Beyond his bridge between word and film, Kendrick utilizes artwork to exhibit content and give flesh to aesthetic. Greens, blues, browns, greys and blacks dominate all his past covers. While the straight grey of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly reflects its blunt, detached, sociopolitical truth, the fusion of color in his other work reflects an earthly calmness: a calmness under which deep, nested tensions brew.
DAMN. is red — devilishly so. Donning a plain-white tee, Kendrick stares at the camera, eyeballs lowered, his expression one of possession, one in need of exorcism. “In my DNA / In my DNA / In my DNA.” Rhythmic repetition stretches across the LP. “Ain’t nobody praying for me / Ain’t nobody praying for me / Ain’t nobody praying for me.” The litany is cathartic, dogmatic, Gregorian. “I’ll probably die / I’ll probably die / I’ll probably die.” Although Lamar is oft mistaken for a preachy, middle school substitute teacher, on DAMN., his themes and his lyrics are tightly wound, largely internal. Track by track, he digs deeper into his own black consciousness, distilling the conflicting beliefs, influences, and obligations into abstract values — “PRIDE.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.” — never forgetting his fleshly physicality — “BLOOD.,” “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.” In effect, DAMN. is more akin to Lamarian-stream-of-consciousness than prototypical "bars."
Between 1906 and 1907, Picasso became spellbound by African sculpture and artifact, tugged between the refinement of classicism and the open bounds of abstraction. Although his work was not yet full fledged cubist, the elements of structural decomposition and reassembly intensified. Proportions exaggerated; subject form morphed; the palette of his past periods harmonized. Scholars refer to this as the Negro Period.
On “Mortal Man,” 2Pac warns, “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out of the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be bloodshed, for real. I don’t think America know that.”
DAMN. opens with “BLOOD.”
Although we live in one of the most animated periods of political activism in recent memory, Kendrick still looks out and sees stagnancy. On “FEEL.” Kendrick rhymes “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ ‘Pac was [having] / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’ / But nothin’ is awkward, the feeling won’t prosper / The feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons, monsters, false prophets, schemin’ sponsors, industry promises, niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton, Church, religion, token black, and bondage.”
Lamar is suffocated by what’s around him. He is trapped, lost, unsure of what more he can do, unsure of what more he can change. He’s said what needed to be said; he’s done what needed to be done. Yet, he stills looks out and sees the same injustice that inspired him to compose To Pimp a Butterfly.
On DAMN., Kendrick comes to terms with the fact that he is just one rapper, one man, one soul. It takes more than one to solve our entrenched social tensions, more than one to achieve universal equality. Lamar has known that — all along, he has. Yet, through the album’s nested anguish, he continues to grapple with his role as the face of the ever-evolving Black Consciousness. To Pimp a Butterfly made its importance sufficiently clear, DAMN. marks its furthest examination, its highest magnification.
His deepest critique of our mass social paralysis is on “FEAR.” Kendrick’s cousin — Carl — opens the track. A devoted Christian, he is convicted to the belief that God is punishing his family — alleged true Israelites — for disobedience. Lamar spends the majority of the track reflecting on his own fears: reminiscing of a home life where the threat of domestic abuse looms large, recalling the fear of dying as a young teen in Compton, acknowledging his present worries over losing his newfound wealth and success. Lamar makes it clear that even after he’s left home, even after he’s sold his records, even after he’s ‘made it,’ he’s still driven by fear — to the point that he would even smoke it.
DAMN. concludes with a tale of a seasoned gangbanger and an innocent Kentucky Fried Chicken employee. The narrative’s moral: free chicken and extra biscuits. The simplest of gestures can generate the most significant change. He concludes: “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ for life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” Just as we’re given a penetrating glimpse into one of Kendrick’s deepest held truths, the final consonant ‘t’ blends into a rewind, one that zips back through the album, back to Lamar’s first line: “So I was taking a walk the other day.”
The entirety of DAMN. compresses into a snapshot: a single snapshot beseeching relisten. So we push play, again. Just like that, Kendrick is shot, again. We dive into his personal struggle, again. And just like last the last listen, the album ends with another restoration to origin. It’s a manifestation of the cyclical course of unjust African American death. Few still talk about Trayvon; few still talk about Michael. But in the moment, we obsess over the details, we delve into the history, we join struggle. We say, "this death, this murder, this will be one that will change things.” But then fear overtakes us. And we forget. And the cycle continues.