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On Good Friday, was anyone praying for Kendrick Lamar?

The rapper himself ques­tions it on his newest album, “DAMN.”

Rapper Kendrick Lamar released his latest album Friday. Wiki­media Commons

 

The internet burst into flame emojis as the Lamar’s fourth album went online overnight on April 14, yanking fans awake for a 55-minute look into the prominent rapper’s con­sciousness. Rumors of a second album coming on Easter turned to ashes after Lamar’s Sunday Coachella per­for­mance estab­lished his new identity as “Kung Fu Kenny,” but didn’t tease any more material.

Kendrick Lamar Duck­worth, a Compton native who gained under­ground attention with his 2010 mixtape “Overly Ded­i­cated,” has been labeled “con­scious” and “lyrical” since he caught the eye of pro­ducer-rapper Dr. Dre and released the album “Section. 80” in 2011. Several years later, Lamar has evolved from a Compton martyr to hip-hop’s frus­trated torch-bearer.

On “DAMN.,” the Compton MC has taken a breath long enough to ded­icate an entire album to just rapping about himself. This is the most intimate Lamar has ever been with his lis­teners, after a series of projects which veiled the artist in his own art. Since Lamar received a physical torch from Snoop Dogg onstage at an Los Angeles concert in 2011, the lyricist has approached his craft with a keen awareness of the grand expec­ta­tions for his music.This new work is a direct statement on what the rapper loves and fears most, the regrets he still carries from his past, and most of all, the ever-growing sus­picion that his friends, even his family, might not have his back when he needs them most.

“Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a dif­ference ‘tween black artists and wack artists,” Lamar says on “ELEMENT.,” rapping melod­i­cally in a style not unlike his con­tem­porary Drake. There is no need to establish cred­i­bility for Kendrick Lamar in 2017. The rapper devotes the album to reminding his audience and peers that, yes, he can please through both head­phones and boom­boxes.

For the first time since he started releasing albums, Lamar dis­cusses his life in the present. His sig­nature skits, sto­ry­telling, and cul­tural com­mentary are not wholly absent, but this album, unlike his pre­vious projects, seems focused on the rapper himself.

“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” breathe distant vocals on the opener “BLOOD.” The rapper’s inner turmoil, ref­er­enced on “u” and other tracks of 2015’s “To Pimp A But­terfly,” per­meates his new release. The 14-track album offers lis­teners a focused look into the celebrity’s struggle between pride and humility as he con­fronts crit­icism and ques­tions the loyalty of his friends and family.

“DAMN.” is not merely an attempt at out­doing the complex con­cepts on his last album, nor is it an auto­bi­o­graphical work like “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” It is an honest expression of Lamar as a person, an honest-to-God rap album punc­tuated with bible verses and shoutouts from the late Big L’s pro­ducer Kid Capri.

The cul­tural obsession with Lamar’s thoughts on other rappers, police bru­tality, pol­itics, and religion has failed to ask him what he thinks of himself. These topics are still present, but they are men­tioned in passing and left to hang in the back­ground. This album isn’t solely con­cerned with uplifting Lamar’s com­munity or explaining the rapper’s roots.

Lamar’s latest project lacks the jazz influ­ences of its pre­de­cessors, opting instead for sharp staccato beats. His vocal pitch changes throughout the album, rewarding longtime fans with a taste of each of his former projects. Lis­teners hoping for “bangers” will be pleased with his most aggressive leadoff song to date, “DNA.,” as well as the hit single “HUMBLE.” and a well-exe­cuted col­lab­o­ration with U2 on “XXX.” However, this is not an album simply packed with lyrical trunk-knockers. Lamar courts radio appeal on his work with singers Rihanna on “LOYALTY.” and Zacari on “LOVE.” His singing on “YAH.” and “GOD.” isn’t as impressive as the several tracks where the rapper examines himself in lyri­cally-dense verses over mellow instru­mentals.

For Lamar, loyalty is para­mount. Loyalty to his city, his family, his fiance, and the rapper himself. “FEAR.” finds Lamar rapping three verses in which he describes his childhood fear of his mother, his teenage fear of death, and his current fear of failure, encap­su­lating the album’s purpose “within 14 tracks carried out over wax / won­derin’ if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.”

“DUCKWORTH.” closes the album with the unbe­lievable origin story that details how Lamar’s manager Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith could have shot the rapper’s father while robbing a Ken­tucky Fried Chicken. Instead, Tiffith spared his life in exchange for free chicken. Later he turned his own life around and found himself in a studio with that man and his son. Lamar closes the track rapping, “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coin­ci­dence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gun­fight.”

This final bar is punc­tuated with a gunshot, echoing the one heard at the end of “BLOOD.” The entire album rewinds, returning to the nar­ration of that first track, “So I was taking a walk the other day.” There is no mys­te­rious second disc attached to “DAMN.” The 14 tracks illu­minate Kung Fu Kenny’s per­spective on sin, loyalty, and his place in 21st-century America’s rap scene.