On Good Friday, was anyone praying for Kendrick Lamar?
The rapper himself questions it on his newest album, “DAMN.”
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.