Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?
As Kendrick Lamar albums go, this one is his most subtle one ever, at least as far as large-scale album spanning concepts go. All of his work so far just has to be enjoyed as a total album experience rather than as individual songs that just happened to be released at the same time. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City tells a very obvious story of the titular good kid in a city which acts as a machine operating against him, whatever he does to rail against that. That sort of desperate totality of gang-life and the nothing-elseness of it is laid out in front of you plainly but with a lot of grace and subtlety. To Pimp A Butterfly could be one of the most important musical projects of our generation, using song after song, each one adding a couple of verses to a desolate but ultimately hopeful poem he had been reciting to Tupac all along.
DAMN. doesn’t wear it’s concept on its sleeve. Certain resonances through the fourteen tracks that make up this LP are obvious from first listen. Or even first look. Similarly themed songs are put next to each other in pairs. BLOOD. and DNA. LUST. and LOVE. GOD. and DUCKWORTH. And even though the story elements are less pervasive, they are there. The album opens with a parable of sorts that loops back in on itself in very interesting ways.
The real elements that tie this album together, though, are these little leitmotifs: these lyrics or lines that are occasionally shouted, whispered, growled, moaned and screamed in several odd places through this album:
Whatever happens on earth stays on earth.
ain’t nobody prayin’ for me
And that cements DAMN.’s place as the successor to To Pimp A Butterfly. TPaB was an album that reflected back to the burden of history on this race of people in America and also looked forward with cautious hope for a brighter future. This hope was very solidly placed in the context of his own faith.
When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright
- Alright, To Pimp A Butterfly
A few of those lines are heard in DAMN. as well but in an entirely different context. Kendrick samples a voice clip of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera.
This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years
Rivera says after quoting the aforementioned Alright lines. He excludes the part about being alright though.
Kendrick Lamar does the same thing on DAMN. This isn’t an album about being alright. This is an album about week knees and blowing guns, about lust as a vice and love as a crutch, about hardwired ambition and hardwired wickedness struggling for supremacy in very young, very malleable souls, about damnation, about curses, about punishment and about no buts. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no hope for salvation.
There is only this all pervading sense of damnation. This is the forty years in the wilderness album.
Kendrick alludes to that himself in XXX., the most politically charged song of an already politically charged LP.
Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?
- XXX., DAMN.
It’s easy to see how much has changed in the two years since To Pimp A Butterfly. XXX also reveals how conflicting faith has become for Kendrick Lamar since that other record.
Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?
It’s been a fucked up day for me
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”
He was lookin’ for some closure
Hopin’ I could bring him closer
To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch
I’ll wait in front a niggas spot and watch him hit his block
I’ll catch a nigga leavin’ service if that’s all I got
I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial
Let somebody touch my mama
Touch my sister, touch my woman
Touch my daddy, touch my niece
Touch my nephew, touch my brother
You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
What I always loved about Kendrick was how, unlike other Christian rappers, he addressed the complexity of the world he lived in. But his religion was always a stable anchor, holding him down while the storms raged around him. Now, even that is up in the air.
And what’s frightening, but also rather beautiful is that there is a totality to this concept. God in this album is the fire and brimstone God of the Old Testament and Kendrick and his kin are the Israelites, sinning, paying for that sin and going eye for an eye for that shit.
All of this is a tad unnerving, especially for the faithful among us for whom Lacrae just doesn’t cut it and have been listening to Lamar with pride for years now. But, it isn’t very unbiblical. If you think it is, you haven’t been paying attention to your Psalms. In fact, that’s the most obvious vibe you can catch from this album: a man of God grappling with some frame of reference to put suffering into perspective. Job is mentioned once and the comparison is apt, though quite obvious.
Even the ‘blasphemous’ GOD. feels more weary and sarcastic than any real attempt a chest-puff.
But the overall message is what we’re all here for, yes? That’s what Kendrick Lamar does best. Tie fourteen tracks together to tell a story. A prose-poem. A novel in verse.
The leitmotifs reveal what I think he’s trying to say and the message is possibly one of the most complex ideas he’s ever grappled with.
Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me. He has been pushed up as the spiritual figurehead of a fallen, immoral generation. But who prays for the pastor? And what if the pastor doesn’t have any easy answer? What if the pastor himself feels like he can’t quite bring himself to turn the other cheek when his momma, his sister, his nephew, his niece, his cousin, his woman, his daddy or his brother is on the line.
Whatever happens on earth stays on earth. That is the only comfort this wounded, conflicted pastor has to offer. But he doesn’t quite come out and talk about the better place outside this earth. Because this album isn’t about that. This album is about earth and about wickedness and weakness and all of us struggling under the weight of random circumstances and souls and free will.
And he doesn’t give you this message through fuzzy old drums and synths intercut with friendly voice recordings or with comforting jazz and brass. He speaks in the language of 2017. Trap beats, Rihanna features, wickedness and weakness.
You can buy DAMN. here.