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.
Fans of either artist who read this (lol, who am I kidding, I pray every night for more than one person to read these scraps of nonsense also thank you mom) will go through the whole tearing their hair out, sackcloth and ashes routine.
A more likely question to be floating around in your noggin right now, dear reader (mom), would be: “Why are you talking about that chauvinistic egomaniac freak in 2017 and also who the fuck is Laura Marling?”
To answer your first question, because he’s interesting. We have more than enough bland reflections on life and the inner journey pumped out year after year by independant record labels and listened to by pubescent girls in their chokers and winged eyeliner pretending that abhorring Justin Bieber, Drake and those four Irish boys with peculiar hair whilst adoring electronic indie trite (OH WONDER) ridden with more ‘piercing the fabric of the intellect’ platitudes than the bedroom of an educated stoner. Where’s the edge? Where’s the balls to do something properly different in the confines of pop-expectations? Kanye stole all of the balls.
Who’s Laura Marling? Laura Marling is the only one all the critics took seriously from the whole Communion group that we called nu-folk that was taking over London in 2010. She’s also the one who’s been most artistically consistent out of the whole lot. Noah and the Whale wrote a break up album and then disappeared. Mumford & Sons remodelled themselves into a rock outfit and wove out and then back into my heart. But Laura Marling has been singing about the same things she’s been singing about since she was seventeen. Melancholia and the burden of womanhood.
Only, with her, you could always buy that. She always looked burdened by something very elusive. Maybe she didn’t know it was femininity when she was sixteen. But this has been a sort of touchstone for almost every album she’s ever done. The juxtaposition (I love that word, can’t you tell) between so many different emotions, all relating to womanhood has been something she’s been obsessed with. The power it brings, the responsibility, the frailty, the fickle nature, the vulnerability, the demand to deny that vulnerability, &ct. Her feminism is always heartfelt and earnest.
So is Kanye’s masculinity. This is where things get a little un-PC because I’m going to have to defend Kanye’s chauvinism. I like to think of it more as violent masculinity, though. And that violence permeates the album Yeezus from the word go. It is abrasive and hostile from the beginning to end. But, there’s something very insecure in the middle of all of this as well. The art isn’t insecure, for certain. And it isn’t overcompensating, whatever that means. People who make claims like that don’t really understand Kanye as an art form.
Kanye as a person, I’ll be the first to admit, even I don’t understand. But Kanye the artist is undeniably extremely talented. We could talk for hours here about his production skills (and Miss Marling’s guitar skills) but let’s cut right to the chase and explore what both these artists are all about and also what they have in common. Which happens to be the same thing.
If you pick apart all of Kanye’s oeuvre for a theme, the best answer would be identity. That identity is a fluid concept is something Kanye knows all too well. There is something very self obsessed with Kanye’s sense of identity but that is what is so genius about the whole thing. In the framework of rap, introspection (and it’s leaner, meaner cousin narcissism) rarely ever stand out. To brag is the norm. And that basically gives Kanye a ticket to explore every facet of his own psyche and identity he wishes to from his Christianity to his heartbreak to his race and sex.
Race and sex happens to be what Laura Marling is interested in as well, only she’s a lot more soothing than Kanye. So soothing that you’re tempted to almost stop listening to what she’s saying and hear legit the most beautiful voice on the planet overlaid with Blake Mills’s sweet sweet production. Ah. Eargasms. But if you actually listen, what Marling’s trying to do with femininity is interesting. As a concept album, the guist of it is that it is about women from the perspective of men, only written by a woman. So it goes sort of like the Ouroboros. How much of the album is written to herself, I do not know. But, buried under the standoffish subtlety that has come to define Laura Marling, you have a healthy vein of introspection that is most Kanye like.
The first song from Semper Femina is a song about sex. Soothing (arranged like an inevitable, tribal doom ritual) follows a protagonist who is forced to grapple between her reluctance to allow someone to enter her life and her burning lust for this person. That’s what the album title is all about. The Virgil reference. Woman is fickle and changeable always.
Most of the songs from Yeezus are about the same thing. The pressures of married life choking away his previously vibrant sex life. This may seem terrifically banal and gauche compared to Marling’s contemplative reflections on womanhood but scratch the surface and you’ll find he’s railing against the same thing. It isn’t a entirely societal, the expectation for male promiscuity. It is something deep rooted in our collective psyche and he feels the need to live up to that. But he also wants something rich and meaningful from his marriage, as Bound 2 shows us.
Both of them are railing against norms put on them by things they do not fully comprehend. And both speak their pieces beautifully.
But you know what they say. Speaking about music is like dancing about architecture. So I’ll leave you with these:
I began looking for music when I was fourteen. I spent two years listening to Taylor Swift because I rather liked the sound of an acoustic guitar and really heartfelt, cookie-cutter emotions I could project on to my own life. But I got bored eventually. Miss Swift released her album Red which didn’t have much acoustic guitar. And the emotions were not as heartfelt. And there was not much left for me to project. Coincidentally, her new unabashed pop album won big at the Grammy’s and I like it. In a way.
So there I was. Young, lonely and without any real type of music to call my own. Most people my age where I grew up spent their time listening to this new wave of hip-hop/pop/R&B which I didn’t really get. Eminem was okay. Coldplay was okay too. But I wouldn’t have called myself a fan.
And then, like lightning from a clear sky, like sunshine on a rainy day, like any other weather based simile I’m not really able to remember as of now, along came Mumford & Sons.
Why I fell in love with Mumford & Sons becomes very clear very quickly. I liked acoustic guitar and I liked cookie-cutter emotions. And M&S offered that to me in a big way. Added to that was the fact that I was really full of myself back then so I thought their lyrics were profound reflections on life and faith. In addition to that, I thought I was drawing on this huge counterculture well of folk music and social messages and things like that. I got myself a lot of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez. But beneath all that fluff, I just really liked their music. The slow buildup. The explosive choruses. The unsophisticated and excessive banjo-bashing. The kick-drum. I loved every last minute of it.
There’s this section in Roll Away Your Stone where after one of those explosive choruses there is dead silence save for some initially quiet 3/4th drum beats that just rise in intensity until the song soars into this strange waltz-verse that begins with, of all things
“ Stars hide your fires
These here are my desires
And I will give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found
With my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul”
And all of that worked. I think that was one of the first times music ever gave me the chills.
See if it works for you too. But you might have to set aside some deep rooted prejudices that this band just might deserve.
But let’s get to that later.
I memorized every word of every line of their debut album Sigh No More and then got their sophomore album Babel and burned through that as well. There was a time, maybe six months or so, when Mumford & Sons was all I ever listened to. Nothing else. All those Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits volumes I had lying around picked up the dust. I listened to a little Laura Marling every once in a while when I needed something a little quieter but it was always Mumford & Sons.
There comes a point when we begin judging music based on how cool it is. Nobody I knew ever listened to Mumford & Sons so I was confident in the knowledge that they were super cool. They were one of the greatest bands ever. Their lyrics were more profound than anything else I had ever heard.
Then came my tryst with reading music reviews. Sigh No More had mostly positive reviews. Babel was almost universally panned. Or, to be more precise, shelved very deeply into the ‘mediocre’ section. And I was outraged, as any good fan should be. Didn’t these writers get it? Didn’t they understand just how powerful this stuff was? How good it made you feel?
And then I grew up.
I understood the criticism. Behind the wall of banjo and deliciously thick acoustic guitar there was nothing more than a pop band. Verse-chorus-verse structures abounded. All their songs had a very similar buildup and wind-down. Almost all their songs had the words heart and hand in them. The songwriting was about as cookie-cutter and accessible as any other pop outfit, only far more grandiose with the constant references to literature and scripture.
Then there was something else. Something that trumped all that. They weren’t cool anymore. Everybody knew about Mumford & Sons. And almost everybody hated them. Their lyrics didn’t feel as profound anymore. They just felt big and empty. I began scrutinizing their musicianship and like most major music publications of the time, found it lacking.
Slowly and piece-by-piece, I fell out of love with Mumford & Sons.
I listened to a lot of cool music. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City became a favourite of mine. I still love that record, by the way. Even more than his excellent To Pimp A Butterfly. I listened to Coeur De Pirate. I listened to Stromae. I finished listening to Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits and picked out around twelve of those songs which I loved listening to.
In many ways, this period was very good for me. It made me realize that I didn’t really want to listen to a lot of cool music. It was good the next day when I talked with my music pundit friends about which part of Valley of the Shadows I liked the most. But it was hard falling asleep to that stuff. It was hard sitting in trains listening to rhythmic beeps and boops as the landscape sped past me.
So I listened to The Avett Brothers. I listened to The Punch Brothers. I listened to Iron and Wine. I listened to CHVRCHES.
After a month of seeking substitutes to fill the ever growing hole in my heart, I was finally forced to come to terms with something I had been running away from for a little over a year. That hole was banjo shaped.
So, full of shame and remorse, I waded back into the depths of my Walkman MP3 player until I found the little folder where I had put my favourite M&S songs.
I went out for a walk.
I hit play.
And in the course of an hour and a half, that hole was slowly filled. I recognized Mumford & Sons for what it was. But this time, I revelled in it. I revelled in its cheesy, earnest bombast. I fell back in love with that solid double-bass rumbling in the background. The subtlety of the piano keys. The violin. The way they compensated for not having drums.
I felt more chills in that hour and a half than I ever felt throughout my cool music phase.
And I walked back home, happy and satisfied.
Their third album came out last year and by then I was used to the drill. Everybody hated it. And I unabashedly loved it.
It was loud and nowhere near as sophisticated as it tried to be and the lyrics were as earnest and bombastic as ever and I loved every bit of it.
Where I grew up, a story wasn’t worth it if there was no moral at the end. So what’s the moral here? Critics are often right. There is something disingenuous about four British, private school educated twenty-somethings dressed like this:
And I think they sort of got that as well. Now they’re dressed like this:
So here’s the moral:
Music transcends coolness. If Vivaldi fills the hole in your heart, listen to Vivaldi. But if Billy Ray Cyrus really fills that hole, no amount of Vivaldi can change that. Snobs are going to tell you that the music you listen to isn’t as awesome as the music they listen to. And they might probably be right. But listen to it anyway.
Because music transcends social status. The music you love is the music that comes to your mind when you fight with someone you love. The music that comes to mind when you lose a job. The music you listen to to get some sleep.
In my case, that music happened to be Mumford & Sons. And slowly, over a period of four years and an unholy amount of iTunes purchases (read PirateBay downloads), I came to terms with that.