Kendrick Lamar is the most influential rapper alive today. He is a figure that captivates the ears of millions when he does so much as open his mouth to speak. Three words come to mind when unifying his many talents into simple clauses: smart, creative, and likeable.
When utilizing this unique personality in song, there is simply no denying Duckworth’s (his real last name) rapping prowess. Swaggered and well paced lyrics are effortlessly placed alongside catchy, often minimalist beats that harken back to a lost jazz era. Lamar’s massive fan base has been in a waiting phase ever since his 2015 release of To Pimp a Butterfly. And his latest work, DAMN., is nothing short of a lyrical masterpiece.
Ironically, Lamar begins his rapping through a metaphorical death of character, as he is fatally shot in the opening song, Blood. A flashback, or maybe an insight into his final thoughts, ensues as a news brief plays in the background, and reporters repeatedly mock his lyrics against police brutality.
His sudden loss transcends to undeniable presence as his thoughts on his character confound in DNA. More assertive than ever, Lamar expresses his rise from a Compton kid to “a legendary hip-hop rhyme savior,” claiming to have “power, poison, pain, and joy inside [his] DNA”. His assertiveness is profound, the piano and bass are sudden and heavy, and an atmosphere of confidence in his own abilities sticks throughout the entirety of the album.
Yah. and Element. mark a tonal change in the pace of the songs, with Lamar tending to flow in and out of hooks less deliberately and more thoughtfully as he struggles with his inner demons. “I feel like I’m losing my focus, I feel like I’m losing my patience,” are just a few of the thoughts he conveys in FEEL. Another song, FEAR., embodies these worrisome emotions to an even greater degree, questioning his sudden rise to stardom as if it will collapse at any moment.
Lamar reasserts his dominance of the industry with HUMBLE., the album’s lead single. “My left stroke just went viral. Right stroke put lil’ baby in a spiral,” is a direct shot at the rappers he is subduing with this album, claiming that they, simply put, aren’t humble enough for true glory.
A final stroke of mastery presents itself in DUCKWORTH., in which Duckworth himself recounts the true story of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith nearly killing his father in an attempted KFC drive-by years back. The one verse song describes the course of events that changed Kendrick’s life forever. With murder averted, Tiffith came clean and signed Lamar to his new record label, while Lamar’s father’s life was spared. The song then speeds the entire album back in reverse, all the way to the opening line, in which Lamar was taking a walk on the street.
So, in the end, where does this 55-minute tour through Lamar’s life get us? For one, this is certainly an album that you have to grow into. Most longtime fans won’t be used to the direct, somewhat aggressive tone not normally found all too often on past albums. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Lamar is simply growing his confidence as a rapper, utilizing less dodgy lyrics and more matter-of-fact statements in his music. The simplicity of some of the sounds on the album actually ends up complimenting his voice quite well.
As a unit, the transitions between tracks are smooth and balance out the album quite nicely. You expect songs like BLOOD. to be followed by something worth caring about, and DNA. delivers with its heavy background drums and loopbacks. It’s not awkward transitions or singles screaming for attention that jump out at you. It’s the cleverly engineered deliveries of each and every song that compliments one another that makes the album truly amazing.
I’ll admit, my first few listens of the album were not the greatest. I struggled to make comparisons to his previous work; past songs such as ADHD and Alright that continue to send me to some retro place in my head. But then I discovered that laid back vibes like these were still in his music. Songs such as YAH. and FEAR. are a testament to this. They’re simply harder to catch with the more jaded, hitmaker songs that surround them. Digging deeper to find the secrets of an album like this testifies to its staying power. And boy, it’s here to stay.