Kung Fu Kenny, the five-foot-five giant and hip-hop’s resident Vitruvian Man awoke from his sleep to deliver us his fourth studio album back in April—”DAMN.,” a proper follow-up to put detractors of 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” back in their cocoons.
“DAMN.” is a 14-track, 55-minute cathartic therapy session with Kendrick Lamar wrestling with himself and traversing his religiosity with all the convictions of Chance The Rapper and the skeptical inquisition of a 2004 Jadakiss. He paints an all-encompassing self-portrait, a Compton-crafted version of Jan van Eyck’s 1433 “Portrait of A Man,” with great detail as rich colors project from darkness. It’s Kendrick’s self-administered 12-step intervention on wax, with the beloved rapper, who plays Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center on July 21, looking eye-to-eye with each rendition of himself.
STEP ONE: ACCEPTING THE LACK OF CONTROL
The session begins on ‘BLOOD.,’ with a question Kendrick intends to answer throughout the album—”Is it wickedness or weakness?”—followed by a spaced-out fictitious parable where Kendrick tries to help a blind woman, who ends up shooting him. It seems like something Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, or anyone who has a penchant for making anything “great again” would do, as Lady Justice seems to punish black people trying to Do The Right Thing in spite of their personal circumstances. Maybe Kendrick was walking past Tommy Bahama during an end-of-season sale when this blind woman shot him. Wherever he was walking, he was better suited to get in his Curtis Mayfield bag and Keep On Pushing to conserve his life but he did not and “DAMN.” begins at his ending, with our protagonist lacking clarity, and being harmed for trying to help.The rest of “DAMN.” is Kendrick moving through these emotions—was it wickedness or weakness that moved her to kill Kendrick?
STEP TWO: TAPPING INTO SOMETHING GREATER THAN ONESELF
Kendr-Kendri-Kendric-Kendrick crane kicks us right in the forehead with ‘DNA.’ The Mike WiLL Made-It production establishes a motif throughout the album where Kendrick examines his character and offers up a series of supposed dichotomies (war-peace, power-poison, pain-joy). In search of a sense of balance and a peace of mind while being antagonized by pallid cornballs like Eric Bolling, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Geraldo Rivera, Kendrick acknowledges that he has been endowed with prodigious talent and that makes him a target. He also explores his purpose as Yeshua’s (Jesus) new weapon, prophesying to and advocating for the masses through reason and rhyme. By way of a riff on Juvenile’s accusatory use of anaphora from ‘Ha,’ an atypical style for a rapper who’s known for his intricate flows, he makes a case for this delivery as being just as poetic as any other type of rhyme scheme or concept.
If all that isn’t enough, Kendrick put all of this in yet another song that also appeals to the chart-topping, music festival bangers fans have grown accustomed to in recent memory, a skill he’s perfected.
STEP THREE: TURNING TO GOD
Kdot transitions into the meditative and melodic on ‘YAH.’ He wants to stick close to family and those dear to him, namely his mother, his fiancée Whitney Alford, and his niece as his life becomes more hectic and filled with those who may not have his best interests at heart. With the lines “interviewers wanna know my thoughts and opinions. . . . I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion,” Kendrick circles back to a theme from ‘Ab-Soul’s Outro’ on his 2011 project “Section.80” before crediting his cousin Carl for assisting with his spiritual growth. He repeats ‘YAH,’ throughout the song—it is a shortened version of the deity Yahweh. With all the pressure surrounding him, Kendrick calls on God (or Yah) and refuses to be everything for everybody: “I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human motherfuckin’ being over dope-ass instrumentation.”
Often times black artists with generational talent are manipulated by the immense pressure to become the moral authority on every DAMN topic. When people look to you as the healer, it’s a heavy cross to bear. It’s enough to go off the radar, inducing a rehabilitative self-care sabbatical to try and live as normal a life as possible for a while to recover and maintain a sense of sanity. Such was the case for Lauryn Hill and Dave Chappelle. Kendrick is starting to feel These Walls closing in on him as he’s “in the dead fucking center, looking around.”
STEP FOUR: A FEARLESS VALIDATION OF SELF
“I’ont give a fuck.” Kendrick doubles right back with another brooding banger, ‘ELEMENT.,’ acknowledging coercive influences over his life while maintaining an internal locus of control. He recounts the deep love he’s developed for making music and growing over the years: “I’m willin’ to die for this shit, I done cried for this shit, might take a life for this shit.” While the feds monitor his bank statements, while his aunt wants him to slow down a bit, Kendrick emphasizes the importance of staying focused on the work and being not just one of the best rappers right now, but being Mister One-Through-Five when talking about the top rappers of all-time, a la Dave Chappelle’s “Dylan-Dylan-Dylan-Dylan-Dylan” skit, all the while, making it look sexy.
STEP FIVE: AN ADMITTANCE OF ONE’S DEEPEST CONCERNS
Kendrick’s emotions swing like a pendulum and we’re quickly thrust from the glorious vindication of bossing up and celebrating to staring in the mirror for an hour at three in the morning, succumbing to the very emotions we’ve been trying so hard to suppress. The people in his inner circle are changing. Other rappers are still throwing dirt on his name. He has his own personal struggles to deal with. Kendrick feels like it’s “Me Against The World.” Had he been a jazz musician in the ’60s, ‘FEEL.’ would definitely be his hip-hop “Kendrick’s Mood” manifesto. The line “I feel like this gotta be the feeling where Pac was” is redolent of 2Pac’s “Sometimes I Cry” poem from his book of poetry “The Rose That Grew From The Concrete”: “Sometimes when I’m alone/ I cry because I’m on my own/ The tears I cry R bitter and warm/ They flow with life but take no form/ I cry because my heart is torn/ And I find it difficult 2 carry on/ If I had an ear 2 confide in/ I would cry among my treasured friends/ But who do u know that stops that long/ To help another carry on/ The world moves fast and it would rather pass u by than 2 stop and c what makes u cry/ It’s painful and sad and sometimes I cry/ and no one cares about why.”
STEP SIX: VICES & DEFECTS
Much like Pac, we get multiple sides of Kendrick through a trio of California love songs, escaping the emotional trappings of despair to find refuge in his greatest musings while pledging his devotion to music and the woman he loves on ‘LOYALTY.’ We’re blessed with Rihanna flaunting her rap skills, sparking off a call-and-response duet. Kendrick acknowledges that he’s flawed, but he is at peace with it, focusing on what he desires in spite of his shortcomings “I’m a savage, I’m an asshole, I’m a king. . . . I done been down so long lost hope/ I done came down so hard I slowed/ I don’t sleep forever, all a real nigga want.” He continues with this motif on ‘PRIDE.,’ where he accepts that he’ll never be perfect. The world is a hellish place and will never be ideal, but Kendrick envisions his utopia characterized by absolving himself of his vices, working on music, divesting from the prison-industrial complex, reallocating those funds to improve schools, and having the biggest religious gathering for everyone to understand and seek salvation in the highest deity whether it be God, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, or any other name.
‘LUST.’ is a cautionary tale of the dangers of wasting too much time and what happens when the mind is idle. Kendrick runs through a slew of unproductive and sometimes damaging actions that seem to be the makings of an ideal “lazy day” glorified in popular culture. At times Kendrick succumbs to his superficial desires, begging for sex “as blood rush my favorite vein . . . let me put the head in” in a chorus that might recall to some the unsubtle sexual imagery of Next’s ‘Too Close.’
Then he talks about the consequences of his lustful and inessential desires, waking up and regretting hasty decisions as reality checks back in. This reality check segues into ‘LOVE.,’ where Kendrick appraises his relationship, reminiscing over past experiences with his and mulls over the particulars of the ideal relationship characterized by unwavering trust and dedication no matter the circumstance—accompanied by a light and pleasant feature from frequent TDE collaborator Zacari, who is building his following through a series of one-off singles on Soundcloud.
STEP SEVEN: HUMILITY
With ‘HUMBLE.,’ Kendrick deviates from the seriousness of the album, abandoning humility for three minutes. Can you blame Cornrow Kenny for having some fun with it? What’s life without a little bit of satirical gusto? He juxtaposes struggle meals as a child with the type of lifestyle his lyrics have afforded him in present day and hints again at possibly bowing out of the limelight for a minute. “If I quit this season, I’ll still be the greatest” he says, eliciting the same look from rappers trying to take his spot that he has on his own face on the album’s cover.
Upon its release as the album’s lead single, Kendrick came under fire for the lines “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop/ Show me something natural like afro on Richard Pryor/ Show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks/ Still I take you down right on your momma couch in Polo sock.” Kendrick takes an issue with the phenomenon of ass shots, and taking extreme measures to “look perfect.” The criticism he got was legit: It is seen as a policing of the decisions women make for themselves compounded by the visuals in the music video that seem to contradict the message he wanted to convey. Though it did induce a much needed discourse on the politics of the male gaze and Euro-centric beauty standards, that is a conversation better suited for black women to champion as they have a breadth of knowledge on the topic as well as lived experience. But “DAMN.” can withstand rhetorical failings such as this: it is an album about Kendrick’s imperfections.
He gets to flexing on the second verse though, taking shots at rappers who think they can keep up with him, reverting back to a simple rap style, incorporating the use of anaphora again by capping a succession of bars with “aye”; it’s a style that is dominating rap music these days, so Kendrick is stunting on his competition here. And there is that chorus, sure to rock arenas and stadiums in the near future: “Bitch, be humble, sit down.”
STEPS EIGHT & NINE: ACKNOWLEDGING WHO YOU MAY HAVE WRONGED & TRYING TO MAKE AMENDS
Getting back to much of the album’s theme, ‘XXX.’ considers violence and retaliation. In the opening lines, Kendrick highlights the injustices perpetuated against black people throughout American history and the ingenuity and resilience black people exhibit in spite of being dealt a bad hand. And then he receives a sudden call from his friend, who asks Kdot for guidance and to keep him in his prayers as his son has been murdered. Kendrick knows damn well that if someone were to harm anyone close to him, he’d get to wrecking shit. “I’ll chip a nigga then throw the blower in his lap/ Walk myself to the court like, ‘bitch I did that,'” he raps, noting how unity and love go out of the window when your loved one is harmed.
He hangs up on his mans and notes that he has to speak to the kids about gun violence, a nod to the double bind role models find themselves in where they have to hide behind the human guile of propriety and for black role models, respectability. Kdot ponders the social engineering of black people characterized by a series of restrictive laws and scarce resources compounded by flooding the hood with guns and drugs. The result of these conditions looks like people doing what they need to do to survive, not acting like “thugs” as 45, Barack Obama, and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would say. Kendrick realizes that he and all the other people politicians call “thugs” are just mirroring America’s founding values, ya bish.
STEP TEN: TAKING PERSONAL INVENTORY
Cousin Carl leaves a voicemail reciting Deuteronomy 28:28 at the beginning of ‘FEAR.,’ telling Kendrick that he’s in a rut because people of color are cursed. The bridge serves as the inner voice ruminating about constant grief. In the first verse, Kendrick replays childhood memories of his mother’s threats in his mind, the phrase “I beat yo ass” etched in his conscious as a teen; his actions are guided by the consequence of getting his ass whipped. He then thinks about how he’s going to die, be it through irrational decisions, police violence, or gang violence. If ridding himself of anxiety was as simple as sparking up a loud pack he would, but life isn’t that simple.
As an adult, Kendrick tries to stick to modesty, fearing that God may test his faith and take it all away like He did Job in the old testament. Kendrick likens the fear of a teen of his mother’s wrath to his fear of God as an adult. Kendrick’s biggest risk these days is losing his fortune, doing a cost-benefit analysis of hiring a financial advisor who may be sheisty. He reads the canonical Gospel of Rihanna, namely the verses where her accountant lost millions of dollars, prompting the psalm entitled ‘Bitch Better Have My Money.’
STEP ELEVEN: CONSCIOUS CONTACT WITH GOD
Kendrick has his revelatory moment with ‘GOD.’ He realizes that all the pain, the suffering, the rhymes, the hate coming from his peers, the family issues, the relationships he’s cultivated, the success he’s enjoyed, the dark thoughts are all a part of God’s plan for his life. With this realization, Kendrick seeks to live unapologetically as he continues to pursue his purpose.
STEP TWELVE: REVELATIONS
The inner voice at the beginning of the 9th Wonder-produced ‘DUCKWORTH.,’ tells Kendrick that he has to get out of his own way sometimes and that he has come control of his mindset. “It was always me versus the world, until I found it’s me versus me.” He then tells the backstories of Anthony Tiffith, the founder of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), and Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Duckworth.
Tiffith lived a life of crime in his youth in Los Angeles as Kenneth Duckworth and Paula Oliver moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. The young family barely made ends meet as Kenneth worked at a chicken shack. Years before TDE, Anthony and Kenneth had a chance encounter while Anthony was surviving off capers, adapting to his social environment. Anthony planned to rob the chicken joint Kenny worked at. Here, Kendrick thinks about fate, karma, and the power of choice. What if that robbery had harmed or taken Kendrick’s father’s life? What if Anthony was caught and charged for the robbery? Who would Kendrick Lamar Duckworth be had Kenneth Duckworth and Paula Oliver stayed in Chicago? What would his fate had been? Had Anthony murdered Kenny Duckworth, TDE probably wouldn’t exist. He may not have been able to meet who we know now as Kendrick Lamar.
And so, “DAMN.,” ends at the beginning: With Kendrick, mindful of the influences of those who have gotten him to this point, still wondering after all of this time, still asking the question—”WHY.?”
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