Listen to this: Kendrick Lamar turns anxiety into stunning character study
Throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has been consistently struggling with something.
On “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” he struggles with the gang violence that is prevalent in the Compton community he grew up in.
On “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he rallies against systematic racism.
On “DAMN.,” his fight is closer to home: here, he’s fighting with himself.
He’s also fighting with Geraldo Rivera, but mostly with himself. More on that later.
Lamar has become famous for his album’s concepts, building each song around a central theme, whether it was “good kid, m.A.A.d city’s” rather clear story or “To Pimp a Butterfly” adding each song as a verse to an extended poem being read to the ghost of the late 2Pac.
The concept of “DAMN.” makes it clear from the beginning that this album truly is about Lamar himself, but not in the sense of the standard braggadocio common in hip-hop.
“BLOOD.,” the album’s opening track, has Lamar tell the listener the story of going for a walk when he is shot and killed by a blind woman (perhaps represetning justice, but who’s to say, really?).
The rest of the album, then, is Lamar looking back at his life, wondering if he’s lived a good life. And if the lyrics on “DAMN.” are any indication, Lamar is afraid that he hasn’t.
Religion has long been a theme on Lamar’s works, but here Lamar shifts to being almost afraid of religion, or at least afraid of the way God perceives him. Throughout the record, there are numerous references to Lamar feeling like no one prays for him, going so far on the track “FEEL.” as to say “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em / But who the f*** prayin’ for me?”
These lines come at the end of a track where Lamar is grappling with the reputation that his past two records earned him. After fighting against big societal issues like racism and crime, Lamar is beginning to feel like people expect him to be able to fix it. And, unsure of if he can, this begins to weigh on him heavily: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe / Look, I feel like I can’t sleep.”
But what is hip-hop if not a world full of conflicts? Three tracks after “FEEL.,” Lamar fires shots off at other rappers. On “HUMBLE.,” Lamar implies a belief that he’s the greatest rapper, saying he’s so important that “Obama just paged me,” and telling other rappers, “b****, be humble.”
But then again, a few tracks later on “FEAR.,” he says, “I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone.” Lamar is constantly being pulled by the way he feels he’s being perceived. On “HUMBLE.,” he is fed purely by the glowing reviews and love of his fans, but on “FEAR.,” he’s reminded of the lessons from both his mother and from God on the importance of humility. In the end, Lamar has absolutely no idea what to do with himself, and it’s scaring him.
A big part of what’s scaring Lamar is the way he’s perceived in the media, particularly by conservative outlets like Fox News. The album is peppered with a few samples of Geraldo Rivera that the reporter uttered after the release of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” with Rivera stating in one soundbite “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”
The thing is, Lamar doesn’t try to do a lot to refute Rivera’s claim. Instead, Lamar lets the points he made about racism on “To Pimp a Butterfly” speak for themselves, and here only focuses on the anxiety that Rivera and others are causing him. He’s once again illustrating that he isn’t trying to save the world this time; he’s just trying to get his feelings out.
Even through the instrumentation, Lamar is emphasizing his singularity. Gone are the verses from featured artists like Drake and MC Eiht that strung together “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” and gone is the big instrumentation from saxophonist Kamasi Washington and producer Flying Lotus that gave “To Pimp a Butterfly” its iconic sound. Instead, Lamar leans heavy on production from the likes of Mike WiLL Made-It and others, who emphasize the solitude of Lamar.
And, sure, Lamar employs a few featured vocalists this time around. “LOYALTY.” has backing vocals from Rihanna, and “XXX.” has a chorus on the second half of the track sung by Bono (yes, that Bono). Yet somehow Lamar strips these superstars of their stardom, and boils them down to just their voice. Lamar didn’t pick these singers because of their names, big as they are. He just wanted them to sing well, which they do perfectly.
On “DUCKWORTH.,” Lamar tells the story of a chance meeting between his father, Kenny “Ducky” Duckworth and the CEO of his record label, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Apparently, years ago, Top Dawg held up a KFC that Ducky was working at. When Ducky offered him free food instead of money, the robbery was put off, and Top Dawg (eventually) turned his life around.
Lamar thinks about what could have been at the end of this track. “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.”
These are the last lines of the album and they imply that, after about 55 minutes of back and forth, Kendrick Lamar has finally broken through his anxiety and decided that he is worthy of the title of “the greatest rapper.” Plenty of people gave him this title after “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and after “DAMN.,” that title is only solidified.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6119 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Best Tracks: “DUCKWORTH.,” “FEEL.,” “FEAR.”
Worst Track: “BLOOD.” (as it only introduces the plot of the album)