DAMN. and an Artist's Self-Reflection
When David Bowie was working on his dark 2016 masterpiece Blackstar he stated Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as one of the most significant influences on the album. Two days after the dark-toned and death-obsessed album released, Bowie died at the age of 69 due to liver cancer. The strange coincidence of Bowie’s death with the release of Blackstar only adds to the mystery and intrigue of an artist who very few other than those closest to him truly understood. Bowie lived as a breathing music legend for decades, but his death added to the fascination of his persona.
Tupac Shakur’s death at the age of 25 in 1996 gave him G.O.A.T status in the rap game. Pac has become a true martyr figure for rap; a legend that died in mysterious circumstances who embraced the music of his community whilst being socially conscious and progressive. Kendrick often references Pac as one of his largest inspirations, not just musically, but idealistically. In “Mortal Man”, the last song of To Pimp a Butterfly, K dot has a conversation with a recorded Pac interview about the direction of rap and black people in America. Near the end of the conversation Kendrick explains to Pac that race relations in America right now are not any better than they were during his time, that there’s “nothing but turmoil going on.”
It took two to three months for me to fully appreciate it, but To Pimp a Butterfly is my personal favorite album of all time. I know, high praise. The album’s combination of emotional lyricism and genre bending composition leads to a complicated yet accessible album. I assumed we’d have to wait a long time for Kendrick’s next project, especially after the unexpected release of the TPAB b-sides in the eight track long Untitled Unmastered. Alas, here we are, DAMN. has arrived and Kendrick or “..Kung Fu Kenny now..” has blessed us with another LP to try and unpack meaning from.
DAMN. opens with a question proposed to its audience – “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” and Kenny provides us with an immediate answer – “you decide.” Is this referring to his own demons? Is this referring to American struggles? Maybe it’s both? We are then led into Kendrick approaching a blind woman to try and assist her in finding something that she has lost. Our hero proceeds to be shot by the woman and after the aggressive gunshot noise the song transitions into a sample of Fox News discussing the lyrics of “Alright” one of the hit singles off of TPAB.
“Ugh, I don’t like it” states one of the “Fox Five” about Kendrick’s lyrics as his voice then proceeds to explode out of my Bose speaker “I got, I got, I got” DNA is the K-dot banger I’ve been yearning for since Good Kid M.A.A.D City. The Mike-Will-Made-It produced song starts Kendrick’s list of flaws he sees in himself. About two minutes into the song we get another Fox News sample of Geraldo Rivera stating that “this is why I think that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Despite the obvious ignorance of this statement, the sample also provides a smooth transition into a suffocating switch up. Kendrick proceeds to destroy the second part of the beat as the repeated phrase “Gimme some ganja” rings in the background.
As the new king of rap, Kung Fu Kenny has had to deal with issues that he hasn’t had to previously. His art is up for more interpretation and criticism than ever before. As someone who has openly expressed his struggles with depression and anxiety, seeing people criticize you on national television must only trigger his mental illness.
This anxiety is further carried out in ELEMENT. The hook starts with a radio dj yelling “New Kung Fu Kenny! Ain’t nobody praying for me!..” His community and fans now look at him as a sage. Everybody wants Kendrick to pray for them, yet nobody is praying for him. This is accentuated in the song XXX. The first half of the song tells a story of a community member coming to Kendrick for advice after his son has been shot. The man begs to Kendrick “Kdot can you pray for me, It’s been a fucked up day for me, I know you anointed show me how to overcome” Kendrick responds with “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 somebody gettin’ killed.’” Kung Fu Kenny is not your sage. Anyone who is looked at as a sage in their community, however large, has immense amounts of responsibility. Their actions and words set a precedent for how the people that look to them will behave. This would be anxiety provoking for any human being much less somebody who struggles with mental illness. Kendrick does not wish to be burdened with this anxiety. In “XXX.” he shows that he is not special, and he would act like anyone else who grew up in the circumstances that he did; if somebody murdered his son, they sure as hell are also going to meet their maker. As he says in the song “Complexion” on TPAB “I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse, The land of the land mines, The hell that’s on earth” and in this hell Kendrick is king; he is viewed as the spiritual leader of hell through his lyrics and his power. Kendrick did not choose the crown, and it has deteriorated parts of himself he did not think would deteriorate.
A complaint from many about this album is that it does not embody the cohesiveness of To Pimp a Butterfly or even Good Kid M.A.A.D City, but the people that say this are not looking through the correct lens. Good Kid M.A.A.D City was a chronicle of his childhood, his community, and his peers. To Pimp a Butterfly was his statement on his race’s place in the nation, the power of music, and how he saw the world could change for the better. DAMN. is a mess of tracks that vary in sound strung together through cheap mixtape-esque dj exclamations, well produced transitions, and most importantly a central theme - himself.
I’ve written about King Kendrick’s struggle with mental illness previously. DAMN. is our bay window into this struggle. The inconsistency of the sounds of the tracks reflect the waves of mental illness. “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” sound like trap songs with some added funk, “PRIDE.” sounds like a Tame Impala rap song, “YAH.” sounds like a Frank Ocean-esque track, and “LOVE.” gives off the vibe of a Chainsmokers song filled with less bullshit. Through all of these different sounds Kdot attempts to look inward more than he ever has before. As many who struggle with mental illness know, the window of reflection into oneself is often much more difficult to understand than the world around them. The “waves” of mental illness often directly contradict each other with their high and low frequencies, which can confuse the person to the point where without help they don’t know who they really are as a person. This album is Kendrick’s largest attempt at discovering who he truly is at heart.
The song titles give us clues as to what aspects of Kendrick he feels has been partially consumed by fame and power, and what aspects of himself he has seen need improvement after his self-reflection. In the song “FEAR.”, he gives the audience some direct thoughts as to how these aspects interact with one another. In the fourth verse Kendrick sings “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride, ‘Cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of god, I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone, I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin here no more, I’m talkin fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness, Fear, whatever it is, both is distinctive.” Kendrick is afraid that his faults are caused by wickedness or weakness, and that they have taken away aspects of himself he was once proud of. One of the most distinct of these fears is that his humbleness has disappeared. I’ve always respected Kendrick’s ability to be confident but remain humble and grounded at the same time. Now that Kendrick is the king of rap he has no real reason to remain humble. Why should he be humble when nobody would dare dispute his greatness without getting rhyme murdered by Kdot? I cannot imagine the difficulty this must bring into Kendrick’s mind. The anxiety of trying to remain humble whilst making sure your greatness is acknowledged.
They say an artist’s work is not fully appreciated until they have passed on. Some artists are lucky enough for their creativity to be adored while they live, but even then, once they pass the art often becomes even more valuable and sought after. If Pac didn’t die when he did would his discography be looked at the same way it is today? Would Bowie’s Blackstar carry the same mystery and acclaim if Bowie didn’t die two days afterwards? There is no doubt in my mind that if Kendrick Lamar was shot dead in Compton today he would not only go down as the greatest rapper in the history of the genre, but also one of the greatest artists of the 21st century. So let’s appreciate Kung Fu Kenny’s greatness while he still breaths. He is not a perfect man. He is not a sage. He struggles with anxiety and depression. But he is an artist, and a great one at that, and as long as people like Geraldo Rivera keep shitting on his art I’ll be here to counter.