We’re experiencing an amazing moment in Hip-Hop right now. It’s not often you get to witness the crowning of the best in anything. We witnessed this in basketball with the growth of Lebron James at the beginning of this decade, which happens to be the same time Kendrick Lamar began his quest for the Hip-Hop crown. When you bring up K-Dot someone else will bring up the challenger for this throne because that’s what Hip-Hop has become today. We as fans feel a need to compare art, sports, and more so we can establish a “best” in everything. When Jay Z and Nas battled over this throne it was the same way. Kendrick vs Drake is just as polarizing of a topic now as Jay vs Nas used to be (Jay vs Nas discussions still happen on Twitter if you’re feeling nostalgic). Diehard fans will make you choose sides but it is possible to enjoy each artist for what they bring to the table. What does Kendrick bring to this table you ask? A passion for storytelling, lyrics, and creating music that will establish him as one of the best to ever pick up a microphone.
I speak a lot about artist growth because it’s an important aspect for keeping fans happy while catering to a new audience at the same time. Kendrick Lamar is one of the few artists that has grown with every project he’s released, going back to the Kendrick Lamar EP. When an artist sits down to put together an album, the majority of them create songs with themes and add them to the album. Kendrick has done the opposite with each studio release. good kid, m.A.A.d. city showed us the life of a young, misguided teen from Compton, CA. To Pimp A Butterfly was created based off of questions that Kendrick had for Tupac if he were still alive. It also put emphasis on the racial tension that Blacks go through while living in America. DAMN. showcases a side that we have yet to see from Mr. Duckworth as this album focuses on aspects of God, religion, and everyday emotions that many people ignore.
DAMN. is a mixture of message and theme as each song can stand on its own but holds more value when played in the sequencing. ‘HUMBLE.’ is the first example of this as it was the first single; a straight banger that hits hard but speaks on cockiness and the need for people to quit being fake. ‘DNA.’ sees Kendrick spazzing about his heritage and bloodline over one of the hardest produced beats we’ve ever experienced from Mike Will Made-It. The flip in the middle has the toughest hitting 808 drums mixed with a vocal sample from Rick James that will have you banging your head harder than fans of heavy metal music.
For those that aren’t religious, like myself, or as in touch with a higher power as others, the subtlety of songs containing religious undertones can fly past if you’re not prepared. ‘YAH.’ is also a form of Yahweh which many people familiar with the Bible know is the closest to God’s name that we will ever understand. Kendrick mentions the Book of Deuteronomy in the second verse too, which is a book from the Old Testament that details the Israelites’ 40 year journey in the desert. He’s able to tie race and religion within a few bars of each other thanks to a call from his cousin, Carl Duckworth (more on this in a second).
In our reactions to this album, I noticed a theme thanks to the tracklisting and Kendrick continuing to mention “nobody praying for me” throughout the album. The album is fine if you play it front to back but you get an entirely different tone if you play it starting with ‘DUCKWORTH.’ and make your way backwards to ‘BLOOD.’ Playing it in this reverse order tells a story that gets progressively darker. ‘FEAR.’ features a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl, who is mentioned on ‘YAH.’, which shows that this call resonates with K-Dot as he’s on his path of destruction. In this reverse order ‘LOVE.’ into ‘LUST.’ becomes a different story and ultimately contributes to the downfall of Kung-Fu Kenny where in the normal sequence it shows a man who’s ready to accept love. The way this album is calculated makes me feel like this is a passion project for Kendrick. For most who get to do a passion project, it usually becomes panned by critics and fans; DAMN. could end up being Kendrick’s most talked about album when his career comes to a close.
‘FEAR.’ however will be one of the best songs in his catalog for a long time. Like ‘Sing About Me’ before it, ‘FEAR.’ tells a story from three different perspectives of Kendrick; seven years old, 17 years old, and 27 years old. Each verse shows us the definition of fear and how it changes as he gets older. The first verse details all of the things he used to get disciplined for as a kid by his mother. The second verse details life as a teenager growing up in Compton where you can get killed for having the wrong colors on and stepping outside. The final verse is the most relatable for young adults everywhere as it exemplifies a fear that we all have: losing everything that we’ve worked for and having nothing to show for it.
To see an artist improve with every project in their catalog is a rare occurrence. Kendrick Lamar has been waiting his whole career for moments like this album and he comes through in the clutch like Lebron James. You can have the debate of who’s the King of Hip-Hop between Kendrick and Drake all you want. What it breaks down to is bodies of work and Kendrick is making music that will still be discussed over the course of decades due to its message. We’ll be digesting DAMN. for a long time and having discussions fueled by its content for years to come.
Repeatable: Whole album
By Joe Coad