On his newest album, “DAMN.,” Kendrick Lamar did not have to stray very far from the blueprint of his other works to reach acclaim. He does what many labels tell artists not to do on concept albums, and that is to have constantly shifting talking points. In just under fifty-five minutes, he wages war with a right-wing news network, blasts killer cops, provides origin stories and threads an interwoven narrative of damnation and redemption. This all fits into the world that Kendrick Lamar builds around his music. To me, the funniest part of it is that he did not build it. Not even close. He just uses parts of life that most people do not want to think about. He crafts such a unique sound from other rappers, and much of that is dictated by the other artists that contribute to his albums, like Thundercat, Anna Wise and Kamasi Washington.
On “BLOOD.” and “DNA.,” Kendrick Lamar used samples of an old Fox news broadcast, in which renowned blowhard, Geraldo Rivera and others are commenting on Kendrick’s rousing performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards. He uses Rivera’s quote in particular, “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”
Kendrick uses “DNA.” to speak on his own Afrocentrism and conservative pundits’ uniform criticism of hip-hop, which often slips from speaking about music to talking about the artists. At its heart, “DNA.” celebrates critiques, and explores black heritage and culture through a myriad of viewpoints. In his second verse, Kendrick takes aim at those who perform as allies and co-opt black culture by copying and imitating it for their own personal gain,
“My DNA not for imitation/Your DNA an abomination”
“Your DNA an abomination” undoubtedly refers to the innumerable evils that white people have perpetuated, and are an implicit part of life. Acts like slavery, segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration and cultural appropriation. When he chants, “I got Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA,” he’s making similar allusions to “i” from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” his previous studio album. In that song, he raps:
“On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us/
So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us/
Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia/
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen/
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish/
The history books overlook the word and hide it”
In both songs, there’s an overwhelming sense of black pride that basks in everything that blackness encompasses, both positive and negative. The shared element of royalty takes an interesting look at the juxtaposition of just what it means to be black in America. We’re told that we are descended from kings and queens, and yet we still have to fight every day to prove that we are just as human as anyone else.
“DAMN.” offers a view almost as if we are seeing Kendrick through a mirror, but we get to see more than just the image. We get to see the insecurities, the boastfulness and all the blemishes that come with being him. The lead single “HUMBLE.” takes on a different meaning when listened within the context of the album versus on its own.
When it was first released as a single, it plays like a hostile takeover by a prideful and pious king from a rotating group of lesser talents, reminiscent of an older sibling demolishing their kid brother and his friends in a pickup game of basketball. It is a song that just begged to be a single. Pair this with the evident dichotomous relationship between the song and the track that comes before it, “PRIDE.” The preceding song is a distant, sanctimonious single that weighs a hypothetical perfect world against the one we are currently saddled with. “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause your *ss is insecure,” he raps. “HUMBLE.,” in turn, is almost a response to that arrogance. Both serve a greater purpose when listened to in order, like Kendrick intended: examining his internal struggle over humility.
Overall, I think that this album is incredible front to back. The main gripe with this album is that “DAMN.” is not quite as cohesive as an album topically or sonically as “Good Kid,” “M.A.A.D City,” or “To Pimp a Butterfly” were and still are. But, the caveat to that is I really do not think that is what Kendrick was going for. While “DAMN.” bounces all over the place, I think some of Kendrick’s best and most raw performances are on this album. In fact, every song feels rich enough to be its own album. To some it may feel fractured or scattered, but I feel that the record asks you to listen to and appreciate the variance of songs, rather than the album as a whole.